How to Grow a Tree Around a Golden Apple.
The idea for a Beatles film came about towards the end of 1968 when Apple was still a kind of nucleus for the group. Some of the Utopian schemes had already been abandoned. The film division was dispensed with as unnecessary, and the electronics division under the supervision of Alexis Mardas, who had promised such miracles as a force field around Paul McCartney’s house and a recording technique that would defy bootlegging and baffle illicit broadcasting of Beatles material, had dwindled to a little plastic apple with a transistor radio inside. Earlier in the year Apple Fashions, the projected spearhead of a Beatles retail empire, had folded and Paul had stopped talking about Apple as “a western form of Communism” and as a “huge commercial/creative complex along the lines of British Petroleum.”
Apple’s attempts to integrate the Beatles’ own personal aspirations with the mechanics of business was proving a fruitless task. As if in evidence of the gulf, you could find Derek Taylor in his third floor office pacifying all manner of creative freaks, journalists, dope-fiends, hustlers, and West Coast expatriates, while on another floor Peter Brown, in his meticulous office, was intoning: “At Apple we are only interested in ideas that will make us a million dollars a day.” It was like a labyrinth trying to communicate with itself.
As things got worse, Derek, with his sense of the absurd (“Being born in Scotland carries with it certain responsibilities”), asked Alan Aldridge to redesign the Apple stationery (a peeling apple with the legend “words from Apple”) to a peeling pear with the legend “lies from Apple.”
In this atmosphere it is amazing that the film got together at all. Neil Aspinall decided the best place to shoot the movie would be at Twickenham studios, where Peter Sellers was shooting The Magic Christian. Ringo did not want to go away on location because of his involvement in the Sellers’ movie. The atmosphere at the time, influenced by John Wesley Harding, was a return to simplicity (hence the original title: Get Back.) And after all, it was the easiest thing to do anyway. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg told them where it was at:
Lindsay-Hogg: Well I think one of those things that’s wrong about doing the show here is that it’s too easy. Like when we are in the car looking for locations and glorified boutiques, I think that’s wrong. But just doing it in the backyard. I mean it’s literal. It’s almost your backyard. Twickenham. There’s no balls to the show at all. I mean there’s no balls in any of us, I’m included, and that’s why I think we are being soft about it. You are the Beatles; you aren’t four jerks. You know what I mean.
Things as They Are, As a Dream. As They Are as a Dream
Paul: It bugs me when they zoom in and out. I’d like it to be like an old movie. If you want to say anything, you walk up to the camera. The only thing that doesn’t need to move is the camera. It’s like oriental medicine and western medicine. We prescribe for the symptoms: they are into preventing it. It’s like a switch–get us to do the movement.
Ringo: I’d like it like a country programme where you have one camera, just step in and do your bit, like on the Grand Ol’ Opry, Flatt and Scruggs; they’d all move in when their solo came around and take the center so they acted out the shots.
Paul: Dreaming in public is the thing. You know those dreams where you go down a Helter Skelter? And the scene changes? But doing that awake. The latest thing from Apple!
So, in January, 1969, the Beatles spent over 100 hours playing, arguing, rapping, rehearsing in the Twickenham Film Studios, the Apple studio, and on the Apple roof. The film, like the long-awaited album, was first titled Get Back, but someone must have realized that after one year of getting back – the film still in the editing room – the best recourse, aside from going forward (which the Beatles did with Abbey Road), was just to let it be. The film comes to us in its own good time. If A Hard Day’s Night portrayed the Beatles’ “real life” image as fiction, and if Yellow Submarine embodied that image mythically, Let It Be documents a few moments of the Beatles together “awake” and “for real.”
We only get a few moments because with 300 hours of footage, only the highlights, the more dramatic scenes, and the funnier dialogue are shown. Obviously, most of the original footage is filled up with shots of the Beatles tuning up, running through “Don’t Let Me Down” for the fortieth time, off-mike huddles, etc. One misses scenes like the one in which Paul tells how he originally wrote “Get Back” as a political song:
Don’t dig no Pakistanis takin’ all the
Wilson said to the immigrants
You’d better get back to your Commonwealth homes
Yeh-yeh-yeh you’d better get Back
We also miss the monotonies, the lackluster workaday yawns, of four people who know each other too well. So if Yoko Ono seems unenthusiastic and listless in Let It Be, just imagine sitting through 30 hours of takes and re-takes. Playing and shooting over and over is the context from which Let It Be extrapolates its images. Finally, too, one misses the enormous number of Fifties rock and roll classics which the Beatles slipped into – putting them on in the playful and always elegant way that they perform “You’re Really Got A Hold On Me” in Let It Be for example.
Yesterday, Things We Said Today
George: In America, ya know, they don’t want all new ones…they need something to identify with aside from us.
John: I’ve been doing a lot of “Help” recently.
Paul: “Every Little Thing.”
George: “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
John: When I do it for the fans I’m slinging it like a jerky.
How a group gets into its music can often be seen in the kind of music they play to get into themselves, and in Let It Be, this is only hinted at. The Beatles use oldies to get into new songs, not only as warmups (“if it’s a slow one we’ll omit it…if it’s a fast one we’ll git it …”) but as a kind of invocation, as they summon up the presences of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, His Majesty Richard Penniman, Antoine Domino, Buddy Holly, Larry Williams, Elvis, and some contemporaries like Mick, Dylan, Pete Townshend, Hendrix, and the Band.
The list of oldies played in these sessions is almost a catechism: “Stand By Me,” “Baby I Don’t Care,” “Thirty Days,” “Hippy Hippy Shake,” “Short Fat Fanny,” “Fools Like Me,” “You Win Again,” “Turn Around,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “True Love,” “Wrong Yo Yo,” “Sure To Fall,” “Tennesee,” “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Little Queenie,” “Rock and Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Singing the Blues,” “Midnight Special,” “Michael Row The Boat Ashore.”
Then there are the frequent and often inane searches for lyrics. Paul working on “Get Back”:
Joe-Joe left his home in Tucson, Arizona but he knew it couldn’t last
Paul: No, that won’t do…class, bass, mass, what about looking for another blast.
Ringo: Thought it was going to be a gas.
Paul: Hoping he would find a gal.
Paul: It’s just a little production (sings):
John (sounding like a Boston matron): Yes?
George’s beautiful transcendental song, “All Things Must Pass,” influenced heavily by the Band, Tim Leary, Buddhist texts, and St. Augustine, was neither included in the film or on the album.
The Water, Torchlit, 2,000 Arabs
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who directed the now defunct Ready, Steady, Go – one of British television’s better “pop” programs – and the Stones’ Circus, directed two to four cameras in shooting Let It Be. And since some of the sound track lacked footage, special praise should be given to editor Tony Lenny, who made many of the looser ends meet.
During the shooting of Let It Be the Beatles talked about the film they wanted to have made. This Pirandello quality doesn’t really come across in Let It Be. During one of the early rehearsals, Paul suggested the kind of film he had in mind: “Get very bright lights so you see everything, instead of moody lighting, that kind of thing. With everything here, it hardly needs scenery. Really, it all should be about him and his drum kit. Look at his drum kit, it really looks great, beautiful, sitting there. Then John and his guitar and his amp, sitting there, actually showing it at that minute. The scenery would just be the other things around, like the scaffolding, the other cameras. It’s like in a news event, like on ‘Jude’ the little screams were more interesting than the postman. If you can think slow, not bang! bang! bang! Instead of getting all the pacing, a chair lift, the flow, the pace is already there. You can glide down from the roof on a one shot on to Ringo’s face, float around, being careful not to miss anything. It’s like Warhol’s things; he goes to the other extreme, but he reckons there’s a pace in Empire. Even a Tunisian amphitheater can be boring. I don’t dig underestimating what’s here. If it’s going to be scenery, we should go the whole way and get galloping horses. You should get really close up, like right into one of John’s eyes. Can you do that? That direction, rather than John and the moon.”
Let It Be is not only a film about the Beatles deciding on the kind of film they wanted to appear in. It also shows them rehearsing for the imagined, debated possibility of their return to public performances after two and a half years. The House of Parliament, a Tunisian amphitheater, a Liverpool cathedral, a hospital, and on an ocean liner, “singing the middle eight as the sun comes up.”
George: You know it’s going to be the same thing there as here – it’s going to be a bit nicer place to be in, but it’s going to be even more complicated trying to plug in on all the mikes and tapes and all that crap. Lindsay-Hogg: First of all visually the thing that interests me…naturally…Think of the helicopter shot over the amphitheater with the water with the lights and the water, torchlit, 2,000 Arabs. You know what I mean. Visually it’s fantastic.
Paul: But if it was a fan club show. You remember the Wembley, or the Wimbledon one where we were in a cage, and like people were filing past; it was just a different kind of thing from what we ever did. It was terrible. That’s not it. But that knid of thing made that show different because it was like playing to a thing, like a fan club.
John: I’m warming up to the idea of an asylum.
After all the possibilities in the world, and after all the transformations and posturings, it is the desire to be seen, to communicate with an audience, to hear the screams that will bring them into the present and pump energy into the myth that drives them onwards playing again in public. It would be an affirmation of the Beatles: “We really have to want to do a show at the end of it. I was saying to Mal this morning, because he had a dream last night of us doing the show, and he just said it was incredible, and I said I’d love to do that, just to play all these numbers one afternoon at the Saville to some people, or all day, or as in Hair, just setting up, rehearsing as the people walk in, sit down, get sandwiches and drink, and when we want to do a take we’d do sort of a take. Then we could do a couple of other small shows until we hit it and get over our nervousness with an audience.”
The roof concert is both the conclusion of the film and the solution to the debate about where and if to perform for an audience. The Beatles, wind-swept as if on shipdeck, the crowd of mildly surprised office workers and mid-day shoppers acknowledging the Beatle’s first concert in two and a half years:
Lindsay-Hogg: Shall we go on filming until we leave here?
Paul: What we’re doing is still rehearsing and we’ll get it together.
George: We’ll collect our thoughts and you collect yours about where we’ll do the concert.
Lindsey-Hogg: What about roof tomorrow?
Paul: We’ll do the numbers. We’re the band.
George: I’ll do it if you’ve got us on the roof.
John: I’d like to go on the roof. I’ll record the songs when you want to do it.
George: Anytime is paradise.
John: Anytime at all. You suggest where: Pakistan, the Moon, I’ll still be there till you don’t let me down. You’ll be surprised at the story that will come out of this.
Your Toast in My Mirror or, The Grogan at the Breakfast Table
The unedited Let It Be, running to some 800 hours of film (including footage from all four cameras at Twickenham and on the roof) will perhaps someday be donated to the National Trust, where scholars will delve into its meaning. In its totality it is a monster document, revealing, in the same sense as studies of scientists isolated in bathyspheres for months at a time are revealing, and the slouch of a body cast in plaster that takes several hours to set. It manifests the idiosyncracies, blemishes, acts of vision and churlishness, the patterns and postures that the Beatles put themselves through while relating to each other and to their public images. The released version can reveal little of this.
Although the premise of the film at its inception was Warholian in the sense that you just turn the cameras on for two months and let it be, the end product is considerably more structured. For one thing, time will not allow what could have been a whole movie in itself, namely, the Beatles creating, working on, refining, and finally distilling one song, with peripheral dialogue, old rock, and general studio habits. Instead we have a series of about twenty songs flashing by with occasional “representative” dialogue. This is not to denigrate the quiet, unassuming, even magical moments which Let It Be captures, as when the music always ends discussion, each Beatle submitting to it, John and George finally understanding each other in “Dig It” or “For You Blue.” But it is a sleight of hand (as John says, “Bognor Regis is a tartan that covers Yorkshire”) that presents us with this condensation of moments into an illusion of a day in the life. The structure of the film as we see it gives the impression of elation, partly by the very physical progression of scenes from Act I in the murky sublunar atmosphere of Twickenham (rainbows on rainbows) through the intimacy of the Apple sessions and finally, the four evangelists emerging onto the roof to air, lights, and the birth of spring. (The roof sequence was shot at the beginning of February.)
What dialogue there is in Let It Be suggests we could still be in some snug, day-to-day corner of Pepperland. The order of the day is cheerfulness (Paul: “Hi, lads.” John: “Queen says no to pot smoking F.B.I. members.”) Just the lads getting together for a bash. But, in the light of subsequent Beatle traumas, the illusion must seem somewhat false. The doubts about their being able to perform again in public, and the threatening clouds that were to break into open hostility with the release of Paul’s album, are scarcely touched upon. In Let It Be we are given a glimpse of group friction (for the sake of realism), a dialogue between Paul and George which hits on one of the main contentions between them: none of them wants to be session men for the others. Paul: “I always seem to be annoying you….” George: “All right, I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play.”
In another sequence, Paul talks earnestly to John (“now look, son”) about how they can get it on, if they want to. But, because this is not cinema verite but a documentary made by the Beatles themselves, the emphasis is quite naturally not on the tensions. It is one of the paradoxes of reverence that we always wish to know the most intimate details of those we idolize, even when the details are not flattering, and for this reason Let It Be is not a completely satisfying film. It presents an “as if” situation that any fairly observant Beatle fan knows does not exist. And, again, it is just this insatiable curiosity, like the probing eye of the camera, staring like a mirror at their every action that has magnified their rifts and sealed their quarrels. Paul: “I get the horrors every morning about 9:00 when I get my toast and tea.”
Daddy Has Gone Away Now…
One of the strangest phenomena in group situations is who will be “it,” who will carry the weight, and here it is Paul, assuming the spectral role of Brian Epstein:
Paul: I mean we’ve been very negative since Mr. Epstein passed away. That’s why. We haven’t been positive. That’s why all of us in turn have been sick of the group, you know. There’s nothing positive in it. It is a bit of a drag. It’s like when you’re growing up and then your daddy goes away at a certain point in your life and then you stand on your own feet. Daddy has gone away now, you know, and we are on our own little holiday camp. You know, I think we either go home or we do it. It’s discipline we need. It’s like everything you do, you never had discipline. Mr. Epstein, he said, sort of “Get suits on” and we did. And so we were always fighting that discipline a bit. But now it’s silly to fight that discipline if it’s our own. It’s self-imposed these days, so we do as little as possible. But I think we need a bit more if we are going to get on with it.
If Paul is elected to play “daddy” (and he has grown a beard to play the role), then George gets to play the bad boy, and his answer to Paul is, “Well, if that’s what doing it is, I don’t want to do anything.”
Paul comes across as desperately trying to pull the whole thing together, like the father of a family that has become divided (“it’s silly for us at this point to crack up”), while George, with a mixture of apathy and mysticism, appears not to care one way or the other, business versus pleasure:
Paul: We should organize our career now. Like the idea is to get us so we quite enjoy this…then what would you like to do next? Would you like to do a live show, lads?
George: It’s like hard work really to do it. It’s a drag ‘cos I don’t wanna work really… have to get up at 8:00 and get into my guitar… “You’ve got to play your guitar now” and you’re not ready for it. But we’ve got to do that in order to get the goods in…
Paul carries the weight, and like an over-serious foster parent occasionally trips over George’s punky put-ons:
George: You dig, baby?
George: You’re so full of shit, man.
George: Before you can pry any secrets from me, first you must find the real me. Which one will you pursue…Did you see that?
George: The Beard.
George: It’s Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid in eternity. It’s just the idea of two people on stage and all this audience of different people overhearing what they’re saying. Jean Harlow says: “Before you can pry any secrets from me, first you must find the real me. Which one will you pursue?” It ends where she just sits on his knee, and then she sits in the chair and spreads her legs.
Four Stars in Search of a Universe
In the flak between George and Paul, John, enigmatic, and profoundly humorous, traces out a cosmic anti-world of puns:
John: It’s a feeling…it’s enough to make a haggis grow legs; but tonight we’ll celebrate on Irish Whiskey, said Gene Pitney, the only Sassenach in the group.
Ringo, who is given a token appearance in Let It Be singing “Octopus’ Garden” and a boogie duet with Paul, maintains his deadpan humor and dignity throughout. Derek Taylor once described Ringo as mis-cast in most of the films he has appeared in because “his genius is as a silent actor.” And he bears this out beautifully in the sequence where Heather crashes down on his drum kit and his whole body jangles in a flip-flop mime of taken-unawares.
His long suffering face allows him to play a straightman with quizzical intensity to John’s ventriloquist:
John: Bognor Regis is a tartan that covers Yorkshire. Rutland is the smallest country. Scarborough is a college scarf…And still the boon wasn’t over, the Queen of Sheba wore falsies.
Ringo: I didn’t know that.
John: Didn’t you know that? You weren’t there at the time. Cleopatra was a carpet manufacturer.
Ringo: I didn’t know that.
John: John Lennon…
Ringo: A patriot.
John: I didn’t know that.
George rephrases the universe in mystical homilies (“anywhere is paradise”) and Paul, who’s always “on” (a wink is as good as a nod) can never resist the temptation to play himself. When his head fills the screen, singing the title song on “Let It Be,” his face flashes between tramp and old testament prophet, but it never quite sticks, because he is always a little too sentimental to be believable.
As the unedited tapes run on and on, fragments of their lives fill in a fraction. They watch a lot of “telly”: Late Nite Line-Up on BBC-2, Spike Milligan, science fiction; “I, Me, Mine,” in fact, is based on a tune played by an Austrian marching band that George was watching late one night.
Images of Broken Light
Visually, Let It Be is as beautiful as the sum of its accidents: its unbelievable grainy color (generated from 16mm originals) washes about the screen in the Twickenham sequences like video rainbows, giving each his own aura: white for John, purple for Paul, mantra orange for George, and red for Ringo. At times it’s like the Beatles in the land of Silver Surfer, especially in one sequence where George, in yellow and brown (and grainy as Dakota), seems to drift in and out of the rust background like a speckled trout.
The camera moves in and out as blindly and perceptively as coincidence itself, picking up with insect eye: fuzz on a microphone while John intones “Across The Universe”; Paul’s fingers touching their reflection in the glazed piano board; George’s face, pale as wax with downcast eyes, as his guitar gently weeps; Heather rushing into the studio and homing in on a gloppy painting of a flower by Zak, pinned on Ringo’s wall-board; and John warbling shrilly as a sparrow on “Two Of Us.”
But as often as the lens picks up the beautiful moments of the Beatles together, it misses others that beg to be recorded, and occasionally it blunders into crass word-image links that are just embarrassing. On “Dig It,” the camera zooms to Billy Preston as John sings “B. B. King…” (they’re both spades, dig it?) and to Heather on “Doris Day…”
Outside, the oblique light reflects from Ringo’s orange mac like molten lava and everything looks like it was shot on a set from Mary Poppins. Old men in macs and sweaters gather around like out-of-work miners at the entrance of a colliery. The moments are precious, they know they will soon have to move, and in a gesture of devotion, Peter Asher kneels before John with lyrics on a sheet of paper.
While, in the end, all we have to relate to are the soft, luminous images of Let It Be, the Beatles will insist, like the characters in Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author that “the play is in us, sir!” Their voices on magnetic tape, buried in some vault, will always be ready to re-enact their drama, and only they know its true intensity:
Paul (in disembodied voice): The awful tension of being locked in each other’s arms snapped last night at TV rehearsal, and Beatles John, George and Harold…A few vicious phrases took place.
John: He, the mystical one who lost so much of the Beatles’ magic, she the nudie…
Paul: It’s only the suddenness of their decline from the status of boys next door to the category of weirdies…
John (singing drowns out words): Early in the morning
I’m giving you the warning
Don’t you step on my blue suede
Paul: It would be about the middle of the 1960s (next few words inaudible)
began to have a few spots of rust. I would deliberately read Ringo out of it, because he never developed any fetish towards the bizarre. Lennon was married happily. McCartney was going steady and George Harrison was about to marry. Everything in the Beatle garden was rosy. But that was a long time ago. Having scaled every known peak of show business the Beatles quite deliberately…never came home again. They went their own private way, found their own friends and became less reliant on each other for guidance and comradeship… (singing drowns out speech)
John (singing): Early in the evening
I’m giving you the feeling
And nothing to lose.
Paul: Today all of them find acute embarrassment at the stories of one another’s adventures and conduct. Harrison’s escapades with his favourite mystic from India…
John (singing): Hold my baby as tight as I can
Tonight she’s gonna be a big fat man
Oh baby with your rhythm and blues
Everybody’s rockin tonight.
(singer and speaker trying to drown each other out)
Paul: Drugs, divorce, and slipping image play desperately on their minds and it appeared to them all that the public was being encouraged to hate them…capacity to earn is largely tied up in their performances as a group and until they are either rich enough…
(music drowns out voice)
…irrevocably doomed…all over…they will never be exactly the same again.