The Volokh Conspiracy

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Thoughts on the new Beatles documentary


If you have not yet seen the recently-released Beatles documentary streaming (exclusively, I believe) on Disney+, let me highly recommend it to you. It is a truly remarkable video document.

You probably have heard, in the barrage of publicity, the story of how the film came to be. In Jan. 1969 the band had decided that they wanted to do a live show, with new songs. It would be their first live show in 3 years (which seemed, at the time, like a very long absence); after having spent most of 1963-66 on the road, playing to prodigiously large and increasingly hysterical crowds, often in massive outdoor stadiums (unheard of before the Beatles came along), they disappeared into the studio.  Over the next three years, they created a series of masterpieces which changed popular music forever: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles (the "White Album")—an explosion of musical creativity with very few parallels in the history of music, popular or classical.

They gave themselves 3 weeks to work up a new set of songs (which ultimately culminated in the fabulous "rooftop concert" at Apple Records and the final two studio albums, Abbey Road and Let it Be). The entire 3-week process was filmed by filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg, resulting in several hundred hours of video, and director Peter Jackson has put together 9 hours showing them working on the new stuff—basically writing most of it on the fly, rehearsing different versions, etc., along with a lot of just goofing around, and arguing with each other about the music, and many other things.

I had anticipated that the music, and the musicianship, would be terrific, and it is. They remain, in my ears at least, the best band of all time.

I was unprepared, though, for how moving—even heart-breaking—I found it. To begin with, there is the whole backstory that many of us already carry around in our heads. Personally speaking, I grew up with the Beatles; they were a large and constant presence in my life (and in the lives of pretty much everyone I knew) from junior high school (the Ed Sullivan Show performance) to my junior year in college (the release of Let It Be), and it is difficult for me to think of any people (other than people with whom I had actual face-to-face contact) who were more important to me in those years than The Beatles. They created much of the soundtrack for the whole period during which I was growing up, and the illusion of being a fly-on-the-wall with them for three weeks is pretty powerful.

Added to which there's this terribly melancholy feel to it all, given that we all know (though of course they don't) that they'd never play together again as a band, that things would turn nasty and they wouldn't even be on speaking terms with each other in a few years, and that John would be murdered in another 10 years or so (as it happens, on this date 40 years ago).

But nostalgia aside, I can't think of anything I've ever seen or read that conveys the process of collective artistic creation like this film does. The way they would take little snippets of things—stuff that didn't really sound terribly good at the start—and play around with them, discarding some and turning some—many—into little rock-and-roll masterpieces (Get Back, The Long and Winding Road, Two of Us, Don't Let Me Down, Let it Be… ) is pretty breath-taking. A surprising amount of stuff on the film actually sounds pretty lame, as they try out harmonies that don't work, lyrics that don't work, keyboard parts that don't work, dopey rhymes, rhythms that sound stupid, etc. But then they finally really nail it, and it's like the gates of heaven open up.

I can't recommend it highly enough. It is DEFINITELY worth the $7.99 for a one-month Disney+ subscription. Whether you have 9+ hours to spare to dig into it is another question, but if you've got any Beatles in your blood you should check it out—you'll enjoy it.