The Beatles Were Friends

Peter Jackson's new documentary understands something simple, obvious, yet overlooked

British rock group the Beatles arrive at London Airport on the 'Clipper Beatles', after their final ...
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jeremy Gordon
Get Back

I don’t know exactly where I picked up the idea that the Beatles hated each other by the time they broke up in 1970, but it intuitively feels true. A band doesn’t call it quits, and immediately release a record titled Let It Be (lyrics of the title track: “When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be’”), if its members aren’t sick of the bullshit. You don’t hear early solo songs like John’s acidic “How Do You Sleep?” (presumably aimed at Paul) and Paul’s smug “Too Many People” (presumably aimed at John) and George’s wistful “Isn’t It a Pity” (presumably aimed at everyone, even Ringo) and think, At least they’re exchanging Christmas cards. Plus there’s the existence of a primary source capturing all this interpersonal tension: A companion film to Let It Be, shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg during the album’s tumultuous 1969 recording sessions.

Today, this companion film cannot easily be viewed — it went out of print after the 1980s, and Paul and Ringo allegedly blocked a planned DVD release — but its contents loom large in the band’s mythology. In 2019, when it was announced that director Peter Jackson would be reconstituting Lindsay-Hogg’s original footage into a new documentary about the recording of Let It Be, which would be eventually titled The Beatles: Get Back, Jackson explicitly framed his project as a sunny counterpoint. “I was relieved to discover the reality is very different to the myth,” he said. “Watching John, Paul, George, and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating — it's funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.” Most stories about the project noted the original movie’s reputation; The New York Times noted how it chronicled “the group’s tenuous relations leading to their breakup,” while NPR referenced the “prevailing narrative that tensions ran high during the creation of Let it Be.”

But the idea that Lindsay-Hogg’s movie actually captures the Beatles at a uniquely miserable crux in their professional relationship is simply not true. Instead, this notion has been passed down like a game of telephone. When I watched the companion film last week, using devious online methods, I was surprised to learn it doesn’t reveal much of anything. Lindsay-Hogg’s movie is a disconnected pastiche of images and sounds, with no real narrative or throughline beyond “here are the Beatles, who you know are making Let It Be, and have just broken up in the real world.” The band wanders from track to track, with some performances stitched from multiple rehearsals (Paul is sitting down, singing “I’ve Got a Feeling”; suddenly he’s standing in front of a microphone, in a different outfit, with no lapse in audio). John, Ringo, and George all have their turn dismissing Paul’s prim authoritarianism, but they also smile and goof around with him, just as in Jackson’s movie. Then all of a sudden they’re on the Apple Corps roof for their last ever live performance, which serves as the climactic capstone — again, just like Jackson’s movie.

The songs on Let It Be seem to anticipate the breakup, and the members all talked about the dreariness of these sessions — John, in 1970: “Even the biggest Beatle fan couldn't have sat through those six weeks of misery” — and nobody save for archivists and the online-savvy could actually watch the movie, so it’s always been easier to take the myth at face value. Nonetheless, it’s overwhelming to consider how this myth persisted for five decades until it was suddenly cleared up. In Get Back, the band can seem oddly prescient about this fate. George and John make fun of a gossip column that implies they’ve recently come to blows. Paul jokes that 50 years from now their potentially impending breakup will be attributed to something stupid like Yoko sitting on an amp. Of course, he’s off the mark by about 49 years: Yoko will immediately take the blame for the band’s split, and only when the entirety of mainstream media receives a retroactive feminist appraisal in the 2010s will this myth be somewhat counterpointed.

The idea that Lindsay-Hogg’s movie actually captures the Beatles at a uniquely miserable crux in their professional relationship is simply not true.

So there’s a much lauded, more obvious truth uncovered in Jackson’s extended edition: The Beatles were not actually at constant wit’s end, but friendly all along. They bickered a lot, and some of the rehearsals seemed to go nowhere, and everyone got pissy with Paul (who definitely deserved it), but for the most part they come off like what they were: lifelong pals with a profound and irreplicable intimacy, who were nonetheless a little testy with each other. Not unlike your friend group, perhaps, except none of your homies wrote “Hey Jude.”

What it also reveals — through the power of footage that appears continuous but of course has been edited to privilege Jackson’s perspective — is why the Beatles were always designed to break up. You can imagine a timeline where Phil Spector doesn’t ruin Let It Be with his goopy orchestration, and the band doesn’t enter a disastrous financial partnership with scheming manager Allen Klein. But just as the Lennon-McCartney partnership animated their success, the sway it holds in Get Back over every other facet of their existence forecasts their eventual dissolution. Best mates since their teen years, John and Paul’s friendship is a familiar stew of shared intimacies (John and Paul patiently working out a song as they stand face to face), jealousies (Paul jockeying for John’s attention when Yoko is around), passions (the visible joy they derive from performing together), and above all inside jokes they still fall back into, even during this uneasy time. One of my favorite scenes is when they run through the pastoral buddy jaunt “Two of Us” for what feels like the hundredth time, only this time they adopt stupid German accents through gritted teeth and bug out their eyes like Muppets. It’s bizarrely sweet, and they also look like fucking dorks, which is a funny thing to say about the two most famous musicians in the world at that point in time.

There’s a short moment at the beginning of the second episode that encapsulates just how much of the Beatles is wrapped up in Lennon-McCartney. George has just quit, and a meeting aimed at smoothing things over has not gone well. The next day, Ringo and Paul show up to practice, and sit around with their entourage waiting for an insultingly late John to appear. Despite the fact that George has actually said he’s done with the band, the conversation turns to John’s diminishing interest in staying together. Linda, Paul’s partner, stirs a little shit by suggesting that Yoko is putting opinions in John’s mouth, but Paul sticks up for his best friend’s girlfriend, and says she’s only sharing what he thinks. He very maturely asserts their right to be in love (“They’re trying to be as near together as they can”) before trying to minimize the tension (“But it’s not that bad, you know”), which immediately leads to his revelation that “If it came to a push between Yoko and the Beatles, it’s Yoko.”

The conversation jolts to a stop. Paul hangs his head, and Linda starts rubbing his arm as he begins to sing “Build Me Up Buttercup.” When he looks up, his eyes are watering. Someone asks if he and John have stopped writing together as much now that Yoko’s around, but for the second time he doesn’t take the bait: He and John haven’t written together in a while because unlike their youth they no longer live together, and “when you’re not this close, just physically, something goes.” He admits it’s hard to write when Yoko is in the room, as she has been through almost all of the recording sessions, and says he’s so self-conscious about this that he actually tries to write songs about subjects he thinks the both of them will like. He unabashedly compliments Yoko (“She’s great, she’s really alright,”) reasserts their right to be together all of the time, and openly wishes the band still had a daddy figure (formerly the late Brian Epstein) to keep them in check.

Paul can’t stop talking, as always. He makes the arch observation about Yoko getting blamed in 50 years, and jokes about announcing their breakup at the end of a TV special that’s planned to correspond with the new album. (Ringo, hearing this, doesn’t laugh at all, and just slumps into his seat.) He’s asked if he can put any pressure on John that will improve this state of affairs, and admits that he doesn’t know. Once again Paul stares off into space, on the verge of crying as he really considers all of this — the unavoidable erosion of his friendship with John, and with it the collapse of the band. The silence is only broken when their road manager says that John has been reached on the phone, and Paul leaps up to talk to him, eventually convincing him to come in for the day.

There’s so many emotions going on here that I can’t believe the whole scene is over in about five minutes, with Paul cycling through all of the stages of grief, sometimes in the same sentence. Selfishly, it made me think about every attempt I’ve ever made at rationalizing the demise of a friendship I’d hitherto considered to be bronzed for all eternity, and the thousands of invisible nuances the mind can invent when the truth is embarrassingly simple: People change, and that change is neither good nor bad, only a natural byproduct of our unfortunate shackling to the linear progression of time. The way Jackson chooses to linger on Paul’s watery eyes is emotionally effective filmmaking, but it also underscores how he’s conceived of friendship throughout his career: as a powerful bonding force that almost borders on lust. Just as Juliet and Pauline fall into a murderously intimate death spiral in Heavenly Creatures, and Samwise Gamgee subjugates his entire identity in service of getting Frodo to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, so is Paul obviously willing to do anything to make John stay.

It made me think about every attempt I’ve ever made at rationalizing the demise of a friendship.

Only Paul is a real human being, not a movie character, and so he understands that’ll never happen as long as Yoko is around — not because she’s to blame, because that would be stupid and misogynist, but because love radically reconstitutes your priorities. Lennon was many things — a domestic abuser, a negligent father, an addict, a habitual dick to his friends — but he was authentically and powerfully in love with Yoko. So that’s the end of the Beatles, especially as quiet George stews over the way his songs are rejected even as Paul insists on workshopping the doofy “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and is always looking in on the John-Paul connection like a stray dog staring through the window of a warm house. Meanwhile, Ringo is zen enough to know big swaggering dicks like these are just going to do what they want, even as “Octopus’s Garden,” the only song he contributes to the sessions, is explicitly about wanting your friends to relax and have a good time. But it’s alright, Paul occasionally suggests throughout the movie — one day they’ll all be old together, and singing together, and everything that’s happening right now will just seem like some silly youthful drama.

Jackson ends the documentary without any portentous or sentimental title cards, because we all know what happens afterwards — what overlays comments like these with a sense of tragedy. John will never make it to old age; he will be murdered in 1980, permanently foreclosing the possibility of that aged reunion, and so these eight hours represent some of the last ever available footage of this particularly intense friendship. Paul can write with George, or Ringo, or really anyone — Linda, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, the list goes on. But it’s John, and only John who is a true partner, as we witness time and time again through these myriad rehearsals, disagreements, and riff sessions. Lennon-McCartney might not be the greatest songwriting duo in music history, but they were the only such duo to be the two most famous musicians in the world, and so watching this singular friendship play out — knowing the horrible end that awaits down the road — makes for incredibly compelling and sometimes very sad watching.

It’s all I could think about while watching the documentary, aside from “everyone is dressed fantastically” and “wow, watching them rehearse Let It Be for over and over drastically improves my appreciation for that album.” This is an eight-hour documentary about the Beatles, so you will be forgiven for declining to consider them one second more than has already been force fed to you. But if we’ve got to spend the next 50 years trying to understand a group that seems destined to be with us forever, then “friendship is complex, and worth a little generosity” is a better idea to stitch into the culture than “wives are harpies who will ruin your band.”

Jeremy Gordon is a writer in Brooklyn.