If someone had told me of a plan to make a three-part TV documentary based on rare footage of the Beatles’ final recording session, I would probably have said, “Why bother?” Although the preposterously premised film Yesterday—which imagined that a cosmic glitch had wiped the world of any memory of the Beatles—sparked renewed interest in their music, I fail to see how a deep dive into the behind-the-scenes workings of the Fab Four would be all that interesting 50 years on. After all, we can all see snippets of those sessions on YouTube, including the rooftop concert and a bearded, sad-eyed Paul singing “Let It Be” as a signature endpiece to the group’s creative life together. Haven’t we gotten enough backstory on the Beatles over the years?
Still, now that the documentary has been made by the renowned Hobbit filmmaker Peter Jackson, it’s a whole different matter. Just as the Beatles have always been about more than their music, any popularized study of the band instantly becomes more than their story. It becomes the story of a generation and its ageless and imagined innocence—an irresistible lure for Baby Boomers. So, yes, I will watch the documentary Get Back at some point along this life’s long and winding road—when it can be streamed for free, since our family doesn’t have cable.
What is it about the Beatles? Though they have not played together in half a century, and only two of the four are living, the band has managed to retain a popular following among my 60-something crowd while also attracting our children and grandchildren. Why do old images and videos of the group look so familiar and contemporary but similar takes of other groups from their day do not? Look at a photo of the Rolling Stones or the Moody Blues or Bob Dylan and what do you see? An image of a particular time and place that evokes memories only for those who knew them then.
But not the Beatles: There’s a reason why Steve Jobs plastered their images all over billboards and the internet when iTunes acquired the group’s songs. Even apart from their music, they look like they are both of their day and ours. They appear timeless, linking decades and generations. I’d call them preternatural if the word were not so overused and misused. The Beatles have this transcendent quality because, in the end, they were very much themselves and were able to laugh at themselves and the mania they caused (as demonstrated in movies such as A Hard Day’s Night). Ultimately, they placed their music above their image, and both have remained appealing over time.
The key to everything that seems mysterious about the Beatles is really very simple: They were excellent musicians and vocalists and worked very hard to get it all just right. But I must confess—as one who saw their first appearance on Ed Sullivan back in February 1964, and sang “Yeah, yeah, yeah” with my classmates in the schoolyard, and played their albums backwards to hear clues that Paul was dead, and was sorry and baffled when they broke up just as the sun was setting on ’60s—that I did not appreciate their musical and lyrical genius at the time.
To me, the Beatles were a band among others, one which sometimes floated duds such as the “Beatles ’65” album and the song “Mr. Moonlight.” I was a Beach Boys fan for much of that decade, until they got into “Good Vibrations” and I migrated over to Simon and Garfunkel and other folk singers before eventually settling on classical rock bands such as Renaissance. I even got an early education in Bach after maestro Virgil Fox played at the legendary rock haven Fillmore East on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
I didn’t realize how good the Beatles were until years later when so many of their songs were still stuck in my mind and sounded fresh to my ear. I don’t recall ever mentioning the Beatles to my kids when they were young, yet whenever they heard their music on the car radio my sons would say, “That’s the Beatles.” It was as if the band’s sound had been infused at birth.
It’s amazing to think how short a time the Beatles were together and how long their legacy extends. As Boomers begin to age out and leave the world in many ways worse than we found it, we can at least take pride in being part of the zeitgeist that produced such a group. The Beatles are one of the few things we can shamelessly pass on to our children and grandchildren—a last gasp of Boomer groove from those who had dreamed of so much more than the cultural wreck and political divisions we have birthed.
Not that the Beatles were perfect, either musically or morally. They helped popularize and legitimize the ’60s drug culture, which took or ruined countless lives. John Lennon could be insufferably political and pretentious; Paul McCartney wrote an ode to marijuana; George Harrison lost himself in mysticism, and Ringo Starr—well, who could say anything bad about Ringo? Yet when they let their music speak for them, they produced a unique harmony that was better than any one of them would ever make on his own.
I don’t know how good, bad, off cue, corny, or phony Get Back will be judged when the film premiers this week on Disney Plus, of all places. But I guess it’s appropriate that the Sunday- evening Disney show that weaned my generation on Mouseketeers, animated fables, and movies like Old Yeller and Son of Flubber is now turning its attention to how we were influenced by the Beatles. Like so much else in the lives of the first TV generation, this production seems well-scripted and slickly marketed. But I expect the Beatles to rise above the hype by being their timeless selves and allowing us to be, in their reflection, better than the persons we’ve become.
Let it be.