When I was a freshman in high school, I convinced my friend Leslie, a cool girl who played the cello, to drive me to school in exchange for gas money. Leslie had a crappy blue Chevette and, far more importantly, a copy of 1965’s Rubber Soul, arguably the best album ever made by The Beatles. Fueled by mellow introspection – and more than a little marijuana – it was the Fab Four at their best, liberated from their early mop-top pop, stretching the confines of writing some hits into writing an album, a collection of songs with a common narrative thread. I still can’t hear Girl without tearing up a little.
Rubber Soul was just before John met Yoko and his flippant remark that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Before the musical innovation that became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Before the band members went to India to turn on and tune out. Before the coke and heroin, before the inevitable resentments and axe grinding. Before the break up.
And we all know it was Yoko’s fault, right?
This was my understanding when I sat down to view Get Back, Peter Jackson’s 3-part, almost 8-hour documentary (culled from 60 hours) on Disney+. It shares fly-on-the-wall footage of the Beatles as they make their last album, Let It Be. The series showcases hours of musical noodling and workshopping where seemingly nothing happens, bookended by moments of pure musical genius when chords and lyrics coalesce perfectly. It is often boring, time passing glacially while we wait for George to shift to a minor chord or Paul to tweak a lyric, flashes of perfection buried in hours of hard work and tedium. It’s at times comedic, a Spinal Tap-type farce. Why in the world can the sound guys not get Paul an 8-track?
Paul, gorgeous and bossy, comes off as the one keeping it together but also holding on most tightly to the past. He seems to feel that the magic of the Fab Four was really about The Two of Us and continually ignores George’s contributions to focus on an often addled John.
George, resplendent in fur coats and dapper hats, has improved his guitar chops immeasurably, fresh off a long tutelage with Eric Clapton, a man who would later marry George’s ex-wife and remain his best “husband in law” until George’s death. But Paul disregards George until George stands up and quietly says, “I’m leaving the band now.” “When?” John asks. “Now. See you ’round the clubs.”
Ringo is the affable and unflappable pro. He is the first member of the band on set each day and the last to leave, despite clearly being hungover more than once. He never argues and is quick to play peacemaker between the other members.
There are lots of people milling about. Mal the road guy. Glyn the sound guy. Alex the tech guru. Legendary keyboard player Billy Preston. Linda Eastman, soon to be McCartney. Yoko Ono. Ringo’s wife Maureen Starkey. A Hare Krishna. Random roadies.
I kept waiting for Yoko to insinuate herself in the goings-on, but it didn’t happen. She is a mostly quiet bystander. She sits near John at all times, but not in a controlling manner. She’s his life raft.
Peter Jackson has spoken freely about the fact that Disney+ tried to get him to edit out all instances of cursing, drinking, and smoking, of which there are many. What Jackson doesn’t say – what he doesn’t have to say – is that he tacitly agrees to ignore the elephant in the room to maintain funding from The Great Mouse to finish a project already delayed years by the pandemic.
The well-worn, misogynist, and racist excuse that Yoko’s presence led to the dissolution of one of the world’s greatest bands is easily put to rest in the raw footage.
It was never Yoko. It was heroin.
That’s why I cannot ultimately recommend this documentary about a band I so revere. Peter Jackson blatantly disregards the fact that John is coming undone, stoned out of his mind. He shows up late – if at all – and blabbers incoherently. His guitar playing is erratic, his behavior unpredictable. He nods off during rehearsals. Yoko, who had recently had a miscarriage, seems quietly stoned as well, more intent on medicating her pain than claiming a stake in the band’s success. John seems to see Yoko as his savior, but does any woman want that responsibility, no matter how much she loves her man? She’s no villain. She’s a sad, broken individual who just lost her child and is having to have that grief filmed for posterity.
Maybe I’m projecting. I recently watched Hulu’s amazing series Dopesick about America’s opioid crisis. America’s drug crisis continues to deepen, with fatal overdoses killing 100,000 people in the last year alone, a devastating 28% increase in a single year. Americans are now more likely to die from an opioid overdose than an automobile accident.
Just a few months after the Get Back footage, John will have Yoko tie him to a chair for almost two days in an unsuccessful attempt to rid the drug from his system. It will take many years and many more attempts before John kicks the habit.
Though the culminating roof-top concert is now one of pop culture’s most iconic moments, I couldn’t watch Get Back with any real pervading joy. The Fab Four was just an early victim of the opioid crisis.