The Beatles and the Great Divide

Peter Jackson, who made the restoration “documentary” They Shall Not Grow Old, has announced he will release a new, happier, edit of the documentary film Let It Be this year.

The film Let It Be was made by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg from the Beatles’ January 1969 “Get Back sessions,” which became their album Let It Be. The film notoriously shows signs of their impending breakup.

Both film and album were released in 1970; this is their 50thanniversary. Home video of the original film has been hard to find since the 1980s, but it too will be released this year on the latest media. (The Jackson film may be out by March; Lindsay-Hogg’s by October.)

The Beatles Bible (“not quite as popular as Jesus…”) shows the band played dozens of songs in the studio that month, some of which can be heard in the original film and in bootlegs that have circulated for decades. Jackson hints that during all that work the band had joyous and playful moments we have not seen, and his re-cutting of the footage will change the tone of the film. In any case, the footage and sound will be refreshed.

“Fans will lose their minds over this film,” cheers the Fab Four Archivist Channel.

After 50 years, The Beatles of Let It Be are still the coolest uncles you will never have. Seemingly they shall not grow old. No one felt that way about Al Jolson, one of the big hitmakers of 1919, in 1969.

In preparation for the Let It Be releases, I watched How The Beatles Changed the World, a 2017 film with documentary footage, oral histories, and analyses by friends of the Beatles and music writers such as Anthony DeCurtis from Rolling Stone. They all make strong cases not just for The Beatles’ continuing relevance, but also for their having helped create the society from which we still consider them.

Half the film, which was evidently in production in the leadup to the 2016 election, focuses on the “fault lines” in America during The Beatles’ time, which invite comparisons to today. (Nixon took office the month of the Get Back sessions; his religious advisor was Billy Graham. Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, advises Trump now.)

John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” statement enraged the religious right and brought Klan threats, record burnings, and canceled concerts. “Help keep communists out of the USA,” one protestor’s sign reads at a rally.

“It made you aware of some of the fault lines in American culture—or made you aware once again that what maybe seemed like a unified culture really wasn’t,” Anthony DeCurtis says. The film’s narrator adds that the fault lines had been growing since the early 1960s, but of course the culture wars did not start in the 1960s and have never ended. (Yesterday, all of Franklin Graham’s UK speaking gigs were canceled when the Brits made clear they do not like what he stands for.)

One documentary interviewee, Robert Christgau of Village Voice, says The Beatles “became part of what many, many people in America … regarded as a disturbing loosening of values and morals, and a political threat.”

With the murders of King and Kennedy, political and racial riots, and police brutality, there was “the threat of civil war” in America, an interviewee says. DeCurtis mentions the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a “dividing line. You saw the police out there clubbing kids, and there really was a sense: we’re kind of at war now.” He discusses the song “Revolution,” in which Lennon famously sings, in one version, “You can count me out—in.”

“Exactly where you were supposed to stand was difficult,” DeCurtis says. But, “There always was a kind of inherent optimism in The Beatles—somehow—whereas that wasn’t true of Dylan; it wasn’t true of the Stones.”

When we lost The Beatles, we lost some of that considered optimism. But the rooftop concert at the end of Let It Be was itself an optimistic gesture. (As was the album name-change; ever hear the harsh satirical versions of “Get Back,” about deporting immigrants?) The band had long given up live performance but still believed in its power as a social act, and it provides evidence of their close communication and good humor. It will be good to see them again, in the new films.

“Everybody had a hard year / Everybody had a good time / Everybody had a wet dream / Everybody saw the sun shine,” John sings, as much to our time as to the end of the ’60s. Dig a pony. Don’t let me down.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.