BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC With their own edition of Rock Band and their recent CD reissues climbing the charts, The Beatles are in the middle of yet another victory lap for the band the continues its iron-clad hold on the pop consciousness. In true counter-programming The Secret Cinema is presenting a rare screening tonight of the film The Beatles never wanted you to see, a myth-busting profile of the group as they helplessly watch their magic dissipate. If you’re a Beatles lover (the least elite of groups) it is a painful film to watch, perhaps the reason it has been allowed to linger in limbo, commercially unavailable since the earliest days of home video. The stout-hearted should jump at the rare chance to see the once-Fab Four’s flashes of brilliance as well as their eight feet of clay.
It was one of those constantly-morphing hare-brained schemes for which the Beatles’ Apple Corporation was known: The Beatles would invite cameramen in the studio as they recorded their latest masterpiece, in which would climax with a performance of an entire album’s worth of new material being broadcast live. The concert recording would then be released as The Beatles next record. While they figured out a suitable site for the big show, the band set up shop at London’s Twickenham film studio. It was their that the band (whose fractured state was revealed for everyone to hear the year before on the “White Album”) was expected to show up at eight a.m. to create another dozen unforgettable songs while standing around in an giant icy studio (a former skating rink in fact) with a camera crew standing three feet away. That the project got this far shows you how crazy things had gotten in The Beatles world by 1969.
The director was Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who was known by everyone in the British music scene having served as director of the British music program Ready, Steady Go, a favorite of bands because the program recorded the bands to performing live rather than lip-syncing. Lindsay-Hogg had recently come off a similarly botched ambitious rock special, The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. The original idea was that this documentary footage would be show as a prelude to the live concert broadcast; after the live broadcast collapsed the Beatles begrudgingly allowed the footage to be edited for a feature film, anxious to make something back on their investment.
The original cut that Lindsay-Hogg screened for The Beatles was over an hour longer, but according to an interview gave back in 2000 The Beatles demanded cuts. He stated “they wanted to make it a ”’nicer’ movie. They didn’t want to have a lot of the dirty laundry.” Outside of murmured bickering between McCartney and Harrison little of the arguing is shown, just a simmering tension of four bandmates who aren’t getting along. Ringo looks inert, George agitated, John immersed with his adoring soon-to-be-wife Yoko and Paul is either admirably enthusiastic or an annoying host demanding cheeriness at a bad part. Whatever is rumbling between these Liverpooler’s it is not good vibes and the repertoire, songs like “I Dig a Pony,” “Dig It,” “I Me Mine,” often sound like parts of songs that haven’t had their Beatle-ish brilliance teased out of them. Paul’s brought a couple sentimental ballads that seem mostly finished, “”Let It Be” and “The Long & Winding Road” (which Lennon once knocked as being McCartney’s naked attempt to write his own “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”) and the others seem dully dutiful in knocking them out.
Harrison called it quits during their time in Twickenham and he was only lured back on the condition that they move over to Apple studio to finish. Soul keyboardist Billy Preston was brought in to add much-needed feeling to the least substantial, least spirited batch of recordings the band had ever composed. The climax, the concert that was once going to be staged at a Tunisian amphitheater, a ship in the Thames or at their old haunt the Cavern Club, finally fell apart. “Let’s just do it up on the roof” became the unambitious and practical substitute. The Beatles hadn’t played in front of the public since they stopped touring in 1966 and in the film Paul is heard talking about how the Beatles often needed a few nights to warm up. Lindsay-Hogg reported that up to twenty minutes before The Beatles were still discussing whether to do what would become known as “The Rooftop Concert,” with John finally breaking Paul and George’s logjam by saying “Oh, fuck it, come on, let’s do it.” It was the last time they’d perform in public and it seems just a little cowardly that they’d remain out of sight of the mostly gleeful folks in the street. Although the songs they play are far from their greatest once things get a chugging and Ringo’s drums, Paul’s bass and John’s rhythm guitar latch in together you know you’re in the cinematic presence of greatness. They played five songs and then The Beatles descended down the stairs and disappeared from our sight forever.
The Beatles sat on the tapes and finally handed them over to Phil Spector, giving the Wall of Sound producer free hand to make something out of them. Of course it was McCartney who complained, threatening to sue over the sweetened arrangement devised for “The Long & Winding Road.” John defended Spector saying in Playboy years later, “He was given the shittiest load of badly-recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it.” Fans who miss out on this film, who blame Yoko or blame the Beatles for not sticking it out, are missing what the film plainly documents: The Beatles didn’t break up and end the music, the music ended and broke up The Beatles.