As long as I can remember, I’ve always been a Beatles fan. The first album (that wasn’t soundtrack music) anyone ever bought me was a Beatles album my sister got me for Christmas or a birthday one year. I must’ve been twelve or thirteen at the time. I already knew half the songs that played on the radio, and the ones that didn’t “woke” something in me to the whole idea of what creativity could spawn in a person.
I remember belting “I’m so tired” at the crack of dawn after I’d woken up one morning when my mom came in to tell my Granny had died. Or in high school, even though it was the 90s, somehow befriending a small troupe of fellow Beatles fans. We even went to Beatles mania concerts with lookalikes and our rides to and from school every day were just Beatles sing-a-longs (unless we were in a bad mood, and then we sang Nirvana).
My friends and I would have long discussions about which Beatle was the “best” Beatle, which song the best song. I was posed the latter question, actually, by a group of professors at Wabash College during an interview for a scholarship and was absolutely, embarrassingly stumped by the question. I didn’t win that scholarship and I always kind of blamed it on not knowing which Beatles song was my favorite, so I later settled on Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), though it was less the answer to the question and more the certainty I’d have an answer if I was asked by anyone important ever again.
For my friends, each Beatle came to represent something different between Paul’s love songs, George’s spirituality, Ringo’s silliness, and John’s obsession with authenticity.
I fashioned a liking to John, not knowing much more about him than the songs he sang. I even went through a stint in high school where I wore a green button-up military jacket and painted John’s likeness in art class. His lyrics, especially his solo years were raw, unafraid. The story of his father’s abandonment and his mother’s early death, the fact that Strawberry Fields was an orphanage he played at, which I visited in 2004, and all the anger he carried about it all just made sense to me on some visceral level.
By the time I was studying religion in college, George had grown on me, but I found myself wishing for a George with John’s voice, if that makes sense. And, of course, I went through phases of loving Paul and Ringo just as much but always came back to the Lennon anthology or to George’s greatest hits. There was something about studying theodicy while listening to the both of them that made the world make a little more sense in how it made no sense.
With the Peter Jackson documentary out, I’ve been reliving those early years, my long obsession with this band, and examining those caricatures all over again. I still love the music, but I’m not sure I like any of the men, and in many ways the documentary is rewriting my history of who they were. Spoilers ahead.
The documentary kind of puts their personalities on display in a way short interviews with them never really did. Paul is much more domineering than I would have ever thought, bossy even. He plays the role I always thought John played. Mind you, this is one glimpse into a few weeks of their lives and their creative process. The band is pretty clearly on the outs and in its final days. Maybe Paul is just holding on to something while the others have checked out. They even break up halfway through and then get back together and add a fifth Beatle. But, what I’m most struck by is how the picture I always had in my head is so different just after seeing them in Jackson’s retelling of the ‘Let it Be’ album.
In the documentary, if Paul comes off how you might expect John would, John actually comes off more how you might think Ringo would. He’s playful, funny, and doesn’t really seem to show the serious, depressive side you get out of him in his solo years. So, too, rather than the crazy, wacky character I always expected out of Ringo, he’s just kind of always present, always quiet, and always just kind of loyal. George, on the other hand, is oddly pragmatic instead of waxing philosophic. In fact, if everyone else’s heads are in the clouds, George is the only one that brings everyone repeatedly back to reality–another role you might have expected more out of John.
Of course, I wanna reiterate again how little I think this film can portray reality in what that particular three weeks of their lives were like as compared to the whole or even the post-Beatles years. John seems a right nice chap, and the abusive person I later came to learn he was in reality isn’t on display at all (although Yoko quietly sitting by his side hardly ever speaking doesn’t exactly look great).
[I don’t want to go off on a Yoko tangent here, but I will say I do think this film is unclear about why the band broke up despite multiple articles jumping on the “It wasn’t Yoko’s fault!” bandwagon. I’m not entirely convinced. Yes, George was clearly frustrated with Paul, but you still get that lengthy soundbit where Paul was going off about Yoko always being there, and these pro-Yoko articles do sound a bit revisionist to me. I’ll leave that at that.]
In the film, you do get glimpses of their other lives with Linda and Heather visiting or with George’s wife, Pattie, or his Hare Krishna friends popping by. You almost get the sense that George has had this profound experience out of India that the others didn’t share (or even found cheap), and as they’re critical of his newfound spirituality, that’s part of what’s driven a wedge between them. Seeing George’s pragmatic side come out, I’m kind of with the others: whereas I once found George’s spirituality powerful and meaningful, the documentary definitely leaves you feeling like George leans on the spirituality a bit like a crutch. There’s something about it that’s simultaneously more mature than the others while also being a bit chintzy. It’s as if he’s grown tired of all the “rock and roll” culture, but he hasn’t yet realized that he’s replaced it with something just as foolish. That’s not a knock so much on the merits of any particular religious viewpoint as it is a knock on putting all your eggs in one basket, one spiritual basket. It’s like a born-again Christian whose confidence in their newfound faith is unshakeable but only because it contains so much ego wrapped up in it. I find that disappointing about George.
But, I think my bigger take-away is how these small snippets of time, whether they were short interviews or staged movies before the release of this documentary–or whether they were three or four weeks of filming every second of every day edited down to a seven-hour film–aren’t really fair to any one person. I can only really say what I think of the person as they came out through the lens of the camera in that moment in time–and nothing more. You can’t redeem John Lennon’s brokenness through this film (or glorify it through his music). Then again, you can’t assume John’s abusiveness was all he was either.
Supposing I’d been a fly on a wall, one of the roadies even, present just for that three weeks in their lives, would I have seen something different then, even? I suspect I could still walk away with the same realization: who these guys were couldn’t have been captured in such a short amount of time. Or maybe it could, because it was true to that moment, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ve gone down this rabbit hole before, and it’s a question very interesting to me, something I’ve wrestled with for a while: how much of a person’s life do you have to really know before you can make a fair judgment on who they are?
There are some people, five minutes (or maybe even seconds) is all I need. And it’s not that an extra hour wouldn’t shed light that would humble my perspective (it very well might), so much as it is that the first five minutes can tell me what I need to know about whether I wish to do the work of redeeming them for myself, or not. Other people we take a lifetime to sort through who they are, to try to unravel enough of their lives to really feel we’ve done them (and ourselves in their presence) any justice. Maybe true love is the folks you’re tied to, for a reason you can or can’t quite grasp, but need to do that work. And I certainly love the Beatles, their music and their stories, enough to at least give it that much time and attention–if for no other reason than to maybe understand myself a little better.