Peter Jackson is following up his World War I footage restoration They Shall Not Grow Old with a deep dive into another famous 20th century fight: the break-up of The Beatles.
Unfortunately for Beatles fans, it appears he may leave the best scenes on the cutting room floor.
This week, The Hollywood Reporter announced the Lord of The Rings director planned to sift through the 50-plus hours of footage from the Beatles late ‘60s rehearsing that formed The Beatles doc Let it Be.
The original Let it Be is an only fitfully engaging film. While the filmmakers had the luck to capture the most popular and influential pop music group of the 20th century while they were imploding, the released movie is plodding and flat, only occasionally offering short glances at the conflicts that could turn it into something worthwhile.
A talented documentarian might make something timeless out of that footage. They’d use those telling human moments to ask whether collaboration, creativity and friendship are fragile by nature. But Jackson’s not the guy to do it. He’s a technically proficient filmmaker but a maladroit storyteller. And he’s just too rich and out of touch to turn this footage into the movie the world needs.
The four Beatles weren’t getting along or playing well together when the footage was recorded. After years refraining from playing concerts and assembling songs through studio trickery, The Beatles were no longer a plug in and play ensemble. Their skills as a live group had atrophied and they could barely get through the simple songs they’d written for the album envisioned as a back-to-basics project.
While they’re still The Beatles, their performances in Let it Be aren’t enough to interest music fans. Fans want to see the fights. And that interest doesn’t just stem from morbid curiosity. The scenes evincing tension are the best movie-making in the original documentary, like the perfectly framed shots of Yoko Ono looking bored and unwelcome in the studio and the hostile but exquisitely English back and forth between George Harrison and Paul McCartney below.
That’s amazing storytelling. If Macca’s sentence “I’m trying to help you but I always hear myself annoying you,” were said in a fictional movie, filmmaking classes would’ve used it as an example of perfect screenwriting for years. It economically lays out about his character and the dramatic tension of the scene. It tells you this man wants be nice but can’t help being overbearing even when it’s destroying a relationship he loves. Harrison’s reply, “I’ll play whatever whatever it you want me to play or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it,” is equally evocative for summing up his decade being under the thumb of McCartney’s cheerful dictatorship.
In the original Let it Be documentary, these unguarded truthful moments are riveting but frustratingly fleeting. They elevate an otherwise tedious work. But Jackson’s early statements on the project indicate he’s eager to drive the new Let it Be edit miles away from those points of interest.
“After reviewing all the footage and audio that Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot 18 months before they broke up, it’s simply an amazing historical treasure-trove,” Jackson explained. “Sure, there’s moments of drama — but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating — it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.”
Really? Making an album John Lennon described as the “shittiest load of badly recorded shit… with a lousy feeling to it” was “uplifting”? Come on, Jackson. Audiences don’t need to come away from this movie feeling uplifted. He’s going to make a movie that flatters wealthy creative people like himself. Oprah, Howard Schultz and Paul McCartney will love it. For the rest of us, it’ll be like ordering whiskey and getting kombucha.
He’s trying to edit a happy ending into a story that everybody knows ends badly. He’d be far better off to tell the truth and remember that conflict is the foundation of good storytelling.