In 2001, George Harrison passed away after a battle with lung cancer, after the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder had already come and gone. The Beatles’ greatest hits compilation, 1, was released the year prior. In less than a decade, The Beatles accumulated 20 #1s, and—30 years after their highly publicized break-up—Apple/Parlophone Records released them for the first time in CD format. I was only a toddler when the early-aughts Beatlemania surged across America, but 1 was presented to me as a stocking stuffer, tucked beneath a half-dozen chocolate Santa Claus bars, to go along with the small CD/tape player my folks gifted me that same Christmas. My dad technically lived through the entirety of The Beatles’ American success, but my mom was born six months after the band broke up. Still, they fed into the long-standing institution of passing The Beatles’ music down between generations, symbolic of how you didn’t have to be present for their greatness to fall in love with it.
And from a young age, it was Paul McCartney’s contributions to the band that I gravitated towards. “Hey Jude” was my first favorite song; I had a Wings poster on my wall; “I Will” was my and my first girlfriend’s “song”; one of my first tattoos was McCartney’s Yellow Submarine character. In the band’s early years, McCartney’s work didn’t stand out as much from that of the other three, aside from him being relegated to the role of the token acoustic love song writer (“I’ll Follow the Sun,” “And I Love Her”). And while Harrison’s and Lennon’s songs fell into urgency, slowly shifting their gazes towards introspective, sometimes socio-political songs, it was McCartney who ascended higher into the pop stratosphere. When the Indian classical influences grew too avant-garde for me (or at least that’s how I would’ve naively phrased it in 2013), I often retreated to the warmth of McCartney’s lovable gospel of charm—and it’s a haven I still return to, as suggested by “Rocky Raccoon” living in my year-end Apple Music Replay, though I might lie about that if I’m cornered.
But what does remain true is this: for every “Tomorrow Never Knows,” there is a “For No One” nearby to match. On Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Harrison’s meditative “Within You Without You” is juxtaposed brilliantly with the horn-driven, jazzy “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Lennon and company notoriously hated McCartney’s light-hearted compositions, like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Martha, My Dear” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” despite them writing their own songs about pigs, octopi and forthright monkeys. Each member had their own niche, but each member disdained the rest of the band’s niches.
When The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose in 1967, the band’s future was in limbo, but McCartney emerged as a surrogate managerial replacement and pushed everyone to keep up with projects, which led to the other three members becoming angry at his apparent domination and direction. Lennon later said that McCartney’s leadership kept The Beatles alive after Epstein’s death, but it was a sentiment juxtaposed with him also claiming that McCartney’s intentions were self-serving—that his apprehension about pursuing a solo career correlated with him trying to save the group.
But McCartney’s leadership of The Beatles can be traced as far back as after the release of Rubber Soul in 1965—though a lot of people will probably disagree, claiming that the band were a solid foursome with no head. It’s painstakingly clear, however, that Rubber Soul signaled a shift in power. Lennon dominated the first set of Beatles records, even to the point where he stood under his own spotlight during the band’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The breakdown of lead vocal ownership on songs goes like this: Lennon at 110 and McCartney at 106, with each total accounting for songs in which both vocalists sang. Most of Lennon’s leads came before 1966, whereas most of McCartney’s came after. And despite the band wanting to cease all touring after the exhausting fallout of Beatlemania and Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” quote in 1966, McCartney remained in favor of performing, but he was outnumbered on it by everyone else. After the success of performing “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” in front of an audience in 1968, he was able to convince the group to return to the studio and make an album specifically for live shows.
That’s where Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary, Get Back, greets us. The three-episode docuseries hit Disney+ on Thanksgiving weekend, and while the doc aims at the band wholly during the rehearsals and recordings of what would become Let It Be and part of Abbey Road, McCartney is clearly its protagonist. He dominates the runtime, but that’s no surprise. Those two records were his masterpieces, and his compositions of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Get Back,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Golden Slumbers” and “The Long and Winding Road” are given plenty of detailed attention onscreen. They’re only rivaled by a focus on Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” which never even made it onto an official Beatles LP.
Though the band’s last two records feature some of the other members’ best songs (Harrison’s “Something,” Lennon’s “Across the Universe,” Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden”), they are such vivid victory laps on McCartney’s resumé. In a little over one year’s time, he wrote “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road” and most of the Abbey Road medley, all of which are foundational and everlasting parts of The Beatles’ history. He somehow carried that momentum into 1970 and recorded “Maybe I’m Amazed,” arguably his greatest balladic work, for his new wife, Linda Eastman, who so beautifully helped photograph and archive the Get Back sessions.
Even though Get Back showcases how McCartney tried to keep the band together during the sessions that would eventually become the final crumbs of their generational greatness, the documentary doesn’t shy away from his persistent attitude at rehearsals and his dominating ego that casts a new shadow over the two records. Starr and Harrison had quit the band multiple times before Get Back; Lennon’s presence in the group became hot and cold once he placed his devotion to political songwriting with his new wife Yoko Ono above his interests in The Beatles—a collaboration similar to what McCartney would have with Eastman in their band Wings. But it was McCartney turning Get Back into his own songwriting workshop that helped push the band into a fracture, along with watching his longtime collaborator gravitate towards a new songwriting partner. At times in the documentary, there is a lingering vibe that McCartney treats his bandmates like they are hired session players helping him create his own opus, as if the only way he could fix the looming breakage was by trying way too hard to make his songs perfect.
Beatlemania made the band household names forever, but “Hey Jude” made McCartney a superstar—and offered him an opportunity to capitalize on the guaranteed successes of piano-heavy anthems, which, of course, wouldn’t come without repercussions. His leaving the band on April 10, 1970, resulted in public vilification—seemingly because he did so with an accompanying press release for his debut solo record, McCartney. While Get Back does what it can to fill in the gaps between Epstein’s death and the band’s eventual disintegration, McCartney’s departure announcement gets thrown to the wolves, despite it arising from his dissatisfaction with Phil Spector for ruining the final mix of “The Long and Winding Road” and Lennon’s decision to “divorce” the group months earlier—which was kept private due to ongoing contract renegotiations with Capitol Records occurring simultaneously. The other three members purportedly felt betrayed by McCartney making a solo record—even though McCartney was a product of the songwriter feeling betrayed himself and retreating to his High Park farm in Campbeltown, Scotland, amidst the American-made rumors that he was dead and the band’s breakup about to come to a head. It’s important to note that every member of The Beatles released a solo record that same year, despite their reported displeasure with McCartney’s.
McCartney was the only member to officially quit the group, and I hold onto that. Because by the time captured in Get Back, his charming, lovestruck ethos had turned into a patronizing act of arrogance and control—most visible in how he and Lennon so quickly dismissed Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” But let’s be real: Let It Be was never going to get finished. Lennon was knee-deep in a heroin addiction; Harrison spent a lot of time with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, and wanted to make music like them; Starr was taking on movie roles. The charming quirks of McCartney’s songwriting on The Beatles and Abbey Road feel like experiments in the context of what he would eventually do with Wings. Though he’d return to that playfulness in his solo career on songs like “Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Five” and “Temporary Secretary,” Get Back is, more or less, a clear, poignant soundcheck for McCartney’s future solo endeavors: emotional, arena-sized balladry and sexy rock riffs.
After the release of episode one, a clip of McCartney turning gibberish rumblings into the bridge of “Get Back” made its rounds on Twitter. A handful of users marveled at how he “magically pulled the song out of thin air”; others quickly pointed out that what he did is a basic act of songwriting, that musicians all over the world undergo the same exact process when creating. Maybe he did pull it out of thin air. I mean, this is the same guy who said that the melody for “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. But while McCartney used the Get Back sessions to workshop his own slush pile without pushback, he reportedly disliked Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and “Cold Turkey,” and some Beatles fans have, in the past, taken to YouTube comment sections to proclaim that both compositions would’ve been incredible Beatle songs. The band’s creative space was never going to be a place where Lennon’s political musings could thrive, just as Harrison’s interests were better tailored to his own solo endeavors.
When Rolling Stone famously called The Beatles “four solo albums under one roof” and Lennon said that the Beatles’ break-up could be heard on the record, it’s because there is no other project in the band’s discography that better showcases how each member was so deeply positioned in their own respective bag—and everything that came afterwards was a haphazard attempt to somehow pull it all back together. Watching eight hours of beautiful footage of the greatest rock band jamming, hanging out, making fun of Glyn Johns and talking about eating Heather McCartney’s kittens is very cool, but it’s also very, very sad. Seeing the four lads’ goofy personalities quickly get outmuscled by their obvious desires to be doing anything else when the music starts is where Get Back becomes a looming tempest—or a character study of McCartney, who was witnessing the only life he’d known since he was a teenager falling apart.
Going into the documentary, knowing that McCartney’s successes playing solo and with Wings sometimes outweigh the legacy of what he did with The Beatles, it’s like watching an immensely well-documented overthrow of a self-installed dictator. These days, McCartney is still as close to the forefront of popular culture as he was in 1969: a humble grandfather who toured relentlessly pre-COVID and considers the non-celebrity part of him to be the same boy who grew up in Liverpool, England. “Band on the Run” is still a perfect rock concerto, and McCartney is still one of the greatest purveyors of pop music we have, given his finger-on-the-pulse collaborations with stars like Stevie Wonder and Kanye West. His song “Let Me Roll It” is even featured in the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Licorice Pizza. But 50 years ago, he did make himself the patriarch of the biggest band in the world, and his ego and self-imposed savior complex did help catalyze their dissolution. But let me be clear: McCartney is not the villain of Get Back, he just tragically tried to take the reins when everyone else was content with hanging the whole thing up. I wouldn’t expect four geniuses, all under the age of 30, to handle a highly publicized split in any way that didn’t include rich, melodramatic bitterness—most evident in how Lennon couldn’t be bothered to return to the studio one last time to help the band finish Harrison’s “I Me Mine” right before their breakup went public.
Let It Be came out after Abbey Road, despite the albums being recorded in the opposite order. That fact, which I didn’t learn until high school, absolutely fucked up my worldview. It once made sense that Let It Be was the last Beatles LP, since it arrived in a much more disjointed way than any of their previous 11 albums. The project exuded dysfunction, as if it was recorded by a band on the brink of falling apart—and it certainly was. But still, the quartet reunited once again in the summer of 1969 and put together the greatest rock record ever made. It used to be so easy, considering the last thing The Beatles ever made to be an unapproved mix of “The Long and Winding Road,” a ballad about returning to your loved one after many years apart. There was something romantic living there, inside the hope that this macabre finale somehow left a door cracked open for the future. Instead, the last song Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr all recorded together was, quite literally, “The End,” a fitting conclusion that, poetically, attacked each of their egos. Maybe McCartney took too much from his bandmates near the end—but if we are to believe that Peter Jackson’s cut of Get Back is unmanipulated, authentic footage of what transpired at Apple Studios, then it’s clear McCartney gave just as much, too.
Two parts of Get Back remain with me. First, when the band decide to relocate to their Apple studio from Twickenham Film Studios, two women waiting outside admit to the cameraman that they don’t mind if the group breaks up, because they only came to see McCartney. Second, at the 10-minute mark in the second episode, not long after Harrison quit the band, Lennon is late for rehearsal. McCartney and Starr are discussing the possibility of The Beatles breaking up. A noticeably choked-up McCartney says, “And then there was two.” Both moments perfectly encapsulate the duality of McCartney at the band’s end. He was so clearly the band’s biggest star, but he also loved the band so much and wanted them to see it through. It’s been 52 years since the Get Back footage was filmed, and how Shakespearean all of this has become—that we are still tasked with both understanding and untangling McCartney’s greatness while somehow making sense of why it wasn’t enough to save The Beatles. He was always going to be bigger than the band, we know this. But at the same time, he was never going to be big enough to stop them from falling apart.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.
Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed “Till There Was You” to Paul McCartney. The song was written by Meredith Willson.