“Their point is that they’re trying to like, be as near together as they can. They want to stay together, those two. So it’s all right, let the young lovers stay together. It’s not that bad.”
So says Paul McCartney in part two of The Beatles: Get Back, now airing on Disney+, during a conversation where he and the filmmakers acknowledge the elephant in the room: Yoko Ono’s constant presence at John Lennon’s side.
Ono would sit in the studio, often appearing detached, while the band rehearsed and seemingly pulled now-classic lyrics out of thin air. (I say this unsarcastically – you have to admire a woman who can clean out her purse while the seeds of I’ve Got A Feeling are being sown.)
The new doco takes fans inside the recording of The Beatles’ final album.
But that detachment, which sometimes looks like boredom, is what we should give credit to Yoko for. She knew her role and understood that the group was only ever meant to be a quartet (sometimes a quintet when Billy Preston arrived), and she knew that she was there to be John’s support system, not a creative driver.
The world has spent decades blaming Yoko for the demise of the band, but what’s clear from the footage from these studio sessions, is that Yoko, despite her constant presence, didn’t try to make anything about her and doesn’t steer John away from the band at any point, and certainly not in the way we have been otherwise led to believe.
The film is a gift to Beatles fans, capturing so much of their creative process and personal relationships, but as any Beatles fan knows, the band broke up in 1970, so obviously there was going to be some tension captured on camera during their Get Back sessions from 1969. The most obvious tension stems from George Harrison’s disappointment that his ever-growing songwriting catalogue continues to be under-represented on Beatles albums. In part one, George quits the band. Later, during a conversation with John and Yoko, he expresses a desire to put out a solo album full of all his shelved songs (which would eventually be the triple album All Things Must Pass) and John and Yoko are in total support of his venture.
John and Yoko in 1973. Picture: AP
John and Yoko by this point had already released Two Virgins in 1968, and while it’s a wildly different direction than John’s work with The Beatles, it was able to coexist with their catalogue; it didn’t compete with it. While George mounts his frustration, there was no talk of dissolving the band in order to pursue these things.
But if the film is capturing the end of the Beatles era, where was the tension towards the woman held responsible for breaking up the band? With cameras on everyone at all times, where were the bitter looks, the behind-her-back complaints? If there is a legacy that Peter Jackson’s three-part epic leaves, aside from Glyn Johns’ admirable fur coat game, it is that Yoko Ono has been wrongly maligned for decades and rather than blame her for the band’s break-up, we should thank her for her presence.
Without Yoko, we might not have gotten Don’t Let Me Down, a song penned by a vulnerable John who grew nearly co-dependent on his future bride, to the point where, as the film depicts, he didn’t want to exist without her by his side.
“If it came to a push between Yoko and The Beatles, it’s Yoko,” Paul says in the film, and he doesn’t seem upset by it. Paul likely knows John better than anyone else in the world does, and, if we want to armchair analyse, he understands that John grew up without a supportive mother figure, which may be the root of his lifelong attachment to others, first on The Beatles, then on Yoko.
Ringo, John, Paul and George from the Sgt Pepper days.
Lennon’s mother Julia made her sister, Mimi Smith, John’s guardian when he was a young child and Julia later died when he was a teen. Though John and Mimi remained in each others’ lives until his death, she has often been painted as unsupportive of John’s work and relationships. Doesn’t it make sense that he would gravitate towards, and cling to, a woman who offered him not just a place at her side, but an outpouring of positive reinforcement?
While Paul wasn’t always a fan of Yoko, what the film makes clear is that by this point in time, The Beatles had accepted Yoko’s presence as their new normal. Paul even predicts that Yoko will be blamed for the band’s fate, joking, “It’s going to be such an incredible, comical thing in 50 years’ time. ‘They broke up cause Yoko sat on an amp.’”
In hindsight, it’s interesting to note just how lauded Paul’s relationship with Linda was, versus how vilified John and Yoko’s was. Whether it’s true or not, legend has it that the McCartneys only spent one night apart over the course of their entire 30-plus year relationship. By that definition, where does “great romance” end and “codependence” begin? Was Yoko vilified because she was avant-garde? Japanese? Unreadable? All of the above?
If Get Back shows anything, it’s that Yoko Ono should not be blamed for The Beatles’ break-up. Picture: AP
What the film makes perfectly clear is that this is a band on the verge of dissolution, whether that’s due to George’s feelings of relegation as a second-string Beatle, the band’s relationship with Allen Klein, or a combination of factors, there’s one person that it does not explicitly blame and that’s Yoko.
One of the great joys of watching Get Back is watching the band jam. Their creativity and humour seem to know no bounds, and that applies to their interaction with Yoko. Watching her jam (!) with them all was an unexpected, rare delight; watching Linda’s daughter Heather in the studio, channelling Yoko’s vocals was amazing.
Get Back is absolutely not a film about Yoko, but I admit I spent most of it searching for clues about her to prove one way or another that she is what people have often said she is. Maybe she is, some of the time. Maybe she’s not and never has been. It’s impossible for me – someone who has never met her, was never married to her, or was ever in a band whose sessions she sat in on – to know. And with that, maybe it’s time to just let her be.