Over the last six months, Beatles fans have been treated to a bumper crop of projects culled from the January 1969 sessions for what became Let It Be, the group’s misunderstood swan song. Whether intentional or incidental, the multimedia rollout from the most documented period in the Beatles’ history had the peculiar effect of not only humanizing the most famous rock band on the planet, but making them seem eerily present, almost as if the Fab Four themselves were slowly materializing via one sensory input at a time.
First came the expansive five-disc box set, which allowed you to experience them sonically — the most familiar method, but also the most remote. Then came the visual record presented through the intimate photos of Ethan Russell and Linda McCartney in the stunning Get Back book. Those images came to life with Peter Jackson’s dazzling docuseries, followed by in-person theatrical events like the Rooftop Concert IMAX shows across the globe. Each of these allowed for a deeper level of appreciation, but it sparked a subliminal craving for something tangible in front of you.
Hence the potency of ‘Get Back to Let It Be,’ the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s new year-long exhibit that opened on March 18 at their expansive museum headquarters in Cleveland. Popular music’s answer to the Smithsonian has crafted an immersive exploration of the Beatles’ creative process as they recorded future standards while struggling to survive as a band. Utilizing Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s fly-on-the-wall film footage, state-of-the-art audio-visual set-ups and rare historical artifacts provided by the surviving members and their estates, the 2,000-square-foot exhibition is the nearest fans can get to experiencing the Beatles’ London without the use of a time machine.
Where else can you peer through John Lennon’s granny glasses and quite literally see what the world looked like through his eyes? Or examine “I’ve Got a Feeling” or “I Me Mine” as works in progress, scrawled semi-complete on lyric sheets? The band’s instruments are arranged as if they’re at rehearsal and stepped out for a quick tea break. A quartet of distinctive outfits — Beatles without bodies — greet you soon after entering. For Beatlemaniacs and fans of Jackson’s film, they’re instantly recognizable. Everyone else can get hints from the plentiful videos and photos. The chance to stand before a familiar cherry red Lurex raincoat, while simultaneously seeing it draped around Ringo Starr in footage from the famous rooftop concert, is — to borrow a phrase — certainly a thrill.
“It’s historic for us to have all these pieces for one story,” Nwaka Onwusa, the Rock Hall’s Vice President and Chief Curator, tells PEOPLE. “It’s not that the Rock Hall hasn’t celebrated the Beatles, but to really pinpoint this moment in music history is so special. The exhibit shows how they composed [Let It Be] by highlighting different moments from the sessions.” The showcase aids in the reappraisal of this era in the Beatles’ story, traditionally thought to be the apex of acrimony that directly lead to the band’s split later that same year. Though squabbles did occur — George Harrison famously quit for several days — studio outtakes and footage from the Get Back film tell a very different tale, revealing scene after scene of camaraderie, comedy, creativity and compassion among four friends. “We’ve all had our own ideas of what happened,” says Onwusa. “So to finally have this visual manifested and paired with these artifacts that are so critical to the making of this historic record, it really tells the story.”
Though made independently of Jackson’s documentary, ‘Get Back to Let It Be’ loosely follows the same three-act arc. The exhibit is anchored by a trio of separate theater spaces, each highlighting footage from one of the three primary Get Back locations: the rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios, sessions in the basement of their Apple Corp. headquarters, and the legendary rooftop concert. The curved screening rooms offer a comfortable, cocoon-like environment to soak in the almost shockingly vivid film footage, enhanced in wide screen and surround sound. As a result, you’re in the room during the difficult early Twickenham rehearsals, or at Apple’s basement studio when Billy Preston arrives, turning the mood around with his keyboard virtuosity and good vibes. The rooftop show is clearly the main event, presented in a bigger room with a larger screen, offering multiple perspectives of the Beatles’ final live performance. As the four shaggy 20-somethings stand life-sized before you, and the concert-quality stereo monitors send pulsating rhythms directly into your chest, it becomes impossible to resist the urge to close your eyes and pretend you’re on that windswept roof in Central London more than half a century ago.
Though they lack the same audio-visual pyrotechnics, the artifacts are equally evocative. Their presence is thanks in large part to the efforts of Craig Inciardi, the Rock Hall’s Director of Acquisitions, who’s been in talks with band representatives and Apple CEO Jeff Jones for the better part of a decade. “We don’t have any collectors involved,” says Onwusa. “This is strictly from the Beatles’ themselves and the estates [of Lennon and Harrison]. The chance to put this story together with the assistance of the principles was very unique for the Rock Hall and such an honor. These artifacts are the crème de la crème, and this is the one place to see them all together like this, along with the film and the music. This is the trifecta.”
To be sure, the footage activates the items, charging them with the full extent of their historical significance. The effect is amusing and at times touching. To see the shock of recognition flash across a visitor’s face as they approach what initially appears to be a humble jean jacket (to pick just one example) is to witness the transformation of an object from the everyday to the extraordinary. In this instance, the Wrangler jacket in question was a favorite of Lennon’s, and worn while they recorded the final version of the Beatles’ modern hymnal, “Let It Be.” The surprisingly slim cut provides a human scale to the rock giant. Some of the patches — a must for any countercultural denim apparel at the dawn of the ’70s — are remnants of his political activities. (Appropriately, he wore the jacket during a march on Aug. 11, 1971, later featured in the music video for his egalitarian anthem “Power to the People.”) But another patch, with a nod to the Beatles’ landmark Sgt. Pepper, hints at his sentimental side and sense of humor.
A few inches away from the jacket is a psychedelic microdot patterned black and pink silk shirt purchased by Paul McCartney in 1968, so favored that he wore it twice during the month-long Get Back sessions. It first appears during the project’s nadir on Jan. 13, 1969, a pivotal moment when McCartney faces the realization that the fractures in the group may be beyond repair. Harrison’s recent departure is compounded by the fact that Lennon has failed to turn up to the rehearsals at Twickenham that day, leaving just him and Starr. “And then there were two,” McCartney forlornly observes, eyes brimming with tears. Thankfully, circumstances were more joyful the next time McCartney is seen wearing the shirt on Jan. 28, as they jammed in their basement studio clubhouse. Harrison has returned to the fold, and he’s offered up a new song — “Something,” which was workshopped by the band for what’s believed to be the first time. Despite the contretemps two weeks earlier, the collaborative spirit was back in full swing.
The shirt, as the placard notes, would remain a favorite of McCartney’s, donned during his Wings Over America tour in 1976. These dates marked the first time he’d played the states since his trek with the Beatles a decade earlier. It’s fitting that the garment worn as he nervously contemplated a post-Beatles future also featured in his coronation as a solo force.
Harrison’s graduation from the band’s lead guitarist to full-fledged creative partner is arguably the chief subplot of Jackson’s eight-hour opus, and his representative Rock Hall outfit reflects this metamorphosis. It’s the pink pinstriped suit purchased from Dandie Fashions, a Swinging London staple off King’s Road. Prior to its appearance at the Get Back sessions, worn the day the band recorded the song of the same name, Harrison wore the ultra-’60s suit to the premiere of the film Wonderwall at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 1968. He’d recorded the soundtrack for the otherwise unremarkable freak-out film, inadvertently becoming the first Beatle to release a solo disc. Months before the growing pains manifested before Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras, the youngest Beatle already has his eyes on outside projects — and he already knew how to stand out among his fellow Fabs. (The pink “pimp” suit garnered much attention in the spate of fashion articles published following Get Back’s release last November. Vulture ranked it number one in their list of “The 24 Best Get Back Fits.”)
And, finally, there’s the aforementioned red raincoat, which Starr borrowed from his wife Maureen to ward off the January chill as they played 10 songs on the roof of 3 Savile Row. Less iconic, but no less interesting, are the embroidered Gedal pants he wore underneath.
But that’s just the clothes. Each object tells a story if you know how to listen. Pride of place is Lennon’s Epiphone Casino, his guitar of choice for nearly every recording and concert after Revolver in 1966, sanded down to its natural finish at the behest of the Beatles friend, the mononymed folk-rocker Donovan. Or maybe it’s Starr’s maple Ludwig kit, obtained in late 1968 and used for the remainder of the recordings the Beatles made for the rest of the band’s all-too-short existence. And there’s also the treasure trove of items from producer Glyn Johns, including his daily diaries and an early acetate pressing of the record-in-process.
Regardless of your favorite artifact or your favorite film scene, the ‘Get Back to Let It Be’ exhibit will make you feel more connected to the Beatles than ever before, simply because these rock gods have never seemed so human. It’s tempting to think that this would be disappointing, but quite the contrary. It somehow makes their achievements all the more remarkable. They weren’t superhuman and there wasn’t a supernatural force guiding them. That means there’s hope for the rest of us to be great, too. “I think that’s the beautiful thing about ‘Get Back to Let It Be,'” says Onwusa. “It allows you to get closer to these artifacts, get closer to the film in a different way, and get closer to the Beatles.”