Peter Jackson’s new, nearly eight-hour edit of the 1969 film “The Beatles: Get Back” is getting plenty of attention, along with its fair share of rave reviews and withering criticism. The documentary, cleaned up with the latest technology, counters the usual story of the Beatles’s acrimonious breakup by showing them doing more than squabbling. They collaborate, joke around and wax nostalgic in studios and in their legendary rooftop concert. The film reminds us that at the end of the 1960s, they were still writing innovative music that resonates today.
Just five short years before, in 1964, the group was the subject of another powerful film, which tracked a pop revolution in the making. Albert and David Maysles’s “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” showed the band not only making music but reshaping the culture. Both documentaries reveal how the Beatles reoriented American music, helped the country shake off the drab conformity of mid-century consensus and, in the process, even provoked one of the first major battles of the modern culture wars.
The Beatles first landed in the United States in February 1964, a little over two months after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That year, the exuberant Fab Four did their part to draw America out of a dark, national depression by creating a new kind of cultural communion. The devotion of their acolytes bordered on the religious. Fans wanted relics and totems: a piece of a bedsheet, a guitar string, a lock of hair. Some concertgoers in the front rows, delirious with excitement, occasionally wet their seats or fainted. This was Beatlemania.
The screams of teenage girls — captured in tour footage in the Maysles film — were, as feminist scholars Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs would later observe, the shouts of a gender revolution in the making. “To abandon control — to scream, faint, dash about in mobs,” they wrote of these American girls, “was, in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture.”
The Beatles also revolutionized what it meant to be a young man. Their public image, thanks to manager Brian Epstein, lacked the feral machismo and snarl of earlier rock-and-rollers like Gene Vincent or Jerry Lee Lewis. The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, said the group “sound like a male Shirelles.” Indeed, they covered songs by other “African American girl groups” like the Marvelettes, the Cookies and the Donays.
Their relative androgyny charted a new way of being. Feminist writer Betty Friedan even thought that young men with their long Beatles hair were “saying ‘no’ to the masculine mystique.” To Friedan, they seemed to be rejecting “that brutal, sadistic, tight-lipped, crew-cut, Prussian, big-muscle, Ernest Hemingway” manliness that was all too prevalent in postwar American society.