Beatles freaks love milestones, and when it comes to the big one—what moment portended the group’s demise?—there’s no shortage of possibilities. Was it the phone call Paul received chez the Maharishi informing him that the Beatles’ business guru had died of a carbitral overdose? The half-baked Magical Mystery Tour project, Paul’s money-hemorrhaging power-grab that Bob Spitz says “provided the first signs of their fallibility”? John’s first meeting with Yoko Ono in 1966 (after which, John told Jan Wenner, “I decided to leave the group”)? Any of the handful of times a Beatle traipsed out of the Let It Be sessions, swearing off the group forever, only to return?
…or, as numerous rock critics as well as the PR wing of Shout! Factory would have us believe, was it the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival in September, 1969?
Yesterday, Shout! rereleased D.A. Pennebaker‘s film of the Toronto concert (it’s been off the shelves since BMG pulled a 2002 iteration), and in a wise marketing move the company has answered the above question with stirring finality: this concert, they assure us, “signalled the end of the Beatles.”
Pennebaker knows something about milestones and spent some of his best reel on them, including the game-changing vérité of Monterey Pop and, before that, Don’t Look Back, the finest portrait of Dylan ever filmed. One question, then, is why the Toronto film fails so miserably. (Hint: it’s cuz Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others get little to no screentime. Also because of Ono.) But the real question (if we are to indulge Shout!), is: the Beatles broke up for this?
The first segment of the concert plays to Pennebaker’s strengths—a lip-service sequence dedicated to the rock ‘n’ roll legends who formed the pantheon of Lennon’s youth. As Bo Diddley’s off-camera voice bellows, “We gonna take you back to the year 1955,” Pennebaker inches you from Lennon’s motorcade to the bikers to the exultant hippie crowd, as Diddley and his co. launch into one of his eponymous anthems. Next is Jerry Lee Lewis with a flip “Hound Dog.” (One shot catches the country-roller awkwardly craning his leg around the mic stand to play the upper register with his cowboy boot. Magnificent.) Available elsewhere, but not on this disc, is Chuck Berry’s performance, which, according to Robert Christgau, “several experienced Berry-watchers adjudged one of his finest shows ever.” Another highlight: Little Richard striding out, caked in make-up, grinning suggestively under his pencil-thin mustache and reveling in his return to rock ‘n’ roll after remembering that it’d always paid better than Gospel, anyway. Good performances all, but tossed off like a prelude—because, you know, this isn’t a festival film; it’s a film about John Lennon.
Perhaps as a transitional gesture, easing out of throwback rock ‘n’ roll into avant garde strokes, Lennon begins his set with covers from the Beatles’ very early setlists: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Money,” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” A lack of mirth is apparent from the outset: John hadn’t given a concert since the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, and Toronto was his first performance without the Beatles since the ’50s…besides which, symptoms of heroin withdrawal had kept him retching for hours leading up to the performance. (Eric Clapton, who flew over to play solos, found himself similarly afflicted.) Next is the new material: “Yer Blues,” during which Ono appears onstage, huddles under a sheet, and lets out possessed, Sybilline caterwauling, which she continues into “Cold Turkey.” “Primal Scream“? Hogwash; she sounds like a dying sheep. (During “Cold Turkey,” even Lennon looks annoyed.)
Thanks to poor lighting and the fact that half of the musicians were too strung out to be having fun, Pennebaker doesn’t have much to work with as far as stage presence, and the camerawork suffers accordingly. The homespun, freehand shooting that allowed Monterey Pop‘s intimate sequences—no fixed camera could ever keep Jimi Hendrix caged in the frame—feels simply sloppy here.
Not as sloppy, though, as the band’s indulgences towards Ono—more shrieking through “Give Peace a Chance” (the words to which Lennon half-mumbles; “This is what we came here for, really…. I’ve forgotten all those bits in between, but I know the chorus,” he explains to the audience). Then “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow),” a song with more words in its title than it has lyrics, and “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace),” the kind of atonal arrhythmia that passed for “experimentation” on Two Virgins with none of the discipline John would soon apply to his viscerality on Plastic Ono Band. Clapton, dutiful, scrubs his guitar strings against the amplifier to create hissing feedback under Ono’s wailing. (The artless distorted theatrics are arguably more interesting from a musical standpoint than Ono’s strident “self-expression.”)
And into this one, 10-plus-minute “song,” any of the early rock ‘n’ rollers who open the film could have fit half a dozen performances of their economic, knockout singles—the songs that liberated Lennon from his Liverpool fastness in the first place. When Lennon traipses off stage to light a cigarette, leaving his guitar propped against an amp to deliver feedback even after he’s gone, it’s a big (if inadvertent; remember that whole “YOU are the Plastic Ono Band!” come-on) middle finger brandished at the audience. Forget the Beatles—in Toronto, in 1969, John Lennon abandoned rock ‘n’ roll. Lennon’s eventual cold-turkey success at quitting heroin was a rejection of the self-destructive behavior that had darkened his last years with the Beatles, and a springboard into Primal Scream therapy and a marriage that doubled as so much pop-psych performance art. But the Beatles’ breakup was far from cold turkey—really, this concert is no more useful a milestone than any other Fab Four flare-up one can pinpoint, post-Pepper. Marketing aside, though, Live in Toronto ’69 draws a clear line in the sand: This is the sort of rock travesty Paul would’ve had to stomach if the Beatles were to abide.