John Lennon’s lyrics “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”, written for “Tomorrow Never Knows” to conclude Revolver in 1966, tell us that in order to find happiness and meaning in our lives, we must shut off our thoughts and worries and look within ourselves. While for The Beatles, these words signified the beginning of their journey into Eastern philosophy, they hold a new meaning for us today as we remain closed off from each other.
In 1968, the band traveled to Rishikesh to visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and study Transcendental Meditation and, during their stay, they wrote up to 48 songs that we know to make up most of the White Album. Now, in the new documentary MEETING THE BEATLES IN INDIA, we’re given a first-hand account of this stay from director Paul Saltzman who joined the group at the Maharishi’s ashram for eight days, and get an indepth look at the exact locations and inspirations behind so many of our favorite songs.
Paul Saltzman’s road to meeting The Beatles, in fact, also begins with “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Early in the film, he recollects laying in the grass with his girlfriend and being both mesmerized and bewildered by a track that seemed to differ so much from what the band had released to that point. Flash forward a couple years: Saltzman is 23 and has risen in Canadian television with his own show, a house, and in possession of everything he believed to be the measures of success. Yet we find that his journey to India was triggered by a late-night epiphany in which he realized that he had sold his soul to the material world.
We learn how Saltzman convinced his boss to send him to India for work, when in reality he wanted to leave and find himself on a deeper level. He recalls how he camped outside the Maharishi’s ashram for over a week before finally gaining entry, and how by chance he discovered and befriended The Beatles, who were staying there at the same time.
In their acceptance of the young Canadian photographer, and in Saltzman’s personal interactions with each of them, we begin to understand The Beatles for who they are as individuals and even more about how they related more as a family than a band. It’s something that fans will be relieved to hear, particularly as this time period is often marked as a point when their relationship had begun to deteriorate.
Yet in Saltzman’s anecdotes, he does back up many of our common understandings of the band’s individual personalities. We’re given familiar stories of John’s cheeky wit, Paul’s friendly charm, George’s philosophical candor, and Ringo’s grounded nature. But what was different about them in this time was how each member was writing purely for themselves, and finding lyrics from a deeper spirit. We come to truly understand how they prolifically produced those beautifully ethereal songs to make up a double album (and then some).
Even for passionate Beatles fans like myself, though many of these stories may seem familiar, there are still plenty of new pieces of information that make the film worth your time. From meeting the real Bungalow Bill (real name Rikki Cooke) to seeing the faces of Prudence and discovering where John and Paul sat while working out “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”. To back up his accounts, Paul shares the photographs he took during this time, such as John and Paul dressed comfortably in white garments while playing guitar and making music together in peace.
What might be most eye-opening to passionate fans is how the film treats the difficulties the group faced with the Maharishi that caused them to cut ties with the ashram. Although you might know from John’s lyrics for “Sexy Sadie” that they felt duped by the Maharishi in the end, we’re given a postscript to the narrative that includes George’s apology to the Maharishi years later, as well as the underlying issues and possible manipulations that led to their falling out in the first place.
For Paul Saltzman, even though he only knew the group for eight days, it changed his life forever and put him on a creative path that continues to this day. To him, The Beatles are more than a band, and their lyrics on the White Album mean something very personal which shows in every cut of his film. Meeting the Beatles in India is less a documentation of events, and more a film made by a fan for other fans. It’s so much fun to take this trip down memory lane with him because, although we don’t all have similar personal stories with The Beatles, we all have personal relationships with their music.
There’s certainly no shortage of documentaries about The Beatles, but one that I would recommend to accompany this film is Good Ol’ Freda, available on Magnolia Selects, the story of the group’s longtime secretary and friend that also delicately paints them as a family. And if you want to keep the musical spirit alive, check out Love & Busking (formerly Fiction & Other Realities) opening this Friday, a returning title from Cinetopia 2019. Stay safe and enjoy your week!