Over the weekend I knocked out all of The Beatles: Get Back. A few observations and thoughts about Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour documentary of the January 1969 Beatles studio sessions.
I’m pretty sure I saw the original movie that was made from the film shot at those sessions, Let It Be, years ago. When I first saw the trailer for Get Back last fall, I was incredibly excited as it seemed to upend the narrative Let It Be had created: that the Beatles constantly bickered and battled through those sessions.
Yeah, there was some bickering, passive aggressiveness, and occasional hurt feelings in Get Back. Hell, George left the damn band for a few days in the middle. As we now know, that’s pretty normal for any band that is recording, especially one that has been together for a decade. I would be cynical about a documentary that didn’t show some disagreement.
More than those isolated moments of conflict, though, we see four men who had literally changed the world reeling from the pressure to live up to their name. A band attempting to get past all the weight accumulated along their journey to recapture their earlier magic.
Thankfully we see a lot of that magic. It was fascinating to watch them riffing and improvising until they came upon a moment of inspiration that grew into a new song. The film’s best moments were when John and Paul were totally focused and bouncing ideas off each other until they both sensed they had found something. You could sense the energy crackling in that connection between them. I was giddy during these scenes: music history play out on my screen, fifty years later.
It was clear that John and Paul were on a different wavelength from any other people on the planet. George and Ringo could tap into those vibes and go along with them. But when John and Paul were locked in on each other, the rest of the world ceased to exist. It was amazing to watch.
My constant thought was that I wish we had film like this from the sessions for Rubber Soul or Revolver, when the band was, arguably, at its creative peak, still got along well, and were less affected by drugs.
I also kept wanting to dig into the band’s history with drugs to see who was on what during these sessions. They each, in their own way and at different times, looked pretty wrecked. Man, they smoked a lot, too!
I loved everything about Billy Preston’s appearance. He seemed so joyful and happy to be a part of the Beatles’ process. His presence certainly helped to get them more focused on working towards producing a final product rather than just dicking around.
I’m not a musician, so I was surprised that the band spent so much of their jamming time seated. I just assumed that they would stand to play like when they performed on stage. It seems like it would be difficult to play guitar the same way sitting down as standing up. But what do I know?
I loved that moment when George sheepishly told John he was thinking about making a solo record, and John told him that was a great idea and he should pursue it. While perhaps John was just looking for his own escape plan and this would take the burden off of him being the one who ended the Beatles, it did feel quite genuine and you could see how much George appreciated it.
I’m a John guy, but I was awed by the demonstration of Paul’s talent. The early days of the band were all about him and John pushing each other. Paul was clearly the driving force in the band by 1969. He had so much energy and so many ideas that kept pouring out of him. It felt manic at times, and I’m sure could be off-putting to the rest of the band. But it was pretty clearly because of Paul that we got the final two Beatles albums.
While the band had issues with each other, those issues did not seem insurmountable at this point. Although it was easy to see how the very different manias that drove Paul and John would cause problems. John’s constant falling back to old songs and humorous asides, to me, hid his fear about whether the band – or just he, himself – still had it. As if John was constantly distracting so they couldn’t get to a point where he might embarrass himself.
It was hilarious when Paul said, at one point, that people would suggest in 50 years that the band broke up because Yoko Ono sat on an amp – directly to her no less! – when that was exactly what people were saying less than a year later! Paul defending John and Yoko’s relationship when his girlfriend, Linda Eastman, suggested Yoko was perhaps giving John ideas was an amazing little moment.
As for Yoko, sure she was distracting. But it’s not like she was the only partner who was in the studio. Linda Eastman brought her damn kid in! I know Yoko’s involvement was different than the other folks. You have to accept that if he hadn’t brought Yoko, John wouldn’t have been there. He was so fragile he needed her to physically support him with her presence. The Beatles broke up because of personal, financial, and other issues between the Fab Four, not because of Yoko. And they would have ended at least a year earlier if not for her. Clear Yoko’s name now!
Paul constantly scratching his beard kind of drove me nuts.
Of the various interpretations of Get Back that I’ve read and listened to, the one I like the most came from John Gruber and Merlin Mann on The Talk Show podcast. They both suggested that the documentary shows how much love there was between the four Beatles. They had been through a lot of shit, and would go through more shit before they broke up for good. But even when they were getting on each other’s nerves, suspicious of each other, and being pulled different directions, when the music started, that love came back. We are so lucky to get to see it.
Get Back was presented as the final new piece of Beatles history that will ever be developed. As far as we know, there are no archives left to raid that will offer hours of video to review. No more stashes of unreleased songs. While Paul and/or Ringo could certainly share stories they’ve never shared before, it sure feels like they are beyond that. For that reason alone, Get Back was an important work. It was tedious at times, as the band played the same notes over-and-over or discussed the same topic round-and-round. But it was worth it, for those little moments of Beatles magic that bubbled up, and for the opportunity to see the band that set the standard for all who followed doing the hard work of making music.
There should be a Wikipedia page that lays out what drugs they used in what years that is cross-referenced to their albums. ↩