The Beatles’ “Get Back”

Well…having already done an extensive post on The Beatles’ Let it Be, I didn’t know if Peter Jackson’s Get Back would supply me with sufficient fodder for an additional one, but, oh, man, did it! More than enough to talk about; a ton of my notes won’t even make it into this post. A couple of overarching takeaways before drilling into more detail:

One: the marketing campaign has gone a little overboard in selling the line that this is an “anti-Let It Be“, full of raucous, Beatlesque exuberant joy. Jackson’s interviews and some of the promo videos had begun to fill me with the unreasonable expectation of something not unlike Hard Day’s Night, believe it or not. That short video with lots of quick cuts to the song “Get Back” had me expecting lots of that sort of thing. It actually doesn’t have any. I mean, yes, it has lots of funny and charming moments, but none of that crazy editing. The moments are sprinkled out and spread around the film’s nearly 8 hours.

Which brings us to point two: the film doesn’t need to be this length. You may hear this from a lot of people. It was already obvious that this movie is not for casual Beatle fans, but strictly for hardcore ones (like ME). But even amongst them, it’s longer than it needs to be. I suspect a 2-4 hour version would have adequately covered the same ground. And I say that as someone who has eagerly awaited access to his material for four decades. I’m someone who would not have regretted sifting through every existing foot of the material, of course, so I hardly regret the current version, at least in the spirit of the kinds of “add-ons” one gets with boxed sets. It is instructive material from a critical and scholarly perspective, and largely enjoyable. But a film needs to tell a story, and this one could do with some cutting to the chase. There were moments during the 8 hours when it began to feel like I had Get Back wallpaper in my home. It’s cool (even life-changing) to spend all that time in the studio with the Beatles, but it doesn’t always feel like a movie per se. Let it Be‘s original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg knew this, which is why he kept angling for a spectacular concert (at a Greco-Roman amphitheatre in Libya) for a big finish, and why he ended up using the footage to tell the story of the break-up of the Beatles. However, since the Beatles didn’t actually break up until 15 months after this footage was taken, it’s a somewhat mendacious and selective story. Jackson opted to tell a different narrative, one far less momentous, one in which the stakes, for the most part are virtually nil: the most popular rock band in the world, with millions of dollars at their disposal, set themselves a ridiculously ambitious goal they can’t achieve, and subsequently cut their losses by achieving something not nearly as impressive.

The original idea was to rehearse 14 new original numbers in about three weeks and then film a concert as a live TV special. The band are somewhat boxed in by the fact that there is a time limit. Both the space they booked, Twickenham Studios, and their drummer Ringo Starr are due to be employed in the service of the film The Magic Christian at the end of the month (January 1969). This is already an artificial problem. In fact, it’s not really a problem. Um — book another space? Schedule your show another time? Take a break while Ringo shoots his movie, then reconvene and pick up the project afterwards? I mean, couldn’t an eight year old child solve this?

But as Groucho would say, “run out and find me an eight year old child”. The Beatles do a good job of identifying the root of all their problems in the first of the movie’s three episodes. They no longer have a leader. Their manager Brian Epstein died in mid 1967, and so there is no one to crack the whip to make them meet deadlines and organize their work for them. They have underlings who support them, but no one with authority who can or will direct them to do things. So they are unable to use their limited time productively, or even, a lot of the time, to accomplish anything at all. Paul McCartney occasionally assumes the role of bandmaster, but the others resent him for it, and he usually winds up joining in the shenanigans, which is good for group morale, but bad for getting finished work in the can. In the first episode’s major event, George Harrison actually quits the band, easily the most momentous thing to happen in the movie. Fed up with McCartney the Martinet and John Lennon the Junkie, he is eventually coaxed back and gets cheerfully back in the spirit of things, but not without informing Lennon about the amazing solo album he would like to record sometime with his huge backlog of material. That would of course come to be All Things Must Pass.

One of the film’s major takeaways is therefore more in keeping with Linday-Hogg’s vision than with Jackson’s. It was an eye opener to me how up-front everyone is about the possibility that this is the Beatles’ last project together. There is frequent and frank mention of this being their “last” concert or TV special, and how their “divorce” is probably inevitable. Over the years, we’d certainly known of various members quitting, and of the official secrecy following Lennon’s departure later in 1969, but I certainly had not known of this open chatter about it this far back in the timeline. Certainly, the White Album sounds like, and pretty clearly is, their break-up album. Let it Be and Abbey Road are certainly “make-up albums”, but obviously they were only band-aids on damage that was already done.

It’s a shame how things panned out because Jackson’s film records something promising. By the end of the month, the Beatles seem to have come together as a group again, and have managed to get about a half dozen songs not just well-rehearsed, but releasable, and another crop of songs are a good ways towards completion. If it had only been possible for them to remain in close quarters like this for an extended period of time, they might have remained a band. But they needed a wrangler. The very time constraints placed on this project were a symptom of that. After all, it was due to a commitment of Ringo’s that they needed to cease work that might have continued for several more weeks.

At any rate, there is plenty of laughing, joking, and cutting up, mixed with a certain amount of sniping, although most of that is either very polite or veiled, because the cameras and tape recorders are rolling, and the room is full of strangers. If you’re like your correspondent, you’ve already heard most of the music, even the very obscure snatches, as well as a lot of the conversation and chatter, courtesy of bootlegs, and Youtube. But Jackson’s movie (and let’s not short-change his restoration work) catches several jaw-dropping moments and developments. We literally see the song “Get Back” get born. McCartney is horsing around, he finds a sound he likes, he begins ad libbing lyrics. At a certain point it evolves into the satirical protest song “Commonwealth” which many of us know from bootlegs, and then, with the clock ticking, he polishes off a simpler version of the song quickly, they rehearse it, argue about, set it, then boom, it’s in the can. From twinkle in Paul’s eye to hit single in, really, a matter of days. Similarly we see George walk in with songs he literally wrote the night before. These are the ones that make it onto the Let It Be album and his B side “Old Brown Shoe”. The more ambitious songs he introduces at the sessions would wind up on All Things Must Pass. Ringo shares a verse of the partially completed “Octopus’s Garden” on piano. And the visual element is priceless — priceless. Yes, Yoko is sitting there the whole time. But not only does she rarely ever utter a word, but Linda McCartney and Maureen Starr, and several of Harrison’s Hare Krishna friends are there as well a lot of the time, so what’s the big deal? At one point, Peter Sellers, Ringo’s co-star in The Magic Christian puts in an appearance.

And then there are several unsung stars of the story, whom we get to experience up close. The most joyous is the legendary Mal Evans, the Beatles’ roadie, a huge, dopey guy in glasses who writes down ad libbed Beatle lyrics via dictation, and plays the anvil on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. There’s the somewhat annoying presence of the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. There’s no way in hell that guy, with his affected speech patterns, and large round head is NOT Orson Welles illegitimate son (as some believe him to be). Also very present is engineer Glyn Johns (whom the lads laughingly love to call Glynis Johns). He looks a lot like John LaZar of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to me. Though his version of the Let it Be album would be shelved in favor of one put together by Phil Spector, Johns would soon be producing classic albums like Who’s Next and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, so…No Flies on Frank.

Most unsung of all, and ignominiously so is keyboardist (and future hitmaker in his own right) Billy Preston. Preston’s entry into the equation pretty much saved the project. He breathed life into the songs and helped the Fab Four find the joy again. Think of his solo on “Get Back” for example. Or that circus organ sound on “One After 909”. Or the improvisations that fill the long holes in “Don’t Let Me Down”. The tunes are kind of unthinkable without him. Yet after a warm reunion, he is relegated almost to mascot status as a sideman, at least as presented here. Especially during the climactic rooftop concert, I wanted to see a lot more of him, but no soap. I’m guessing Lindsay-Hogg didn’t think to shoot him, because I can’t imagine Jackson would have shortchanged him in this fashion. Also, like many directors, Lindsay-Hogg has an understandable fixation on the faces of performers. As a musician, I always want to see their hands, ALWAYS, to see how they play what they play. I imagine most of the people who’ll be willing to sit through 8 hours of this movie will too, but lotsa luck! The camera rarely goes there.

Hoohoo, and Dick James! I’d long known about him as the Beatles’ publisher, but never seen or heard him. What a character! Very old school show biz. He comes in to inform the boys that Vera Lynn (a singer of the 1930s and ’40s) would be performing “Goodnight” and “The Fool on the Hill” on television, which the Beatles find hilarious. They appear pretty scornful of James, who they believed was short-changing them on their financial arrangement. Lennon also has some fun at the expense of a couple of other “Dickies”, actor/singer Richard Murdoch and Dicky Doo of Dicky Doo and the Don’ts. Even casual Beatle fans will recall Lennon mentioning Charles Hawtrey on Let It Be. There are also several Laugh-In references, and McCartney decides on “Tucson, Arizona” as Jo-Jo’s hometown because he happens to know that that High Chaparral is shot there. The texture of the whole movie is made of tiny bursts of light like that.

Of course the climax at the end is the famous rooftop concert, of which we get to see much more now, very cleverly shared in split screen so that we can see that reaction on the street at the same time as the Beatles play their famous songs. I expected to be weeping throughout the entire eight hours of the series, but this was the only part of the film that grabbed me in precisely that way. There’s something about seeing and hearing what the Beatles meant to random people on the sidewalk — even elderly folks and office workers and the like — that is truly moving. And that is an excellent pay-off.

Anyway I do recommend Get Back for the very intense Beatle fan. But I might also suggest that you watch it in three different sittings, not all at once as us reviewers feel compelled to. And for more background go here.