Greg, it’s time to get back to reviewing.
I’m glad we’re getting back to where we belong. Let’s recap…
It is January 1969 and the Beatles are on top of the world of rock’n pop music. They haven’t performed a live show in three years and now they’re coming together to write new songs, do a live TV show, and film a documentary. They’re under a huge time deadline, and things are changing within the group. John and Paul have new girlfriends and the four lads are growing apart musically.
Tensions are high as the group convenes in a warehouse in Twickenham to create a dozen new songs in time for a massive live performance. As they attempt collaboration, Paul tries to control the process and annoys George, who quits the band temporarily. They then reconvene at Apple Corps. studios to get back to the process that they’re comfortable with. The plans for elaborate live shows are chipped away until they finally agree to a mini-concert on the rooftop.
Greg, one of the most astonishing movies of the past decade was They Shall Not Grow Old, which came out in 2018. The film consisted of restored film clips from 1914-1918 depicting scenes from World War I. Journalist Stephen Dalton stated that the film “suggests new cinematic methods of rescuing history from history books, humanizing and dramatizing true stories with a modest injection of movie-world artifice… This innovative documentary is a haunting, moving and consistently engaging lesson in how to bring the past vividly alive.”
Many of these same film restoration techniques were used to resurrect the video for Get Back. The result is a remarkably intimate look at the Beatles during a creative yet turbulent period of their history. The shocking thing for me is to realize that the events of Get Back took place 51 years after World War 1, and that 53 years have passed between Get Back and today.
In Part 1 of Get Back, we witness exactly what you mention, Greg, namely, Paul being the ringleader trying to manage the group and rally everyone around the goals of performing a live show. He does most of the talking and directing. John comes across as strangely quiet and uninvolved. George plays the reluctant supporting instrumentalist. Ringo is easygoing and friendly, always there to contribute the drumbeat for a song when needed. At first, all four are quite amiable with each other. You can see that the friendship between Paul and John runs deep.
It’s January in England and it’s a cold, cavernous, drafty soundstage that looks like an abandoned warehouse. Everyone seems to be wearing winter fur coats while they’re playing music. The group sings snippets of future non-Beatle solo songs that appear on their solo ventures in the early 1970s. For example, George trots out All Things Must Pass and John riffs out parts of Gimme Some Truth and Jealous Guy. Sometimes they sing each other’s songs, as when Paul sings I’m So Tired and John sings Act Naturally.
There are playful moments where you can see joy in their collective faces and real camaraderie when they practice songs such as Let it Be and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window. There are even goofy moments when they sing silly versions of their own or others’ songs. The film captures the creative process in action. We witness the genesis of iconic songs such as The Long and Winding Road, Don’t Let Me Down, Let it Be and Get Back.
The group is working together and we really do see that making these songs is both “play” and “work” for them. There is the musical side to the creative process, of course, and also the poetic side of constructing lyrics. Also there is the technical side – the instruments, the amps, and the primitive reel-to-reel tapes they used back in those days. The four of them are trying to work together to produce music under a severe time constraint and it’s usually working, but always. There are some dead-ends and unfinished loose ends.
Maybe the most astonishing impression one gets of the band is how utterly humble and ordinary they are as human beings. There is no grandstanding and there are no prima donnas. This a group of superbly gifted musicians, perhaps the greatest of the 20th century, and they’re just having fun making some of the most memorable songs ever recorded. And sometimes it even looks effortless on their part.
We see that in many ways they are still just boys. They’re all in their 20s and they do silly things like climb the sets like kids on monkey bars. They often goof around like schoolchildren. But one thing is for sure – when they focus on creating music, they are master craftsmen with no peers.
The girlfriends (Yoko and Linda) stay largely in the background. Sometimes the roadies and equipment tech staff lurk near the group and serve as a sounding board for ideas about songs or their planned live performance.
The band has clearly bitten off more than it can chew for this project, and their plans get whittled down. Paul has the idea of performing somewhere illegally and then getting thrown out by the police. This ends up being close to what actually happens. At the end of Part 1, George feels disrespected and leaves the band. This turns out to be the beginning of the end of the Beatles, but the official breakup doesn’t happen until a year later.
First off, this is an amazing technical accomplishment. If anyone in the world is qualified to edit down 60 hours of raw footage it’s Peter Jackson. He used the latest technology to upscale the 16mm film stock to HD quality video. He used machine learning algorithms to separate out the sound of musical instruments from the voices. Then he applied his storytelling talents to sift through the fragments to craft a coming of age story of four young men who are growing up and apart. To say it was a magical mystery tour would be an understatement.
The thing that stood out the most to me in Part 1 was just how well they all seemed to get along. From the stories (and the original “Let it Be” documentary) you’d think we would see the foursome at each other’s throats. Far from it. While Paul tries to fill the void left by the death of Brian Epstein as he prods his mates to work harder. John seems a bit aloof, even bored by the proceedings. George talks about how jazz players can improvise and wants to learn to play like them. And Ringo – well Ringo just seems to want to bang on his drums all day. Even George Harrison’s departure from the band is very matter-of-fact.
The other thing that stood out was Paul emerging as the businessman of the group. He’s very focused on “the whole package.” He knows that the Beatles must move beyond just creating an album every year to more media-based offerings. And we see him getting interested in purchasing catalogs of music. Meanwhile the other Beatles seem to be fumbling around trying to come up with song ideas.
There’s also a good deal of talk about how hard it is to come up with new music. The four seem to be flummoxed as to how they can work together – as if it’s something they’ve never done before. In this way they seem like strangers. They also seem stressed out over the impending 2-week deadline of a live concert. As much as they want to “Get Back” to performing live – there is a great deal of trepidation over not just creating, but learning a dozen new songs.
What surprised me was how self-aware these young men were about their place in music and themselves. There’s a scene after George has left where John and Paul talk privately about the band. Paul admits that he’s always seen John as the leader of the band. And John admits that they’ve not allowed George enough artistic presence on their albums. They both express their love for George in words that heretofore had been lost to history. The media of the time, and ever since, has created an image of the Beatles as fighting internally until the bitter end. The fact is, these young men simply grew up as they grew apart.
In Part 2 we see John explaining to Paul that George left because he wanted more creative and artistic freedom to contribute to songs in his own way, and not the way Paul dictated. There is also discussion of John spending too much time with Yoko and not with his bandmates.
The good news is that John and Paul travel to George’s home and are successful in convincing him to return. But the incident has cost the band several days of valuable time. They’re now recording their songs at their new Apple Studios in London.
At the more cozy studio, they still show the same playful spirit, the same joyful bantering while singing their own songs. During breaks, they still play snippets of other artists’ songs. They also occasionally poke fun at The Rolling Stones, whom I suppose were their major musical competitors at the time.
Their songs require a professional keyboardist or organist, and lo and behold Billy Preston just happens to show up to say hi. The group recruits him to perform during recordings of several songs. There is some good reminiscing about their days in India with the Maharishi and how it changed them.
For me, a hugely emotional moment occurs during the band’s rehearsal of the song Two of Us. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pain at the lyrics which the band develops and rehearses many times. One lyric especially stands out: “You and I have memories, longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” This line proves to be prophetic – John and Paul met in 1957, just 12 years earlier. Just 11 years later, John was assassinated.
There is a lot of discussion, with time running out, about whether, when and where to do a live show, a live performance, a documentary, etc. The logistics and timetable are formidable. Ringo seems to be left entirely out of the discussion, and it appears he’s okay with that. Yoko is attached to John’s hip but remains uninvolved in most activities.
The thing I noticed most about Part 2 was how the band came together. Somehow the confines of the studio allowed them to be the Beatles again. I also noticed that a great deal of time was spent waiting for their new producer Glyn Johns scrambling to cobble together the equipment to record the album. Meanwhile, our boys are happily playing along and against each other. They play songs by old blues artists, songs by their contemporaries, and songs from their early Quarrymen days.
What is plainly clear is just how much these men love each other and love playing music together. They were very content to wait while Johns worked to rebuild the studio around them. I expected harsh words and anxiety. But what I saw was a very comfortable and relaxed atmosphere of collaboration.
For myself, I’ve worked in collaborative environments as a software engineer my whole life. There is always a sense of anxiety as deadlines loom. But watching the Beatles calmly, even joyfully, craft new songs amidst Johns’ chaos instilled in me a sense of awe and humility. I wish I had that kind of patience.
Another thing that emerged from Part 2 was George Harrison’s emergence as a singer-songwriter. We hear the beginnings of songs that would come a couple years later in his debut album “All Things Must Pass.” And we hear John and George talk about the possibility of the members of the Beatles creating solo work in parallel with their Beatles work. It was astonishing and heartbreaking. What if they could have done just that instead of breaking up?
In Part 3 the group makes plans to do a rooftop performance, which is kind of a compromise among many of the ideas that are pitched.
One of the highlights is watching George create the song Something with a little help from his friends. None other than Frank Sinatra called Something the greatest love song of the 20th century, and it’s one of my favorites, too.
George has a backlog of his own personal material and makes plans to do a solo album separate from the Beatles. It is regrettable that John and Paul weren’t more generous in allowing George to include more of his songs on the Beatles’ albums. I agree, Greg, that it seems almost tragic that this group couldn’t find a way to stay together when they obviously loved each other.
The highlight of the third part of the series may be the hilarious time when the group sings Two of Us while sporting toothy grins and not moving their lips. There is a genuine joyful spirit that permeates these sessions, even with the occasional disagreements aired over whether and how to deliver a life performance.
The rooftop performance itself is filmed from many different angles and from the streets below. They really could have benefited from today’s drone camera technology. Overall, the performance is memorable, albeit strange given that no one on the streets below can see the band. Police constables are called to shut down the conference, and so Paul gets his wish when the cops show up on the roof.
I’ve shared with you that George Harrison is my favorite Beatle. I’ve always found his songs to be thoughtful and heartfelt. I always got a sense that of the four, he was the most soulful. This was reinforced by the way he pulled Billy Preston into the sessions. And again, we saw him sharing his ideas with Ringo on “Octopus’s Garden.” In some ways Harrison could have claimed a songwriting credit on the song, but he never did. We’re also witness to Harrison talking about the jazz musicians and work of Bob Dylan whom he admired. As the youngest Beatle, he perhaps grew the most over the 7-year period. After “studying” for years at the feet of the two greatest musicians of their generation (John and Paul), George Harrison was the most ready to break out.
I also enjoyed watching the emergence of the adult versions of the Beatles. John and Yoko were clearly in love. But this was not the flamboyant love that we saw from the media. They were very calmly, warmly devoted to each other. Paul is becoming a family man as we watch him play with Linda Eastman’s daughter Heather. Even Ringo allows the little girl to play cymbals on one of the tracks.
And the joy… the simple joy of these men and their friends listening to the playbacks of their tracks. That is perhaps the greatest gift “Get Back” gives us. To witness the simplicity and the joy of creating art.To say it was an emotional experience is an understatement. We’re taught that creation and creativity are painful processes filled with angst and anxiety. And here we’re witness to the very simplicity of play. Even as adults, these people just loved to play together. What a beautiful and simple lesson.
Overall, Get Back is an extraordinary viewing experience. It really is amazing to witness the Beatles create their legendary songs right on camera. I was worried that we’d see a lot of tension in the group on the eve of their breakup, but that’s not what happens. What we see is the Beatles having fun and showing all their genius and their hard work in action. And it is hard work indeed. As listeners, we may be lulled into the false belief that these iconic Beatles songs were quickly created and produced the way we’ve heard them for years. But we learn from this docu-series that good songwriting is a painstaking process of endless tinkering, trial-and-error learning, listening, and rehearsing.
Is this docu-series overly bloated and saturated with expendable material? Absolutely. Yet a true understanding of the Beatles at this stage of their existence requires all the quiet periods, the playful jaunts, the interluding girlfriends, the necessary disagreements, along with the messiness of refining songs and planning (and re-planning) where to go next. That’s life.
We both give the series 5 Reels out of 5 and the heroes 5 hero points out of 5.