“The Beatles: Get Back” is a Invaluable Time Capsule
Just when everyone thought there wasn’t any stone left unturned when it came to documenting every aspect of the most influential and arguably greatest rock band of all time, director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of The Rings,” “The Hobbit”) gifted the world with “The Beatles: Get Back” this past Thanksgiving. Jackson’s three-part documentary is composed of 60 hours of footage and 120 hours of audio that were not used in a previous Beatles documentary, “Let It Be” (1970), directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. The premise of the film was to show The Beatles in their studio candidly writing, composing and recording what would be their final two albums (“Abbey Road” and “Let it Be”) at the start of the new year in January 1969. The film’s climax featured the band performing live on the roof of Apple Studio for what would be their last performance. “Let it Be,” which was supposed to be released along with the album of the same name, was not well received by audiences or The Beatles themselves. This was primarily due to the fact that Beatles fans were still hurting from the band’s breakup in September of 1969. When the film was eventually released, Paul McCartney himself went on record saying “Because it was so close to the Beatles’ breakup, my impression of the film was of a sad moment.” The poor reception of the movie caused all the 35 mm film to be shelved and sit in dust for almost 50 years.
In 2017, Apple Corps, in conjunction with Disney, decided they wanted to create a new documentary for theaters for the 50th anniversary of the release of the “Let it be” album. Apple approached director and Beatles superfan Peter Jackson to helm the project, given his acclaimed work directing “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a World War I documentary that was composed of old footage beautifully restored for modern consumption. Jackson graciously accepted, and after combing through all the material, realized he hit the jackpot. Upon completion of his four-year project he managed to restore and stitch together a documentary spanning over seven hours across three parts to be streamed on Disney Plus (as opposed to the initial plan of a shorter theatrical film that was changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic). With “Get Back,” Jackson managed to show the Beatles in a new, not-so-depressing narrative, allowing audiences to see them in a more nuanced and intimate way than ever before.
Having watched it from start to finish, I feel there were so many things featured in the documentary that were particularly extraordinary. First, an up-close and personal look at The Beatles’ process, or lack thereof, in music production was fascinating. There was no real system. The band would show up to the studio and present their ideas and songs and lyrics with guitar in hand; very nonchalant. In fact, it was awesome and exciting to see some famous hits from the band member’s solo careers, such as “Jealous Guy” (Lennon) and “All Things Must Pass” (Harrison), start as pitched songs recorded by the Beatles. Most of the time they had already composed a melody in their heads and would figure out the lyrics later.
One such instance was when George Harrison pitched what would be one of his most acclaimed songs and one of the most covered songs of all time: “Something.” In this brief scene, George struggles to find lyrics that follow “something in the way she moves, attracts me like…” John Lennon then hilariously suggests “just say whatever comes to your head, ‘attracts me like a cauliflower’.” It's those types of candid moments that will bring a smile to Beatles fans (such as myself) and general music lovers alike. There is even a scene where Paul is sitting off to the side with his Hofner bass and composing the song “Get Back” out of thin air in real time; it really is a sight to behold. As far as production goes, most of the time the band seemed to enjoy making music with each other. When they weren’t chatting, goofing off or jamming out to their rock and roll heroes like Little Richard and Elvis Presley, they were working cohesively. Contrary to popular views of this time period, which John Lennon himself even described as “going through hell,” the Beatles appeared to get along swimmingly. It really was a breath of fresh air seeing all the laughs and smiles. However, there were also spats of disagreement and some tense moments; it was clear the issues leading to the breakup were festering for some time. The pressure of the live performance and the release of an album in such a short time were certainly part of the catalyst.
The Beatles have changed so much since they were just a bunch of teenagers from Liverpool. “Get Back” shows how each member's role in the group evolved. My impression of the Fab Four during the Let It Be sessions is something like this: Paul was running the show in the studio leading the music production. John, who was formerly the de facto leader and co-songwriter with his best mate Paul, was now rather aloof and attached at the hip to his partner Yoko Ono. George budded from a sensational guitarist to an enlightened, talented songwriter. Lastly, Ringo, who was already a commodity when The Beatles acquired him, was just happy to be there. Yoko Ono has had a reputation of being the conniving “human cancer that broke up The Beatles.” This film doesn’t really show that — unless you consider knitting and reading books in the studio cancerous. What I believe the film does show is John and Yoko madly in love, thereby creating a distance between John and the rest of the group, especially Paul, whom John didn’t really write with anymore. John’s siamese cat relationship with Yoko, along with the fact that he and Paul were now older and no longer inseparable like they were when they toured, created a void. Nobody was at fault. The fact was that as time went on each member of the Fab Four was thinking more as an individual with very strong ambitions.
Another source of tension was Harrison’s lack of songwriting input. Historically, most Beatles’ credited songs were Lennon/McCartney, and Paul's Vision was so dominant in the studio that he didn’t give the frustrated Harrison room to express himself (something McCartney has since solemnly regretted). In one scene, Harrison discusses how he has loads of demos he recorded on his own, the bulk of which became tracks on a rare triple album “All Things Must Pass,” released just six months after “Let It Be.” This creative stifling actually led Harrison to quit the band, telling them to “get a replacement” mid-session. Yet when the rest of the group convinced him to come back, there were all happy faces from there.My main takeaway from “Get Back” is that the history was not as gloomy as everyone thought. There was just too much talent to be contained in one group, and in order for members to flourish, they needed ample space to grow. This documentary was a profound display of how love, friendship, creativity and hubris are extremely complex, especially when it comes to the band that redefined an entire genre of music.
Photo Caption: John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney in the Abbey Road Studio with producer George Martin.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons