Before watching it over the last week, I’d heard and read a good deal about Peter Jackson’s Get Back, the three part, eight hour documentary (sort of) on the Beatles and the lead up to their famous rooftop concert. Some people LOVED it — people close to me, whose taste in such things I trust. Others felt it was fatuous, over-hyped, overly long, and even boring.
Having now watched the entire thing, I wanted to weigh in with my thoughts and observations.
I am the youngest (by a lot) of four kids, and so my musical tastes were formed largely by the preferences of my older siblings. By the time I was seven years old, I was already starting to listen to rock and build my record collection (kids, ask your parents). But still, that was after the Beatles had split up, and already they were, to me, the stuff of legend, a band my brothers and sister spoke of with utter reverence.
So I have long been subject to the mystique of the band, and for me, seeing them unrehearsed, unvarnished, and in the act of creating, is thrilling. The Beatles stopped touring in the mid-Sixties, and though they put out plenty of albums, they rarely appeared in public, which only served to enhance that mystique. Seeing them so intimately in this film is a gift. It rounds out their image. And there are a couple of moments in the first episode, when Paul is working out the lyrics and chords to “Get Back” and Let It Be,” that literally gave me chills.
Beyond that, I believe Jackson’s approach to making this film — basically showing us as much as possible with minimal, almost non-existent outside commentary — proved incredibly powerful and effective. The Beatles and those around them speak for themselves, leaving it to us to evaluate, even to judge. As such, the film, in my opinion, serves as a much needed historical document and corrective.
Things I thought about while I watched, in no particular order:
For a long time, I disliked Paul McCartney. Most of the narratives surrounding the band’s break-up have placed the lion’s share of the blame on Paul. He was the one who initiated legal proceedings against his bandmates. He was the one whose burgeoning solo career killed any chance of reconciliation. There may or may not be truth to this. The legal battles are matters of public record. But my God, the man is a musical genius. During the time documented by the film, he was exploding with creative energy. Every day, it seemed, he had a new tune to share — already he had in mind several of the songs that would populate their final studio album, Abbey Road.
Whatever tension was said to exist between John and Paul — and certainly there is some evidence of that tension in the footage Jackson has shown us — when they were playing music together, they were completely in sync. They are clowning, riffing on each other’s playing and singing, feeding each other’s enormous creativity. I am fortunate to have been in a band with two dear friends (this was long, long ago — the band is no more; the friendships endure) and I can speak to the power of that musical connection. There is nothing like it. Watching them together was joyful.
Whatever blame Yoko Ono has borne for the demise of the Beatles seems unjustified. Yes, she was in the studio with them all the time. Clearly, she and John were very much in love. But Linda Eastman (later McCartney) was there a lot, too. So was Ringo’s wife, and George’s. I saw no evidence of hostility or resentment directed at Yoko by any members of the band. She and Linda appeared to have a good relationship. It seems to me she has been subjected to vilification that has little to do with reality and much more to do with misogyny and racial stereotypes.
To my mind, the most destructive dynamic in the studio, as captured by the filmmakers, was the conflict between George on the one hand, and John and Paul on the other. John and Paul, who have been lauded for their songwriting since the earliest days of the band, appeared dismissive, at times contemptuous, of the original tunes George brought to them. This despite the fact that George wrote some of the band’s best music: “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun.” George’s walkout in the middle of the film was, in my mind, completely understandable.
During their rooftop concert, the police arrive, responding to noise complaints from neighbors. When Paul sees that the bobbies have come, his expression is utterly joyful. Classic moment.
I have often thought of the Beatles as a band of okay musicians who came together and created something magical — the musical version of alchemy, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. But watching these sessions, seeing each of them play instruments other than their own, and noting as well the ease with which they picked up on new material, I realized that I have given them too little credit over they years. Yes, the four of them together were magical. But each was very, very good at what they did.
I understand that their earliest music sounds very, very dated now. Not so the material from the second half of their incredible run. I challenge anyone to find in rock history twenty minutes of recorded music that is better than the “B” side of Abbey Road. With the singular exception of the Rolling Stones, who are also deserving of “Legends” status, I would put the Beatles’ 10 best songs from 1967-70 up against anyone’s 10 best from a similar period. The hardest part would be picking which 10 Beatles songs to use.
While watching the documentary, I remembered a conversation I had with my brother Bill. He was fifteen years older than me, and like any teen in the 1960s was fully caught up in Beatlemania. Several years before died, we were talking about the Beatles and he told me about the first time he listened to the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“You have to realize,” he said, “we’d never heard anything like it. Ever. It wasn’t just that the songs were great. They were doing stuff in the studio that no one had ever done before. It was mind-blowing.”
Their later music may not sound dated the way the early stuff does, but neither does it sound trend-setting. Because everyone started doing what the Beatles had done. Fifty years later, it’s too easy to forget the degree to which John, Paul, George, and Ringo changed the world. They weren’t just the most popular, the best selling. They had more than just talent and mystique. They were experimenting with . . . everything. Hair, clothes, drugs, music, lyrics, recording technology. They shaped the future. They were larger than life, larger than fashion, larger than music.
Which is why this close up look at them, this revealing and humanizing documentary, is so welcome. I will never listen to their music the same way.