Sunday Pages: "The Beatles: Get Back"
A film by Peter Jackson
Nowadays, the concept is the basis for all reality television: cameras everywhere, recording everything, even the most intimate moments, of a group of people. There are so many shows like this that the novelty of hidden cameras has gone stale. Not so in January of 1969, when director Michael Lindsay-Hogg brought in his camera crew to film the freakin’ Beatles. Because of the cost of the footage, this sort of thing just wasn’t done at that time—not like this.
John, Paul, George, and Ringo—a few months removed from almost breaking up during the recording of the White Album—are lured back together with a novel concept: at the end of January, the Beatles will do a live TV special, during which they will make a recording of the songs they will have written during that month. That recording will be issued as an album. Lindsay-Hogg will then release a documentary about the process.
When you stop and think about what such an ambitious project would entail—not only writing the new songs, but working through the arrangements, and then figuring out how to make a live show around them that doesn’t suck—it makes NaNoWriMo seem like a page of haiku. But these are the Beatles, and if anyone can pull this off, it’s the boys from Liverpool.
Spoiler alert: they don’t pull it off. Not in the way the producers want, at least. Lindsay-Hogg gets his footage, but with no clear story arc, he doesn’t know what to do with it. And so the film sits in cannisters for 50 years, until Peter Jackson, best known for making The Lord of the Rings trilogy, produces an even better film cycle of three long installments.
Get Back is expertly done. Jackson is obviously painstaking and detail-oriented when it comes to source material that fanatical fans will fight to the death over, and boy does he knock this out of the park. He resists the temptation to make it shorter, or more punchy. He limits explanations and digressions that pull us away from the goings-on. And it looks amazing. Lindsay-Hogg, too, nailed the assignment. How he managed to get all that footage, I have no idea—aside from the occasional mic hanging overhead, his crew is inobtrusive. But if he really is the son of Orson Welles, he does his father proud.
My first takeaway from Get Back is that I can’t believe this exists. Hours and hours of tape of Paul being a maestro, John being a goofball, George being resentful, and Ringo being chill. We sat and watched, stunned. The flowerpot scene, in particular, is something that should not be. So many of the people in the film are now dead, including John and George, but here they are resurrected, returned to us. What a gift this is to behold!
I was born in 1972, and in my life I’ve watched Paul, George, and Ringo perform countless times. In Get Back, they are all younger, but I’m accustomed to seeing Paul at the piano, George at the guitar, Ringo behind the kit. But I was eight years old when John Lennon was murdered. Most of the images that I’ve seen present him as a cultural icon, a celebrity in a New York City t-shirt, a man of peace, joined at the hip with Yoko Ono—but not as a musician. Aside from old clips of The Ed Sullivan Show, I don’t know that I’d ever seen John just playing the guitar. It was beautiful to watch. He has such magnetism, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
The group dynamics of the band are also fascinating to observe. To me, they are like a basketball team: Paul is the high-usage point guard. He always has the ball in his bands. He initiates all the action. John is the star big man, Paul’s pick-and-roll partner. He can light it up when he gets hot. Ringo is a complementary 3-and-D guy, who does all the little things that help the stars play better. You can’t win championships without guys like that. George is another playmaker, less seasoned than Paul but also talented, demanding more touches so he can expand his game. And Billy Preston, the keyboardist whose random appearance in London during the recording of these tracks seems like divine intervention, crashes the boards with a smile. Together, they operate like a machine—until George demands a trade, Paul is too bossy, John fools around too much, and Ringo starts to feel unappreciated.
After the White Album, the Beatles are a band in decline. For all its ballyhoo, Abbey Road is objectively not as good as Sgt. Pepper; even John Lennon thinks the second-side medley is meh. “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” are far and away the best tracks on the album—and both are George Harrison compositions. So in Get Back, what we are watching is a lion in winter. Only it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. They jam, they get some crap out of their system, and then, as Ringo and George literally yawn, we watch Paul McCartney give birth to “Get Back.”
From the reaction of the others, this magic seems to be a common occurrence. Paul bangs around a bit, and then, boom, something amazing pours out of him. (Remember: this is a guy who woke up one morning with the melody from “Yesterday” fully formed in his brain). The others know it when they see it, and as soon as they recognize what’s happening, they hop to. Ringo is often derided as lesser than, but he brings an intangible quality to the band that another, more John Bonham-y drummer would not have offered. He’s always present, always watching, always eager to help. It’s impossible to watch Get Back and not love Ringo. Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman love him, too.
Music snobs who prefer John like to slag Paul and vice versa, but the reality is this: they are both artistic geniuses of the highest order, both unassailably great. George can’t match the voluminous output of his mates, but his best songs are just as good if not better than theirs. (Frank Sinatra once said his favorite Lennon/McCartney tune was “Something”—which Harrison wrote). And these three human beings were among the 850,000 living in Great Britain’s fourth-largest city in 1958, a forgettable place the size of Jacksonville, when, as teenagers, they decided to join forces. What are the chances of that? How did this happen? It’s miraculous.
The end of Get Back is a gut punch, because we know the Beatles’ days are numbered. They were together as a foursome for ten years, and in that single decade produced the greatest song catalog in the history of popular music. That catalog is enough of a contribution to our culture, but this film is one last gift long lost in the pile of wrapping paper under the Christmas tree—when, in a bleak autumn of a pestilential year, we can all, for seven-and-a-half hours at least, get back to where we once belonged.
Photo credit: Still shot from the film.