Ok, buckle up; this is a long one. Here are but some of my thoughts on the recent release of the groundbreaking documentary about the Beatles in their final days, “Get Back.” Spoiler alerts ahead, BTW.
First off, if you’re a casual fan of the band, if you watch this 8 1/2 hour Odyssey, I’d wager there will be parts that will be pretty tedious and downright yawn-inducing. This project wasn’t really made with the casual fan in mind. If you’re moderate fan, I think you’ll enjoy it quite a bit, even though you’ll maybe want to fast forward here and there. I mean, it’s 8 1/2 hours in total.
But if you’re a serious fan of The Beatles, well, it’s one of the most fascinating things you’re likely to ever see about them. And maybe the most important. It has fundamentally rewritten the story of how and why they broke up, for one. More on that in a bit. But here’s my theory about why The Beatles get into so many people’s nervous systems and stay there forever. Of course, most of it is that they wrote and recorded some of the greatest music ever, period. But beyond that, more than any band I can think of, their personalities were so interesting and large that they had their own narratives. So much so that even casual fans have some vague and yes, reductive, notion of who they were: Paul polite and cute, Lennon funny and biting, Harrison removed and spiritual, Ringo affable, etc. Their music and their personalities can somehow make you feel on some deep and ineffable level that you know them and they – somehow – know and understand you. I’m talking in sweeping and simplified generalizations, but I hope you get the gist. And Get Back’s greatest accomplishment emotionally is that feeling of truly having a mysterious, inexplicable, intimate knowledge of them is intensified geometrically. We are in the room with them, hearing and seeing how they interact with another in a way that’s nothing short of revelatory. Yes, there is an awareness on their part that they’re being filmed. But the cameras are so ubiquitous the unrelenting they often, especially in Parts 2 and 3, seem to forget about them and we see how they truly worked together as a band and as friends.
And that’s what I’ll be focusing on here. These men had been together, almost constantly, in crucible few of us can imagine, and they have become brothers. And like all brothers, woven in with the palpable love, are threads of resentment, jealousy, irritation, boredom, inside jokes, and the ability to read each other’s moods at times with an uncanny ability, while at other times remaining utterly oblivious.
Part One (it’s in three parts) is at times, frankly, a little tough to watch, as there is a palpably odd vibe (to borrow from the vernacular) to it. In January of 1969, mere weeks after they had released a double album, they agree to meet at Twickenham film studios to record a documentary as they write and rehearse a brand new batch of songs. The whole set up is unlike how they’re used to working. First off, it’s far too early in the morning for them – namely, it’s morning – they’re in a cavernous and cold soundstage a totally foreign space with as, George immediately observes, “Terrible acoustics.” Also, bear in mind, they had released The White Album – 30 songs – less than two months before, and now they proposed writing and performing 14 new songs in less than a month. Who’d even try that?
The traditional narrative in Beatles’ lore (bolstered by the Let It Be film) paints Paul as a bossy and relentless taskmaster whom John and George understandably grow sick of. And yes, Paul IS very much the one to wrangle them like a teacher trying to inspire bored students (I know his pain). But what’s made clear here is that Paul knows he’s coming off this way, and he HATES having to be put in that position. It never works well when one person among peers tries to run things, but in fairness, it wasn’t him who forced him into this position Most immediately because John is addicted to both heroin and Yoko and has seemingly checked out (which he kinda does through much of the first part). And George….well, let’s talk about George for a second.
Harrison, after recently contributing songs like the brilliant “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the had established himself as among the better songwriters around to more or less everyone. Everyone except John and Paul. To them, he was still a kid. When George joined the band, John was 17 and George 14. Think of that age gap. And think of your family – it’s really hard to ever escape how you’re seen by your older siblings. And like a kid brother, at a certain point, he actively chafes against this, especially as he is writing terrific songs with regularity yet can barely get anyone to pay much attention. Bob Dylan himself expressed his admiration for George’s musicianship and writing.
And so George comes into the project hoping to instill some of that feeling of open and easy collaboration. But he is immediately reminded by Paul and John he’s the junior partner. Paul does this by barely being able to muster polite interest in his work, and Lennon with outright mockery of George’s new (and it turns out, quite enjoyable) song, I, Me, Mine. George responds appropriately with “I don’t give a f@#k if you don’t want it on your album.” Finally, George quits, in a very Harrison way: quietly and totally indifferent to what other people think. He simply says he’s leaving the band, and when asked when, he replies, “Now. See you round the clubs.” and he’s gone. And while Lennon quips they have to figure out how to split up George’s instruments, and callously says if he’s not back by Tuesday they’ll get Clapton, we see that this is bluster. The three remaining Beatles huddle together, physically and off mic, clearly shaken by this.
In one of the most amazing parts of the documentary, or any documentary I’ve ever seen, a mic is hidden at a table unbeknownst to John and Paul as they talk about George over lunch. Lennon is honest and insightful, owning up to the truth that he and Paul have created a deep wound with George and that it’s now “festering.” Paul agrees. John also says that Paul’s increasing penchant for knowing exactly what he wants everyone to play on his songs has made them feel like underlings rather than collaborators, which has become a source of real resentment for both George and John. In other words, as is true in any collaborative endeavor, it’s important to let everyone to make contributions and feel a part of the process. With admirable introspection, Paul sees the truth of this.
At the same time, what’s unmistakable in this exchange is that these two men have great love and respect for each other, and feel bad about mistreating George, whom they also love and, if they’re honest, admire. They recognize and regret treating him badly for so long. They have hurt him in the way many family members hurt each other: unthinkingly, carelessly, and deeply. When George does come back, after giving in to his demand they leave the drafty sound stage they were playing in, Lennon and McCartney both make a point of treating him with more respect, and they are all the better for it, emotionally and musically.
From that point on, what we see is a band of brothers. Lennon is fully engaged, invested, and brilliantly playful and witty. He’s also charmingly self-deprecating about his relative lack of instrumental prowess compared to George and Paul. Playing a rare lead part on a song, he quips, “Every time I play lead I remember why I don’t play lead.” George’s input is heard and valued, Paul is still leading the way, but with a gentler touch, and Ringo remains everyone’s friend.It’s also clear they know they are on the cusp of breaking up, not because of Yoko, but because they’ve been been together for a decade and, just like brothers leaving home, they have reached a stage where they need to be their own people. Even Paul, who clearly doesn’t want this to be true, tacitly acknowledges this. Art is hard to make at the best of times. When done in an environment in which you don’t feel safe to make suggestions and even fail, it’s that much harder.
One key takeaway about the nature of creativity, something completely essential in my meager view, is that as clearly gifted as they were (Paul’s musical genius, especially, is in full, glorious bloom), great art seldom if ever happens without discipline, patience, and painstaking work. They sweat every detail; they try every approach they can think off; no idea is taken off the table until t least given a shot, and even when they hit on what they know will work to make a song successful, they continue honing and honing, not stopping until they’ve made it as good as they’re capable of.
Throughout the series, the love and respect the have for each other, especially between John and Paul, is made more clear than ever. Their bond is unique, once in a lifetime, and though they wouldn’t admit it, they both know it.
It’s no news to hear that they weren’t saints by any means, but something I felt and have heard from others who’ve watched it is how NICE they all generally were. They are surrounded by people who are desperate to be near them and want something from them all day every day all their lives, but still seem largely mindful of how to treat people with kindness and dignity. There is a moment when a clapboard operator stands near Paul and shyly asks him questions about how to write songs. Paul sits at the piano and talks to him in a completely unpretentious way, and treats the kid (maybe he’s 20?) as an equal, explaining things without seeming arrogant in any way. He then tells him, “Unless you stop yourself, nothing can stop yourself,” which is both something Yogi Berra should’ve said, and a truly profound statement about making art.
When Linda Eastman (soon to be Linda McCartney) brings her six year old daughter Heather to a session is another example of their surprisingly in tact humanity. Paul’s clearly in love with her and is heartwarmingly paternal. The other Beatles are also great with her: Ringo makes her laugh by letting her bash on his cymbals and acting stunned, and John gently teases her about her new kittens, asking if she’s going to eat them. She finds this funny and tells him you don’t eat cats. She then describes the kittens, and John grudgingly agrees, “No you don’t eat those kind of cats, you’re right.”
Also, the film’s director is absolutely insufferable, and yet they are all far more patient and polite with him than you’d expect the world’s biggest stars to be, let alone most any sentient being. They make it clear they’re in charge, but in a very gentle and non-aggressive way.
We are also treated to a stunning sequence in which Paul, knowing they’re short of material, starts strumming one string on his bass over and over until we see, in the space of about three minutes, him WILL a new song – Get Back – out of the ether. It is a jaw-dropping moment to behold. Getting to watch Paul McCartney compose a song in real time is one of the greatest gifts of the film, I think.
Watching it makes one believe simultaneously that art requires a relentless drive, but doing so, on occasion, can produce something that looks a lot like magic. And speaking of moments when hard work meets genius: man was McCartney on fire in that period. After all of his White album contributions, as well as writing Lady Madonna and Hey Jude in 1968, he shows up in January of ’69 with another trove of tunes, including Let It Be, and brings new ones in almost daily.
Watching George help Ringo write Octopus’s Garden, making gentle suggestions, is sorta a beautiful act of friendship to behold. Ditto John offering George advice on lyric writing as Harrison struggled to figure out the first line of “Something”
The unabashed joy Paul and John take in playing live together and the looks they exchange are thrilling and moving as is watching all four of them listening back to their music in the control room, clearly happy with what they’ve done, being in each other’s company, and making each other laugh. Despite the fights they’ve had and will have, after all of their fraught relationships, watching that makes you understand how special their bond was. Just as most of us have special yet fraught bonds like that (without comparable record sales) is a reminder of the vitality of connection and community
Anyway, those were some of my first thoughts. If you had the patience to read this whole thing, you’ve definitely got the stamina to watch it in its entirety.
To paraphrase John, I hope I passed the audition.