THERE IS SO MUCH. Of everything.
I laughed often (a very young Heather Eastman wailing into a microphone to which John Lennon says “Yoko!”; the serious faces on the Constable Plods wanting this rooftop racket turned down; Paul McCartney suggesting Jimmy Nichol might step in for Ringo Starr who doesn’t want to travel to Africa; the late middle-aged businessman saying he thought The Beatles were “cracking” while a woman of similar age grumbles the noise had woken her from her afternoon sleep and she wasn’t happy).
Was left gobsmacked by all the moments of creation appearing right before us (Get Back being birthed on a bass from a two chord rifling around more in hope than inspiration; a George Harrison guitar line emerging from noodling into sunshine; Let It Be’s chords, not yet a song, heard off camera as a conversation takes place in the foreground; the building blocks of Something and Jealous Guy appearing uncertainly, seemingly as transient as a bunch of other ideas picked up, played with and discarded).
Then felt equally gobsmacked as the grunt work, the repetitive, fail-fail-fail-succeed-fail-succeed, business of working out chords, lyrics, tone, tempo, arrangement and ultimate judgement progressed. Watching in boldly projected colours at cold, impersonal and impervious Twickenham Studios, and in white and silver crampness in the makeshift basement space at Apple’s Saville Row offices, as ideas good and bad and silly emerged, subsided and were dug up again.
And I cried as that rooftop show began (for the culmination of the experience, for the end it signalled, for what most of us had never and now would never see in the flesh, for the sheer pleasure for them and for me) wishing it wasn’t going to be stopped by fuddy duddy suits and fussy police.
Seven hours and change extracted from the voluminous source material by Peter Jackson didn’t seem anywhere near enough and only made me wish original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had kept filming as The Beatles and George Martin returned to Abbey Road’s studios for one more album (or had been around for every album beforehand: oh man, to have been there during Revolver and Rubber Soul!).
This even as I wondered how “civilians” – normal people who haven’t spent days upon days reading the minutiae of all the band’s recording career, who don’t stupidly/proudly own at least five versions, in every format/remaster, of every album, and who don’t have multiple shelves stuffed with Beatles books of every hue - would stomach such microscopic and yet voluminous detail.
Not surprisingly, it got me thinking.
There has always been a singular advantage that a band has over a solo artist. And that’s any band, from dancing boy group to masked metal-punks, from prog makers to potent riot grrls. It’s why that chap from Decca was so wrong in 1962, irrespective of the trend for guitars, the quality of the tape Brian Epstein’s protégés offered or the possibility that the musical world might soon be divided between pretty boys called Tab with nothing to say and Aran jumper-wearing folkies with too much to say.
In business terms, you might call it multiple entry points, in pop psychology terms it would be identification: basically, the ability to be a different band to different people so that anyone, potentially, could recognise themselves, or recognise an aspiration/inspiration, in the collection of faces, body types, and personalities presented.
Any two-bit manager in the past 58 years looking for or putting together a group has worked to this knowledge. Any half-awake media looking for an angle has worked from that knowledge. And any emotionally-aware fan has intuitively had that knowledge.
The Beatles didn’t invent it, because they didn’t even attempt it – their personalities existed pre-Derek Taylor’s liner notes and Epstein’s stage dress-notes – but they defined it and embodied it, even as it was simplified into the snarky one, the sweet one, the quiet one, the funny one. All of them attractive in some way. And as a bonus, all of them extremely talented in several ways.
Jackson’s Get Back is too sophisticated to begin from this angle, and too gargantuan to depend on it. But it is a film instinctively constructed around this idea, and in many ways our responses to it reflect how we have always seen The Beatles – band and individuals – and how open/resistant we are to these notions being challenged or reinforced.
Was McCartney the man who held the band together after the death of Epstein in 1967, giving them purpose and direction? Or was he the martinet who drove away first Ringo Starr, then George Harrison and finally John Lennon? Was Harrison the vital contributor in the centre working at his own pace, in his own way who was perpetually patronised as the “little brother” to the dominating presence of Lennon and McCartney? Or was he the one so damaged by the demands and stupidities of fame (and the inadequacies of stage equipment/venue PA) he refused to consider playing live when it might have given the group a new lease of enthusiasm – but also saw the impractical madness of the Libyan desert show/ferry the audience on the QE2 idea so insistently pushed by Lindsay-Hogg?
Was Lennon the unfinished boy who finally found in Yoko Ono the adult relationship that enabled him to exist as a man and as an artist with a reason to make art? Or was he the focus-less former leader who was drifting away from responsibility and care and happy to allow blame to land on McCartney? Was Starr the simple rock to which the others were tethered so they could explore at will, knowing things would be managed? Or was he the surprising emotionally sophisticated core who bound them?
One of the many beautiful things about Get Back is how all of these ideas are revealed as true and simultaneously inadequate an explanation. How the actions and interactions of the four band members are much more complex, much more nuanced and much more real – you know, like actual people, not stereotypes – than so much of what we “knew”. And yet may still confirm all your prejudices.
While a musician friend of mine said his dislike of McCartney has only grown watching the first episode, it was different for me, someone who has had a mixed musical/emotional relationship with McCartney all my life (boy fan; teenage/early 20s “John boy” with a bit more disdain than respect for McCartney; adult appreciator of his genius, adventure and limitations who still can’t listen to a number of his songs).
Watching him want to make things happen because if he doesn’t it won’t, his confidence understandable but understandably grating. Then watching him recognise and articulate in front of the cameras how those very qualities are infuriating and sometimes insulting as he tries to have the others step into this space.
I don’t want to be the boss, he tells the others. Which is true and not quite true. You were the boss but you don’t want it anymore, he tells Lennon (in what it turns out was a secretly recorded conversation the pair had in a dining area), which though denied by his friend and collaborator, was true and not quite true.
It was like watching him and Ringo near tears as they contemplate the possibility that Lennon and Harrison may not come back (“and then there were two,” McCartney says forlornly) or hearing McCartney explain to people that what Ono had brought to Lennon is too important and integral to be dismissed as her stealing him from them, and that if forced to choose Lennon would, and indeed should, choose her.
That is, I was moved and encouraged, and felt somewhat embarrassed about all the times I have been so definitive about him, or any of them. Just as I was impressed by the emotional intelligence Ringo brought to his patience and silence as much as his observations – often voiced quietly to Lindsay-Hogg – which in the end really just reflected the subtlety, insight and appropriateness that had always defined his musical contributions.
Which brings us back to another “which version of The Beatles have you held on to” angle on Get Back.
It is generally accepted that the gloomy, it’s all going to hell original Let It Be film reflected the atmosphere of tension and bitterness of a band falling apart in 1969, despite the fact that Lindsay-Hogg had always said this was not all that he saw and filmed.
That’s the story we have told ourselves, that’s the story the band members told, especially in the wake of the acrimonious, litigious and scarring breakup of the band a year later that seemingly soured their memories. Yet it wasn’t true.
In the stupidly impractical and inappropriate film soundstage, McCartney and Harrison fell out, yes, and the guitarist left for several days (as Starr had a couple of years earlier) with the need for a creative outlet outside The Beatles for the flood of songs emerging from him, so evident to us if not yet fully to him. Yes, Lennon, Starr and McCartney tried several times to convince him to return, without much success initially and the talk of a fill-in – Clapton? Really? – meandered. And no one will ever doubt playing before an audience, whether in a theatre or a Roman ruin, was the last thing his psyche could handle.
But return he did. Contribute he did, clearly stimulated by the songs the others had brought in, the songs he was writing, and by – with this such an important part to see – the pleasure in collaboration with the other three, and then with Billy Preston (the one unequivocal and sustained source of happiness and, by-the-by, brilliance to match the central four, throughout the whole film) in an environment that was his natural and comfortable home: the studio.
Similarly, the idea that Lennon was only interested in projects and time with Ono, that heroin and exhaustion and ennui had emptied him out, that he had only contempt for his erstwhile co-writer (as captured in brutal lines from his 1971 solo song How Do You Sleep? “The only thing you done was yesterday/and since you’ve gone you’re just another day”) suited a post-split narrative and the deification of Lennon as the cerebral and passionate counterweight to the glib showman McCartney.
But again and again, Get Back, shows Lennon excited by what he was writing, emboldened by what the band brought to those songs, enjoying much (but not necessarily all) of the material being thrown up by the others in the writing process, deeply connected to McCartney. And having fun. So much fun.
Watching this it is clear what each brought to the collective and to each other, and how the collaborative process, the deeply ingrained musical and personal relationships, is at the core of the band story. Something captured in a tweet over the weekend from AC Newman of the Canadian/American band New Pornographers, where he said: “People who’ve never played in a band: ‘You can tell the Beatles were about to break up, so much tension!’. People who played in bands: ‘Wow, they had a very healthy group dynamic!’.”
This is what a band is. This is what this band was. Just more so maybe.
Which is why, as excessive and at times slow-moving as the film is, as typically Jackson as it was to make a trilogy from a single story, to have done otherwise would have been to tell only part of the story and to have missed the small changes, the evolutions and failures, the tedium before inspiration, the mechanics, the flaws and inadequacies, that explain the unexplainable just as much as the often sublime and lasting songs and influence which were the end product.
There is so much. Of everything. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Get Back is screening on Disney+