My oldest daughter is a bit of a Beatles fanatic. She likes all kinds of popular music and because she’s heard it all her life she knows a lot of music from the 70s and 80s that most people her age don’t know. But in high school she really became a huge fan of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. And her appreciation of it really made me listen to it again. I’d grown up listening to the Beatles but had moved on to other things by junior high and high school. But listening to again as an adult made me appreciate how well crafted many of those songs are.
So when we learned that Peter Jackson was making a documentary based on 50+ year old footage of the Beatles we were pretty excited about it. Get Back is streaming on Disney+ and is broken into three parts. The first part, which is 2 1/2 hours long premiered on Thanksgiving Day.
The backstory here is that the Beatles had conquered the world in the mid 1960s but after some difficult tours (there was no amplification equipment suitable for stadium shows at the time) they stopped touring altogether in 1966. They became a studio band who often recorded their parts for songs separately, rarely ever playing together. But in January of 1969 they got back (pun intended) to being a band.
The initial plan was for them to write an album of songs and then give a big performance, possibly somewhere overseas. But a film crew would be present for all of the writing and rehearsals and that footage (on 16mm film) would be edited down to make a TV show about the new album.
But things didn’t go as planned. In the first few days, they had a couple of songs from John Lennon and not much else. They were rehearsing in an empty studio building which was cold and had bad acoustics. The inspiration didn’t seem to be happening and they were clearly unnerved at being watched by cameras at every moment. And then things go worse. The plan to recreate the magic by bringing the band members back into the same room seemed to work a bit with Paul and John, who really behave like brothers, but that seemed to really irritate George who clearly felt like he was never part of that club. At the end of the first week, George got up and quit the band.
If that description of part one doesn’t sound like your mental image of the Beatles, well, it doesn’t match mine either. I’d always heard Paul and John were fighting because the whole band found Yoko’s presence annoying and that’s ultimately why they broke up. And, maybe there’s some truth to that but what this documentary shows is that Paul and John really showed a tremendous amount of respect for one another. At the beginning of part 2, Paul even defends John bringing Yoko to rehearsals every day saying he understands the kind of relationship John wants to have. It’s really the tension between Paul, as the clear leader of the group, and George, always just a bit on the outside, that seems like the central problem. Ringo for his part seems to really admire Paul and never says an unkind or provocative word to anyone.
There’s another segment in part 2 of the documentary (which is 3 hours long) in which Paul talks to John about seeing a film of their trip to India when they met with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Paul is basically saying that in the film John is clearly not being himself. He’s suggesting that maybe there was something about that trip to be critical about. That maybe they’d have gotten more out of it if they’d been a bit more honest. George, who seems the most devoted to that Indian religious view of the world clearly gets irritated and says he wish he could spend half his time in India. Again, even when the focus isn’t music, there’s a lot of tension between Paul and George.
But the most amazing part of the documentary is that you get to see some of the songwriting happen in real time. Even if you hate the Beatles you’ve probably heard “Get Back” 100 times. At one point Paul, who is clearly feeling the pressure of not having enough new material, starts strumming the bass like a guitar. There’s a sense of desperation about it but in just a few minutes he has written the basic idea for “Get Back.” It’s like watching a stage magician do real magic. There’s no trick here, Paul just conjured a bit of musical order out of chaos in a matter of minutes.
Anyway, at more than 7 hours long (for all 3 parts) “Get Back” is not for the faint of heart. Other members of my family lost interest after about an hour. But if you like the Beatles’ music and you’re curious about who they were as people, this documentary is a revelation and should not be missed. And if you don’t have another Beatles fan in the house, find one and watch it with them. You’ll have lots to talk about afterwards.
Watching Paul come up with “Get Back” out of literally thinking air while Ringo and George just yawn is a marvel to watch. This Beatles documentary is INSANE #TheBeatlesGetBack pic.twitter.com/09Nii0tHqr
— Darth Yavin (@DarthYavin) November 27, 2021