Get Back is a mighty piece of work by Peter Jackson. He does everything right. He lets the ’69 Beatles speak for themselves. We take it for granted that he resisted the temptation to commentate, but others might have.
Equally he’s sure not to seek perfection. At first it is surprising to see a Peter Jackson documentary in which sight and sound often don’t sync: but it turns out this doesn’t matter a bit. In the end it reinforces the sense of snatched documentary moments, and echoes the shambolic, unplanned enterprise that is Get Back.
In this way Jackson completely appeases we Beatlemaniacs, interjecting only with the most minimal text possible, letting us know what we are hearing, and what takes appear on what album or single.
Most of all he makes that grainy-ass old footage vibrant, so we can enjoy the full glory of George Harrison’s ’69 wardrobe. And he makes no attempt to spare Beatles blushes (which the trailers implied he might). Even the cringe-inducing Commonwealth jam is included here. True, other snippets are weirdly absent (there is a wonderful clip in the anthology of Paul telling Lyndsey Hogg how to do his job that I didn’t see here). But generally it is hugely impressive.
Reviews of Get Back
The oddest thing about the response to the documentary has been the various attempts to frame reviews around take-downs of long-held Beatles lore: headlines such as ‘Get Back tells us that Yoko didn’t break up the Beatles’ etc. Weirder still have been those articles that attempt to turn the Beatles to business seminar fodder (even the fucking Economist has produced a piece on the Beatles and business – guys, seriously, don’t look to the Beatles for your business advice. Not a good idea.)
To me, the documentary is above all a fascinating document of the band’s attempt to do something different, that is play together again, instead of barely collaborating as was the case during the White Album sessions.
What we are witnessing was unusual for them at that time, and doesn’t represent some ‘normal’ process. Far from it. They are aware they are being filmed, often uncomfortable and bored, and trying to ‘learn numbers’ in a way they haven’t for years.
What we do learn is that their method (if you can call it that) is amusingly primitive (lots of questions are called out like ‘have you got your bass bit?’) and that Paul is leaned on to solve musical problems. Wonderfully, we do see their characters come out to play in full.
This is where hot takes have no place. Get Back doesn’t deliver shock moments that ‘reveal all’. Far from it. There are no goodies and baddies here. There are a group of friends, each highly talented with their faults and foibles, who consistently live up to near all the things that were said and written about them during this period, both good and bad.
John: ‘You know, social satire, like’
The Atlantic review calls John ‘subversive (and) counter-textual’. This is at best a flattering part-truth. To be a complete description, ‘stoned mess’ and ‘occassionally vicious prick’ must feature. That doesn’t affect my love and admiration for him one bit. It is very much the account given of him by those who knew him best.
Get Back starkly illustrates, above all, that it is Lennon who broke up the band, and not so much through the oresence of Yoko as through his increasing indifference to the Beatle thing.
He is simply not interested in filling the leadership void left by ‘Mr Epstein’, in making decisions. The sense is all the others would follow if he did. (Revealingly, the Get Back book tells us it was Lennon who finally made the decision to play the rooftop concert. Only he could make the group act.)
But up until that moment, John doesn’t take the reins. He’s either stoned or waiting for someone else to do it. Why? Because he doesn’t give much of a shit. He only has a couple of songs up his sleeve. He is silent for much of the bickering and indecision plaguing the early Twickenham days.
That’s because he is interested in figuring himself out in ‘69, not in fixing the Beatles, and this is fair enough. He is a guy in his late 20s, worshipped by half the world’s youth, with a head full of neuroses. He is looking for answers that fame and fortune – that the Beatles – have failed to provide. Yoko is part of that journey. Paul acknowledges on film that John would pick Yoko over the band in a flash.
But we shouldn’t fall in the trap of saying Yoko therefore had ‘nothing to do with’ the break up. Her presence at the centre of the band is odd. It obviously unsettles his band mates. They say as much.
One can’t help feeing that is deliberate on John and Yoko’s part. That they are trying to shake things up, challenge what the Beatles means. She is in herself a challenge: it’s us or nothing now, boys. accept it or fuck off. The drug taking is contemptuous of the band too. Lennon is quite nasty on horse – witness the hideously uncomfortable segment when the George-less Beatles are visited by Peter Sellers.
On that basis It would be very easy, put in Paul or George’s place, to rise to the bait: to get very, very angry with Lennon’s stoned absence, the brittle fiendish figure he cuts, and Yoko’s presence. They don’t, because they love him, in spite of him making their lives difficult. There is no confrontation. (Although George, some suspect, leaves the band because he can’t stand looking at Lennon in that state a moment longer.)
Once John wakes up, after the move to Saville Row, he is charming, funny, and imposing as you might expect, every bit the Lennon that the cameras want, rolling out wordplay, piss-takes and occasionally genuine enthusiasm for the project.
Amusingly, he is also a credulous fool. We have all known someone like John: passionate in defence of his latest dodgy mate, right up until the moment he’s let down: here is is just over Maharishi, freshly fooled by the dolt Magic Alex, and now fallen in love with Allen Klein – and he simply will not be told that the guy is a tarantula. HE says to George: ‘he knows me as well as you do.’ I mean COME ON JOHN!
Paul: ‘look, lads – the band…’
The documentary does a lot to rehabilitate Paul’s image. What we see in Get Back is a highly accomplished musician constantly coaxing his friends to display a basic level of professionalism, and it is very easy to pity him here, dealing with a prickly George and a stoned John. He also tries very hard to be gracious about the Yoko situation (as opposed to a jealous tart). He is hugely prolific, and the only one apparently still in love with the idea of being a Beatle.
But the fact is, this whole ghastly cock-up of a project is his idea, and it has, sadly, created perfect conditions for a disaster. He complains the whole way through the project about the fact that they are just recording an album, that there is no agreed ‘wow’ performance at the end.
Get Back is at least partly a shambles because Paul s being a little dishonest, will not come out and clearly say what he means: ‘I want to perform to a fuck off big crowd, like the old days. I miss it. And I think we’d blow them away’. This is a man who still has their final live set list taped to his bass. He doesn’t give a shit about the film. He wants APPLAUSE.
And really that is fair enough. But his band mates have made clear many times they are nervous about the idea, and the more he presses the more he loses them. In doing so he reveals the things he would be criticised for later:.
He is a bossy fucker. He can’t help himself, even though he knows it annoys his mates. There are hilarious moments where it’s possible to see him actually twitching, wanting to bark orders at his band mates, make them do it fucking right. It is a dynamic that runs right through the picture, the sickness at the heart of the Beatles: It’s John’s band, and he doesn’t want it anymore. Paul wants it, but he cannot tell Lennon what to do.
He has an enormous ego. There are other occasions when the camera catches Paul smoking a cigar, pulling on his beard, where you can almost overhear his thoughts, ruminating on the wondrous extent of his own magnificence.
And there is that constant, terrible cringe-making jcheesy side to him. The jokiness and the accents and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. He doesn’t really know how to be rock’n’roll cool in person. It’s actually kind of endearing. As is the fact that his wish to relive the touring days is partly motivated by the desire to be closer to John. He talks about writing with Lennon in hotel rooms a couple of times.
But this is a hugely talented creature, with every right to love himself. He delivers probably the two most powerful moments in the film: writing Get Back, and his tearful moment when he believes the band is dead. He also is genuinely funny when he is not trying to be. When George and John suggest Billy Preston join as a fifth Beatle, Paul says ‘it’s bad enough with four’.
George: ‘it’d be just our luck to get a load of cunts in there’
George is not the happiest of campers here. For every For you Blue and Something there is an I Me Mine and an All Things Must Pass. He brings up the death of Epstein and speaks of the Beatles being ‘in the doldrums’. He shoots down ideas and of course, leaves the band. He talks of recording a solo album and is by far the least interested in performing live.
But, gloomy a lad as he is, he is only 26, and offering up fantastic tracks all over the place:. He speaks with genuine enthusiasm about the process of recording live, as a foursome, relishing the challenge.
There’s a moment when he comes into the Twickenham studio and plays I Me Mine. He looks his age there, every inch the impressionable youngster nervous of this elders’ opinions, hunched over guitar like the shy one he was always made out to be.
Christ, imagine pitching a tune to Lennon and McCartney. Sure enough, Lennon pitches up, ratchets up the northern accent and makes jokes about his song. That early in the morning, following days of stoned silence from his old friend, George naturally sounds like he’d like to feed Lennon his Gibson.
Much like he is described in the Beatles literature, George is here the serious one, the one trying to bring the truth, view the greater whole. He is visibly irritated when Paul reminisces mockingly about their stay in Risshikesh, scoffing at Paul’s idea that they ‘weren’t being themselves’.
John and Paul do thick northern accents, their ritual way of cutting down excessive indulgent bullshit; George just flat out says what he is thinking, without a filter. He is the kind of friend who one deeply loves but is often exasperated by, who can steer any conversation into a gloomy place.
And in the end, George is right about a lot of things. The rooftop is a terrible idea. It is a joy to see them play together, but it is an incredibly weird event, the result of indecision and desperation. They only have six numbers, nobody can see them, it’s freezing cold. Yet, somehow, for a moment they are enjoying themselves.
Right at the beginning, back in Twickenham. George is the one who suggests they play some ‘Oldies but goodies’ in their concert. He sees immediately that there is bugger all chance of them writing, rehearsing and performing 14 new tracks in the time available. John says he has a ‘rocker’ version of Help he’s been working on.
Well. If Paul had agreed to this approach, who knows? They might have lost all the pressure the new tracks approach heaped upon them, lost the feeling of impending doom, and actually had some fun recooking some old favourites,. I mean, probably not, but Paul could at least have have had his full-fat concert. He could have had his applause.
On the other hand, with that approach we might never have had Get Back written during that bored morning, and maybe not even heard Billy Preston’s beautiful contribution. And that would have been sad indeed.
On Chjristmas Day I received the book of Get Back – transcripts of the 8 hours I just watched. I consumed the whole thing in a couple of days. I am a sick, sick person, but it just goes to show: I have nothing but time for these people.
These are, fundamentally, hugely talented, thoughtful, accomplished, remarkably sane mates from Liverpool, pictured growing out of the Beatles and into men. It couldn’t have gone on for ever. But it could still be beautiful even as it fell apart.