The Beatles: Get Back and Peter Jackson
Much has already been written on the doc and the difference in mood from the original Let It Be which played the band as nervous, unsettled, dour, and on the verge of breaking up. Not the case when you witness all eight hours of this brilliant film.
By Bill King
How many of you were camping in a high school classroom daydreaming about joining or putting together a band in 1960 or whereabouts? The daily grind of school was bland, interactions hollow, and escape on the horizon. That getaway linked to that coming British invasion in 1964, when the Beatles touched down on American soil.
It’s my last year of high school, and life is rough around the edges. There’s a thriving social movement, civil unrest, girls aplenty. And robust nightlife quite beyond those steel girders detaining me inside that brick prison. Then Wham!, The Beatles land.
The planet not only rocked and rumbled but withstood a sonic boom felt around the world unleashing a raw and riotous new sound unheard before. Jerry Vale died on the vine. Annette and Paul abandoned on the beach. Every middle ground act – roadkill. It was wiping the ‘time slate’ clean, and we loved it.
I began scribbling on notebooks – The Beatles, Mick, and Keith, The Who, alongside Oscar, Ahmad and Miles. Talk about being jacked and pumped on the possibilities. What I heard from the Beatles played in my head - the next step towards a complete overhaul of music. Jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, pop – the hybrid marriage of all. Let the wedding bells ring!
That grease dome atop the head got a serious rinsing. The barbershop around the corner rarely spotted me. Dad threatened, mom made peace. Brother Wayne and I sat in the Rialto savouring every inch of Hard Day’s Night, Help! Three times each.
Revisiting an era of such pain, promise and creativity were never on the menu until we got wind of Peter Jackson’s underground work on Get Back!
I like millions bought into the Disney Channel—first for Paul McCartney and Rick Rubin’s dissection of Beatles tracks – McCartney 3,2,1. Which, to this moment, still resonates as one of the finest music documentaries of our times. And then November 26 arrives, and there it is in all its glorious technological splendour—John, George, Paul and Ringo, as if they never left this seventeen-year-old's brain.
The trailer gave us a hint of what to expect. Four young lads jamming away oblivious to the invasive lens of filmmaker Michael-Lindsay Hogg. And then it hits you, “these guys are alive, and in real-time and we are the intruders sitting just behind Yoko watching with a childlike curiosity.” Spooky.
Much has already been written on the doc and the difference in mood from the original Let It Be that played the band as nervous, unsettled, dour, and on the verge of breaking up. Not the case when you witness all eight hours of this brilliant film.
We have made much of the friction between the players, but bands have lifetimes, much like athletes or those working the floors of the money markets. It’s an accelerated pace, exhilarating at times, tense, to many sleepless nights, drug and alcohol-driven, coffee stressed intensely focused work. Mad passion requires binding discipline. No loafing, no absenteeism, no deception, or words of ingratiating discomfort.
Get Back shows a band held together by brotherly love. There are no cruel blow-ups. No Gallagher brothers Oasis style self-destruct—poisonous hateful rhetoric. Only four young men trying to work things out – compose songs, deal with the stress of an impending return to live playing, - the expectations and pressures to do so.
Three nights of Beatle watching was at a times a chore. Not from the chosen directorial/editing choices but following the minor victories among the plodding and aching pains of birthing a song.
The centrepiece is the song Get Back, which slowly unfolds and takes shape over the course of the documentary, culminating in a final rooftop performance. Oh, did the band ever sound great! Every corner of this beautifully crafted jam sorted out – sung and played to perfection – right down to Bill Preston’s glorious Rhodes piano solo. Something we heard evolved over days of wait and see.
Much as been made of George Harrison’s place within the inner circle of Beatles songwriters. Get Back offers a few clues why this may have happened.
Collaboration is magic. George and Ira Gershwin, Holland, Dozier, Holland, Goffin and King. Partnerships can’t be forced or pressured into receiving outliers. Not saying George as a player was an outlier, but he wasn’t there when high school Paul and John merged as wordsmiths and tune makers. This would have to be a ‘by invitation only club.
Harrison offered snippets of potential songs not fully realized and needed help. A few of these shorts would one day be classics to themselves. Lennon maneuvered gently around Harrison’s frustration with the three and calmed the rough waters. Therefore, the film offers us a glorious read on the character and soul of the band.
Knocked off the last episode of Get Back. I’m glad I hung in. The last hour was a keeper. I still think they could pare two and three down. I get the false starts and lulls. That gets to be a bit much. As the film unwinds, you begin to think the band is around now, this young and vibrant.
Episode three balances the music duties with Lennon’s material more in play. Billy Preston was surely a Beatle himself. His work is impeccable. The roof scenes gave us the opportunity to hear the songs in their entirety, with all those counterpoint guitar and bass lines. We never see in doc Lennon, Harrison and McCartney work out the intricate lines that play a secondary role in the structure of arrangements. What’s truly impressive is the quality of vocals absent clowning. Pitch was perfect, as were the inflections it has accustomed us to hearing in the final recordings. Like the Stones, it’s that crush of sound between two guitars and bass, that blend is done in such a unique way that never tires. Always entertaining and vibrant. Ringo throughout, always on the mark.
Should the Beatles have stayed together? I think Harrison answered that. We have our own music in us and it’s time to get it out. Last, Lennon and McCartney were in a zone together rarely achieved. To help Harrison complete his catalogue wasn’t in the stars.
Lou Pomanti - I'm in the most fantastic Beatles fog right now. OMG, it's too good. Only for the real fans though. Others, I'm told say it's like watching paint dry. To me, watching Paul write Get Back, or Let It Be, is almost too good to be true.
I’m watching it now. So enjoying it. Get Back, remember playing that on the old record player in your basement, and it would go off, and we’d have to turn it off and in again. That’s my memory of Get Back.
These four men, perhaps without a lunch bucket in hand, went to work every day, and man, did they work. They each had their role, as you noted Bill, but the work ethic stood out - a necessary ingredient for success of any kind. Perhaps no other band could have created consequential songs with so many distractions - cameras and strange people looking over their shoulders, with family-like power struggles between brothers, with a new lady ever-present in their circle, with many decisions to be made with a deadline hanging over their heads, and most notable, without a "Mr. Epstein" to guide them. And what does it say about their relationship with Glyn Johns that he was allowed to participate, albeit on a small level?
I'm not sure I agree with the notion of paring down 2. I have not seen three yet. Once you have the collection of the albums and anthology, not the video one, but the musical/cd anthology with different takes of each song, etc., you well know what the output was. I find 2 interesting because it's in the lull where you actually see the people/musicians struggling with each other and themselves... and how they process those difficult moments... the pressure... both the self-inflicted one and the one from the world expecting something from them, etc., which may also be self-inflicted to a point. Something is bugging George and it predates these sessions.
Even when they're jamming, each has a mic and John jumps in anytime he feels like it but George for some reason is reticent... and doesn't seem to have a clear musical vision of the whole as Paul clearly does. And I do not get the feeling that Paul thinks his way is better, but surely offers an option that others are welcome to counter. But the idea that they need a plan, a methodology, to get things down in time seems to be a concern only he has or shows. The others don't engage in the same way for reasons unknown and that we don't see.
Lots of history among them. John does contribute once in a while. But he too is going through something, clearly. Paul had not given up and was anxious to get going, creatively, musically, etc., because of the impending deadline. You have four guys with no arranger or conductor. And a deadline. Paul filled the spot. Never do I get the sense that he would not have been open to an idea by anyone except perhaps from the crew if it became a regular thing. But you do get the sense that he's on a different energy level. He's not stoned. He wants to engage, and deep down he seems to know that the band is best when everyone engages at 150 %. But John is somewhat distracted although still open to the proceedings. George... hard to say what was going on with George... but his suggestions even in what we see are vague (musically)... and his pent-up emotions drown whatever he offers. No doubt that it frustrated Paul with him, that's clear. But controlling?
Just watched the first half-hour of episode three. So much better. Really enjoyed Paul's daughter funnin' around. Looking forward to the rest. Couldn't handle and more narcolepsy and negativity. Dead dreary. At the end of hour 1, part 1, George agrees with Paul that the Beatles have been "in the doldrums" for a year. I took that as permission to zone out. Given that at the time, they agreed to do this TV Special one would like to think the band that had recently given the world The White Album, Sgt. Pepper and Revolver might be up for something more than regurgitating songs they wrote at age 15. I forget to mention Magical Mystery Tour, there were some cool tunes there too. Not surprisingly the TV Special was canned so not clear why someone thought fifty years later it would somehow enhance their legacy to put out six hours of this stuff.
The origin of the song Get Back was an infantile racist rant until they cleaned it up. Of course, they didn't show any of the earliest noodling about Pakis getting back to where they once belong. There is even one iteration that mentions Puerto Ricans!
3 things stood out for me: John's reaction when Paul used "Tuscon" for the first time,
The fact that we saw them perform the song that made it onto the album that we've listened to for 50+ years, Billy Preston's first sit-in with them. Wow!
Knowing they were meeting with Allen Klein while they were doing this music started turning things dark. He is such a snake, but they had not learned that yet. The Stones who were hot on Allen then found out a few years later how bad he had screwed them. Mick Jagger and Keith sued him for 10 years because he stole their songs and put his company name on them. They finally just gave up.
Was somewhat surprised - maybe shouldn't have been - to see the degree to which Paul drove the bus. And this: 2.5 hours long and much of it was smiles and chuckles, the boys having a good time, but in the last call of 30 minutes, the vibe got chilly and cloudy, leading to George temporarily leaving the band. Foreshadowing eh wot? Loved it.
I’ve heard people get down on his bass playing over the years, and I just don’t get it. He’s a great player and great musician. So lyrical on the bass, and at times, complex...but those are good things in my world. Playing the right thing at the right time is the ticket, and he does it.
There has been some criticism of the production, but I am loving it. Perhaps you have to be a certain age to get the most out of it. Which I certainly am.
It’s like being invited into the studio with them. It’s a piece of history.
Credits to most of their stuff went Lennon/McCartney. In this special Paul, clearly, shows he indeed is the leader of the band. What amazing talent 'building' a song....just an outstanding documentary.
Bill King - you’re certainly right. Not a standard doc at all! Some would find it boring. But that was the process! You have to sit quietly and wait and wait for the process to happen. Paul was clearly the inspired and energetic leader (unless John’s input was edited out). And yes, what a musician Paul was (is). And the best voice of all of them. George didn’t seem to get it at all, Ringo seemed to be in awe of Paul, and John was too busy being beside Yoko. Thoroughly captivating and monumental, watching those songs being born in real-time.
As a Beatle fan, scholar, and songwriter I am continually amazed at their creativity and how in 20 takes they can go from a germ of an idea to so often a masterpiece. They are so prolific (especially McCartney) that all my efforts pale in comparison>
To me, it's like listening to Oscar Peterson (which I did yesterday). It is so far in another stratosphere of talent, that maybe only people who play piano or in Macca's case write songs, can truly appreciate the incredible wonder of these kinds of gifts.
Lance Anderson, Bill King, I had so many laughs and moments of awe but the one that sticks in my mind is when Paul sings "the thing that's up ahead" when he's searching for lyrics.
The Beatles were not a jam band. They were about carefully crafted songs and that takes effort and endless practice which means new songs in their early stages are not going to sound polished. Even the "finished product", the rooftop concert, sounded like they could have rehearsed a little more. The "Let it Be" album, despite Phil Spector's interference, still doesn't sound as polished as Abbey Road, most of the White Album, Sgt. Pepper etc.
I’ve truly reconsidered my fragile respect for Paul McCartney. Both docs - Rick Rubin and Peter Jackson show a side of him I’d pushed out of my mind. I bought into the propaganda. Paul broke up the band, arrogant and aloof. Bad me! McCartney is a magnificent songwriter, lyricist, and musician. As far as the bass playing – up there with James Jamerson, Bootsy Collins, Ray Brown, Carol Kaye – those possessing immense technique who harness and bring music from every carefully considered note. Time, feel and taste.
Now here’s a parting treat. Ignore Phil Spector’s wall of mess and treat yourself to “Let Be Naked Remaster” – 2014 on Spotify. Back to the basics and brilliant!