There was so much to love in The Beatles: Get Back documentary series which finally aired on Disney+ late last year that it’s hard to know where to start. I was quite incredulous to read that some Beatles fans found it heavy going or even boring in places. Seriously? Haven’t we always dreamed of being a fly on the wall while they recorded an album, witnessing the preternatural creative process up close, watching them bounce ideas and jokes off one another, and listening in to their private conversations? I’m sure actually sitting through every minute of every session might have got a bit wearing, even for an obsessive fan, but what Peter Jackson delivered here was a painstakingly potted version which – even at almost eight hours – still left you wanting more. Sadly, rumours of additional footage on the forthcoming DVD edition appear to unfounded, but this was still an absolute joy from start to finish. Not only did it give us that ‘up close’, intimate experience of Fab Four recording sessions, but the unique circumstances of the time brought the added drama of a band teetering on the brink of collapse, uncertain of its direction and fearful of living up to its own myth, yet ultimately coming together, reaffirming its synergy and brilliance, and producing yet another iconic career highpoint (quite literally, on a roof). At the very least, Get Back completely redraws the final part of The Beatles’ history as a band, and gives us an understanding of their personalities and internal dynamics like nothing else. Lazy, glib biographers and critics who pedal simplistic, black-and-white interpretations have nowhere left to go, and for the rest of us….well, I think we’ll be feasting on this for years to come. Warning: if you haven’t seen it, there are spoilers ahead.
To begin with, Jackson and his team deserved huge plaudits for the restoration of the film, and the ordering/editing of the 55 hours of material (with multiple camera angles) they were presented with. Original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his camera crew take the credit for the shots, of course, but the grainy quality of the Let It Be film has been replaced by pin-sharp picture definition and vibrant colours, and the way it has all been put together to tell a quite different story (in much longer form, admittedly) is masterful. Watching it is a wonderfully immersive experience – The Beatles (and supporting characters) really come alive, and you feel like you’re sat there with them as they weave their magic. The idea of kicking things off with a brief recap of their career to date (particularly opening with the 1958 Quarrymen recording of ‘In Spite of all the Danger’ playing over photos of them as teenagers) was a great move, giving viewers a vital bit of context, like a prologue to a novel. Thereafter, Jackson deftly lets the story unfold with a minimum of interference, simply identifying the participants and the songs being performed, providing occasional subtitles, and framing it all in the ridiculously pressured month-long timetable (enforced by Ringo’s imminent departure to shoot the Magic Christian film) the band members had submitted themselves to. They are working against the clock, and this is partly what gives the film its narrative drive.
The first part takes place entirely at Twickenham film studios, and you get a sense very early on that The Beatles, for once, may have bitten off more than they can chew. Arising from a plan which emerged in late 1968 to promote the ‘White Album’ with their first live shows in more than two years, it has now morphed into a project centred around rehearsals for a televised performance of entirely new songs, which will take place at the end of that very same month. And instead of recording at Abbey Road as normal, they will pull this particular rabbit out of a hat on a vast, chilly soundstage in the middle of winter. Oh, and be filmed while doing it, so there will be a documentary to accompany the concert. You get the feeling it hasn’t been properly thought through, just thrown together on a Beatle whim (a bit like Magical Mystery Tour, perhaps), and this lack of preparation, definition and clear consensus dogs proceedings throughout the month. The cavernous space of Twickenham (picked because it was available and a potential location for the concert), with its dubious acoustics, was not conducive to optimum band creativity; likewise the switch to early morning starts, when the Fabs – well-known night owls – had long since been accustomed to working through the night, probably didn’t help much either. But the problems ran a little deeper than that, as becomes clear.
The exhaustive and exhausting sessions for the mammoth White Album had finished just over a couple of months before, yielding 32 released tracks and a host more demos and outtakes. By today’s standards, in the unlikely event of any band producing that amount of music in one go, it would need to take at least a five-year break to recover. At the same time, on-going tensions and fractiousness had emerged between the Fabs in the studio for the first time, resulting in both Ringo and George Martin taking a leave of absence during the making of the album. The reasons for that are hard to pin down, though the sudden omnipresence of Yoko Ono at John’s side would certainly have been a factor. However, when the cameras start rolling at Twickenham, there seem to be good vibes aplenty. The first run-through of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ (or ‘I’ve Got A Hard-on’, as John dubs it) is great, as is the scene on day two when Paul, George and Ringo wryly read up on their escapades in the latest issue of The Beatles Monthly Book magazine (reading about themselves was something they obviously found very amusing and is a recurring theme in the film). Yoko is once again ever-present, but the others seem to have accepted her by this point and she’s certainly not a disruptive influence. In fact, she barely says anything at all, outside of an animated chat you see her having later on with Linda Eastman. Nonetheless, the rehearsals do start to flounder a little bit, and that’s down to the dynamics between John, Paul and George.
For a start, there’s an issue around the new material they need to pull together for the show. With Paul’s workaholic nature and innate genius in full flow, great songs are pouring out of him on a daily basis; John, on the other hand, seems to have ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (which still needs a lot of work to knock it into shape) and little else, bar a few undeveloped snippets. The raft of fine numbers he’d written during and immediately after their trip to India the previous year seems to have drained him of inspiration (though there was likely another factor at play, which I’ll come onto shortly). Despite Paul’s promptings, there’s so little coming from the Lennon corner that they resort to resurrecting old tunes, including ‘Across The Universe’ (recorded the previous year but not to its author’s satisfaction, and still unreleased at that point) and even some of the earliest entries in the Lennon/McCartney songbook, written as teenagers in Liverpool, like ‘Too Bad About Sorrows’ and ‘One After 909’. It’s a glorious segment, but it does highlight one of the band’s main writers was struggling to find his mojo.
To further complicate matters, George was bringing in more and more numbers of his own – most of them amazingly good – but they weren’t getting much traction in the band setting. While Paul is engaged and enthusiastic, John’s disinterest is evident. He does play keyboards on a run-through of ‘All Things Must Pass’ (and, in a fantastic moment, makes a telling suggestion to improve the lyric, which George immediately recognises and adopts), but doesn’t play on early attempts at ‘For You Blue’ and is dismissive of ‘I Me Mine’, preferring to indulge in a faux-waltz with Yoko while the others attempt to work through it. With John offering so little new material of his own, this attitude must’ve rankled with George and contributed to his darkening mood as the Twickenham sessions progressed. Perhaps John felt threatened as the previously junior songwriting partner moved more to the fore, the “little kid” who used to follow him around in Liverpool now turning out stronger compositions than he was. One can only guess.
I think John’s generally passive frame of mind at this point in the project is also causing problems. It’s not that he’s disengaged, exactly, just not the powerhouse you would’ve imagined him to be previously in their career. It’s likely that his heroin use played a big part in this. He and Yoko were definitely partaking heavily around this time; there’s footage online of a deathly pale John interrupting an interview with a TV crew at Twickenham to go and be sick, which many observers have attributed to his drug intake. Whatever the reason, his mentality unbalances the band in my view – it’s a bit like a car running on three wheels. This is nowhere more evident than during the infamous “argument” scene, partially included in Let It Be but expanded here to give its full and proper context. Paul and George disagree about their approach to the arrangement of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, and this continues into their next song, ‘Two of Us’. Macca wants him to play a different guitar part; a visibly irritated George says he’ll play whatever he wants him to play, or “I won’t play at all…whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” John is silent through most of all this and Paul’s frustrations at having to whip up enthusiasm for being The Beatles (!) finally boil over. He’s tired of having to try to be “the boss”, presumably due to Lennon’s apathy, and before long they’re openly discussing the end of the band. George, claiming they’ve been in the doldrums for “at least a year” (perhaps referring to their trip to India), suggests it might be time for a divorce. Paul, lamenting the loss of Brian Epstein and his ability to keep them focused and moving focus, points out that he’s already mooted this idea. John, again, says little. They continue the rehearsals, but the band he formed and – until now – has led is clearly adrift due to his indifference.
That said, I don’t think the initial dispute between Paul and George is that big a deal, and is surely the kind of thing which must’ve occurred countless times during their recording career as they tried to decide on the best way forward for a song. For what it’s worth, I think George was right that they were over-complicating the arrangement for ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (as the finished version proved). Equally, I think Macca was well within his rights to suggest a rethink for ‘Two of Us’ if he felt it was going in the wrong direction. However, this clearly rubbed up against George’s newfound self-confidence; he had just come back from spending time with Bob Dylan and The Band in the US, where he was lauded and treated as an equal. Now he was back, in his mind at least, to being a second-tier Beatle, disconnected from Lennon and unwilling to take direction from a reluctantly dominant McCartney.
Another issue is the overall direction of what they are achieve, at least in terms of the planned live performance. Michael Lindsay-Hogg has taken some flak for his role in the film, and his continual push for the band to do a concert at a Roman amphitheatre in Libya does become quite comical. But to be fair, he knew the film he was making had to have some kind of climax, and the clock was ticking ever louder while The Beatles fooled around with half-baked cover versions and unfinished songs. I think the Libyan idea would have been wonderful if they could’ve pulled it off (Pink Floyd did something similar in Pompeii just a few years later), and John and Paul seemed keen. But the logistics and deadlines involved, not to mention Ringo’s unwillingness to go abroad, would’ve made it all but impossible. And the prospect of them sailing on a cruise liner to get there, with the audience on board, was rightly dubbed “insane” by George, who seemed staunchly opposed to the whole concept (and, I suspect, was losing interest in the overall concert idea by this point).
Lindsay-Hogg is one of a number of compelling supporting players in the film. As the band was rehearsing rather than recording at Twickenham, George Martin is very much a peripheral figure at this stage, and you sense they miss his guiding hand. Instead, they rely more on young engineer Glyn Johns, who – in his kaftans and leather jackets – comes over as a very chilled, cool customer, and extremely likeable. Mal Evans, the gentle giant of a roadie who had been with them since the Cavern days, remains the ever-faithful factotum, serving up lyric sheets, cups of tea, equipment and whatever else is required, usually at the drop of a hat. Yoko practices her trademark inscrutability for the most part, but when she smiles or and/engages with the music (as on a playful version of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, with John hamming it up to the max) a totally different, more attractive and intriguing person emerges. And when an obviously-smitten Paul brings Linda in one day, her beauty and calm persona is striking.
Particularly spellbinding is the scene where music publisher Dick James calls by to give the band an update on the latest goings-on with their company, Northern Songs. Relations between him, John and Paul were becoming increasingly strained by this point, not least because – under the terms of their original contract – he was making more money from the Lennon-McCartney catalogue than they were (he would sell off his shares in the company just a few months later, triggering the bitter wrangles of ownership of the songs which continue to this day). Despite James’ perky banter, the atmosphere is frosty; Paul, in particular, barely conceals his dislike of the man, while George makes a pointed reference to his own “half a per cent” share in the company. There are hilarious moments, though – Macca, leafing through a list of songs newly acquired by Northern, is thrilled to find an old standard one of his uncles loved, while the prospect of wartime sweetheart Vera Lynn covering a couple of their compositions really tickles John’s funnybone.
In truth, the first part of Get Back is full of great moments like this. I can’t go through all my favourite bits, but a few spring immediately to mind. The aforementioned romp through some of their earliest songs is marvellous (I wish we had more of this, but perhaps these snippets was all Jackson had to play with), as is their revisting of old rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts like Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’, even though John can’t remember many of the words. Watching Paul vamp his way through tunes like ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Another Day’ and ‘Carry That Weight’ alone at the piano (Ringo: “I could watch him do this for hours”), with George joining in on drums at one point. The endless in-jokes between them all, and the obvious delight when they greet each other in the mornings. Paul and Ringo’s impromptu piano duet. George’s gorgeous solo acoustic rendition of Dylan’s ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’ while Paul and Linda, and John and Yoko, watch entranced, wrapped up in their own coupledom worlds. Ringo arriving hungover one day (“I’m not gonna lie…”). Ringo’s endless patience, deadpan reactions and instinctive drumming responses to the never-ending song fragments thrown at him. Their early stabs at ‘Let It Be’. The realisation that, in January 1969, they not only had much of the material for Abbey Road in the bag or underway, but were also mapping out songs which would ultimately appear on their solo albums: ‘All Things Must Pass’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ (All Things Must Pass), ‘Back Seat of My Car’ (Ram), ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ (Imagine). The scope and quality of their creative output, especially at a time when we have been led to believe they were at a low ebb, is simply mindblowing.
One of the absolute highlights is the genesis of the song ‘Get Back’. One morning Paul, muttering that “Lennon’s late again”, plugs his bass in and starts strumming it like a guitar. Out of nowhere, the verse melody of the tune starts to miraculously emerge, the very same tune now as familiar to millions of people around the world as ‘Happy Birthday’. George and Ringo watch intently at first, and then start joining in. John arrives, and instantly does likewise. It’s Beatles wizardry taking place before our eyes, or as one critic has said “like watching a chick emerging from its shell”. We have the thrill of watching the song take shape over the course of the film, as the band tries out and discards various ideas, including using the lyric as a way of lampooning the (then) controversial anti-immigration policies of British politician Enoch Powell. As an added bonus, this spins them off into a totally different, unreleased number called ‘Commonwealth’, which is tonnes of fun.
They do seem to have lots of fun at Twickenham, despite everything, but the underlying problems George is grappling with don’t go away. Peter Jackson has also alluded to personal issues that apparently came to a head at the same time – perhaps relating to his mother’s health (she died the following year), or marital troubles with Patti. Nonetheless it’s still a shock when, at the end of one day’s rehearsals, George calmly says: “I think I’m going to be leaving the band now.” Off camera, he tells the others “I’ll see you round the clubs”, and quits. Not just the project, but The Beatles. As this episode’s epilogue shows, a subsequent meeting at Ringo’s house to persuade him to return ends in failure. The biggest band in the world is now in big trouble, and some remarkable events unfold in episode two of Get Back, which I’ll discuss next time.