Rock critic Greil Marcus once wrote that Elvis was the last thing Americans agreed on. But really, it was the Beatles. Just ask anyone who remembers. Better yet, watch Get Back, the nearly eight-hour documentary on Disney + about the band’s last live performance in January 1969. The film, produced and directed by Peter Jackson, was created from footage initially shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the 1970 documentary of the Album Let it Be, the result being a documentary about a documentary. Assembled from 60 hours of never-before-seen film and 150 hours of audio recordings documenting 22 days of rehearsals, Get Back gives a panopticon-like view into the creative interactions and voluble personalities of four stone geniuses — five if you count keyboardist Billy Preston as the “fifth Beatle.” Six if you count the other so-called fifth Beatle, the producer/conductor George Martin, whose recording techniques helped the Beatles revolutionize rock.
Shifting seamlessly between close-ups of faces and fingers, quick cuts between songs (and song fragments) and candid shots of band members interacting among themselves and their entourage, Get Back is to 20th-century pop music what the Rosetta Stone was to ancient history – the urtext that shows us how the Beatles spun their magic. It may also represent what may be the single greatest editing feat in the history of documentary filmmaking, up there in league with Questlove’s Summer of Soul, aka the “Black Woodstock.”
The pressures the band imposed on itself were formidable. Apart from speed-writing and polishing 14 new songs in three weeks, they were also trying to decide, in the middle of the sessions, how and where to perform that material. Managers, engineers, producers, and publicists frequently interrupt to pitch ideas, igniting debates about whether to create a TV special or perform live in various far-flung locations. Or, scrap the project as George Harrison suggests more than once. (One idea floated and later rejected was to play at Sabratha, a Roman amphitheater in Tripoli.) Ultimately, with the deadline fast-approaching and logistical challenges multiplying, the band decided to perform (and record) on the rooftop of Apple Corps, their longstanding record label.
Apprehension, visible on the faces of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney as they walk onto the rooftop stage, is palpable. But once the band launches into the film’s title track, all nervousness dissipates. What unfolds is a rollicking 42-minute performance by musicians at the peak of their powers. They honor song structures but take liberties, none more thrilling than the vocal ad-libs performed by Lennon and McCartney. Their effortless harmonizing and unexpected rhythmic interjections drive the music, which the other bandmembers pick up and amplify, demonstrating exactly how much spice Harrison, Starr and Preston added to the Beatles’ overall sound. Tragically, police shut down the performance somewhere around the mid-point, allegedly responding to noise complaints. I emphasize allegedly because interviews on the street conducted during the show with people of all ages reveal a crowd enthralled — not irked — by what they were hearing. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t see the band; almost everyone recognized the sound as that of the Beatles – hardly a surprise.
Great as the finale is, the heart and soul of Get Back lies in the rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios, which consume two of the film’s three segments. Casual viewers may find the stop-start nature of the sessions stupefying; die-hard fans will savor every gesture, every false start, every wisecrack, recognizing the film as the Holy Grail of Beatlemania. In addition to affording unprecedented glimpses into how the band operated, Get Back shatters the longstanding myth that, at the end, the Beatles were hopelessly riven by internal discord aggravated by the distracting presence of Yoko Ono. Rather, the four men share and display an extraordinary bond that appears to have only deepened over 12 years of performing and recording. Their comedic banter, chock-full of references to that past, pepper the film and include spontaneous (though sometimes truncated) renditions of numerous classics, their own and those penned by others. The latter roam from covers of Elvis, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly to obscure masterpieces like the Harry Lime Theme from Orson Welles’ Third Man, which Lennon plays, eerily evoking the original zither melody by Viennese composer Anton Karas. Ono, ever-present, is never once shown to be the disrupter she is rumored to have been; she sits quietly during the sessions except for couple breaks when she grabs a microphone and delivers primal-scream vocals, aided by McCartney on bass who sidles up to his amp to produce feedback, a sure indication that he was hip to the Cage-like industrial aesthetic Ono was aiming for. Starr, on drums, provides appropriate rumble while Lennon supplies grating power chords. Far from opposing Lennon’s relationship with Ono, the other three Beatles appear to be in on the game, fully supportive. There is no friction among them – at least where Ono is concerned.
Other fascinating tidbits include Harrison’s solo performance of I Me Mine, during which John and Yoko break into a spontaneous waltz, showing themselves to be good dancers, as does Starr who later, and all too briefly, performs a little jig (and later, a tap dance), before sitting at the piano to work out Octopus’ Garden with help from Preston who directs him, ever so gently, to a missing chord. Preston, a child prodigy introduced to television audiences by Nat King Cole at age 11, says little during the film, but his musical instincts are unerring: with no written charts before him, he fills harmonic gaps and provides understated but vital solos, like the one on Get Back without which the tune would be measurably weaker had the sole instrumental break come from Lennon’s guitar. Starr also says little, but his face in numerous telling close-ups displays a stunning range of emotion – he could have been a silent film actor had he been born earlier. (Here, it’s worth remembering that he starred, alongside Peter Sellers, in the 1969 satire, The Magic Christian, whose concurrent production, also at Twickenham, required the band to complete rehearsals by the end of January.) In sartorial matters Starr is the most outrageous of the bunch. He wears a lime-green leisure suit one day, a red vinyl overcoat on the day of the rooftop performance. (Harrison, sporting a few baroque-looking outfits, isn’t far behind, whereas Lennon, most of the time, looks like a bereft college student.)
Throughout the sessions, McCartney does most of the talking and issues most of the musical direction, establishing himself as the leader, leaving Harrison isolated. We see the guitarist struggling to follow fast-shifting changes to arrangements. He tries to please but ends up annoying McCartney with questions and suggestions. Tensions between the two culminate on day 10 when he quits the group after several unsuccessful attempts at Don’t Let Me Down. “See you ‘round the clubs,” he says as he exits, touching off a crisis. “If he’s not back by Tuesday, we get [Eric] Clapton,” Lennon suggests. Still, it’s clear from their dismay that they’d rather have Harrison, and after days of hand-wringing and cajoling (recorded in one notable instance by a microphone hidden in flower pot) he returns, rejuvenated and sounding sharp.
Still, it’s McCartney’s force of personality and competence on several instruments (guitar, bass, piano) that dominates, leaving us to wonder whether he was the true leader all along. That notion gets punctured when Lennon, at numerous junctures, stands – rather than sits – to sing alongside McCartney in the rehearsals, reminding us that the Beatles were performers long before they became a so-called studio band. Ever the extrovert, Lennon alters the dynamic, injecting energy that turns the already charged atmosphere positively electric – proving, yet again, that it took both men (and a little help from their friends) to create the Beatles. Those seeking scuttlebutt will be disappointed: The Beatles didn’t just turn on the charm for cameras and clueless interviewers; they were truly, as one middle-aged interviewee in Get Back quips, “nice guys.”
Surprises? There aren’t many. The film confirms much of what we know about the Beatles. But there is one odd revelation: The title song, Get Back, released on the LP Let it Be (1970), was originally intended as a satire, meant to poke fun at a surge of white nationalism then sweeping Britain in response to a wave of immigration. During the rehearsals at Twickenham, it contained references to Puerto Ricans and Pakistanis; those were subsequently dropped. What we get are sketchy references to two characters: Jo-Jo (“who left his home in Tucson, Arizona”) and Sweet Loretta Martin who (“thought she was a woman, but was just another man”).
In the end, Get Back leaves us with an indelible portrait of the world’s first supergroup, an emblem of a time “when,” as Lennon once sang, “everything was right.” It wasn’t. We had Nixon, war, assassinations, racial turmoil and political dirty tricks. Still, as Lennon urged, we can “imagine” other scenarios, other visions of what might have been.
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The Beatles: “Get Back” streaming on Disney +.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.