I’d not planned on posting in depth about “Get Back,” but after a couple of people expressed disbelief that I hadn’t, I realized, “Hasn’t my entire life on social media been leading up to this?” Fair point. So, having had some time (not enough, I’ll be returning to and unpacking this behemoth for a while to come), I’ll offer my first impressions.
Spoiler Alert: The Beatles Eventually Break Up
Spoiler alerts. First off, if you’re at best a casual fan of the band, I’d wager there will be parts that will be pretty tedious and downright yawn-inducing. This project wasn’t really made with them in mind. If you’re moderate fan, I think you’ll enjoy it quite a bit, even though you’ll maybe want to fast forward here and there. I mean, it’s 8 1/2 hours in total. But if you’re a serious fan of The Beatles, well, it’s one of the most fascinating things you’re likely to ever see on them. It has fundamentally rewritten the story of how and why they broke up, for one. More on that in a bit.
Allow Me To Mansplain The Beatles For A Second
But here’s my theory about why The Beatles get into so many people’s nervous systems and stay there forever. Of course, most of it is that they wrote and recorded some of the greatest music ever, period. But beyond that, more than any band I can think of, their personalities were so interesting and large that they had their own narratives. So much so that even casual fans have some vague and yes, reductive, notion of who they were: Paul polite and cute, Lennon funny and biting, Harrison removed and spiritual, Ringo affable, etc. Their music and their personalities can make you feel on some deep and ineffable level that you know them and they – somehow – know and understand you. I’m talking in sweeping and simplified generalizations, but I hope you get the gist. And Get Back’s greatest accomplishment emotionally is that feeling of truly having a mysterious, inexplicable, intimate knowledge of them is intensified geometrically. We are in the room with them, hearing and seeing how they interact with another in a way that’s nothing short of revelatory. Yes, there is an awareness on their part that they’re being filmed. But the cameras are so ubiquitous the unrelenting they often, especially in Parts 2 and 3, seem to forget about them and we see how they truly worked together as a band and as friends.
Part One is at times, frankly, a little tough to watch, as there is a palpably odd vibe (to borrow from the vernacular) to it. It’s far too early in the morning for them – namely, it’s morning – they’re in a cavernous and cold foreign space with as, George immediately observes, “Terrible acoustics.” Also, bear in mind, they had released The White Album – 30 songs – less than two months before, and now they proposed writing and performing 14 new songs in less than a month. Who’d even try that? The traditional narrative (bolstered by the Let It Be film) paints Paul out as a bossy and relentless taskmaster whom John and George understandably grow sick of. And yes, Paul IS very much the one to wrangle them like a teacher trying to inspire bored students (I know his pain). But what’s made clear here is that Paul knows he’s coming off this way, and he HATES having to be put in that position. And he has been put in that position. Most immediately because John is addicted to heroin and Yoko and has seemingly checked out (which he kinda is through much of the first part). And George….well, let’s talk about George for a second.
The Quiet One
Harrison, after contributing songs like the brilliant While My Guitar Gently Weeps and the tragically underrated Long, Long, Long, had established himself as among the better songwriters around to more or less everyone except John and Paul. To them, he was still a kid. When George joined the band, John was 17 and George 14. Think of that age gap. And think of your family – it’s really hard to ever escape how you’re seen by your older siblings. In Part One, George had just returned from hanging out with The Band and a singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan. It turns out they not only respected George as a musician and composer, but admired him. Dylan himself expressed his admiration for George’s musicianship and writing.
And so George comes into the project hoping to instill some of that feeling of open and easy collaboration. But he is immediately reminded by Paul and John he’s the junior. Paul does this by barely being able to muster polite interest in his work, and Lennon with outright mockery of George’s new song, I, Me, Mine. George responds appropriately with “I don’t give a fuck if you don’t want it on your album.”
Finally, George quits, in a very Harrison way: quiet and totally indifferent to what other people think. He says simply he’s leaving, and when asked when, he says “Now. See you round the clubs.” and he’s gone. And while Lennon quips they have to figure out how to split up George’s instruments, and callously says if he’s not back by Tuesday they’ll get Clapton, we see that this is bluster. The three remaining Beatles huddle together, physically and off mic, clearly shaken by this.
Let’s Do Lunch, And Secretly Record It
In one of the most amazing parts of the documentary, a mic is hidden at a table unbeknownst to John and Paul as they talk about George over lunch. Lennon is honest and insightful, owning up to the truth that he and Paul have created a deep wound with George and that it’s now “festering.” Paul agrees. John also says that Paul’s penchant for knowing exactly what he wants everyone to play on his songs has made them feel like session musicians rather than collaborators. What’s unmistakable in this exchange is that these two men have great love and respect for each other, and feel bad about mistreating George, whom they also love and, yes, if they have to admit it, admire at least a little, and their regret at treating him badly for so long. They have hurt him in the way many family members hurt each other: unthinkingly and carelessly. When George does come back, they both make a point of treating him with more respect, and they are all the better for it, emotionally and musically.
From there on in what we see is a band of brothers. Lennon is fully engaged, invested and brilliantly playful and witty. He’s also charmingly self-deprecating about his relative lack of instrumental skill compared to George and Paul. Playing a rare lead part on a song, he quips, “Every time I play lead I remember why I don’t play lead.” George’s input is heard and valued, Paul is still leading the way, but with a gentler touch, and Ringo remains everyone’s friend.
It’s also clear they know they are on the cusp of breaking up, not because of Yoko, but because they’ve been been together for a decade and, just like brothers leaving home, they have reached a stage where they need to be their own people. Even Paul, who clearly doesn’t want this to be true, tacitly acknowledges this.
Here are some fascinating/fun/moving takeaways, in no order:
– Yoko is actually pretty chill. Once or twice she does her unbearable wailing thing, but she doesn’t seem to impose herself very much. She is right next to John at more or less all times, but that is clearly John’s need, and the others, especially Paul are generally respectful of that. Paul makes a couple of oddly prescient and prophetic points throughout the series, but perhaps none more than his observation “It’ll seem pretty silly in 50 years time if people say we broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.” He is largely supportive of the relationship, admitting they’ve gone a bit overboard, but he says “That’s what John does.”
– The moment early in Part Two when Paul starts to think the band may be over, the camera stays on his face as he sits silently with tears welling in his eyes. He is a man dazed and crushed by grief, and it’s heartbreaking.- When John arrives soon after then and resolves to be more committed and begins to joke and entertain everyone, Paul is in heaven. Throughout the series, the love and respect the two have each other is made more clear than ever. Their bond is unique, once in a lifetime, and though they wouldn’t admit it, they both know it.
– It’s no news to hear that they weren’t saints by any means, but something I felt and have heard from others is just how NICE they were all are, even John. They are surrounded by people who are desperate to be near them and want something from them all day every day all their lives, but seem largely mindful of how to treat people with kindness and dignity. The moment where a clapboard operator stands near Paul and asks him questions about how to write songs is a great example. Paul sits at the piano and talks to him in a completely unpretentious way, and treats the kid (maybe he’s 20?) as an equal, explaining things without seeming arrogant in any way. He then tells him, “Unless you stop yourself, nothing can stop yourself,” which is both something Yogi Berra should’ve said, and a truly profound statement about making art.
– speaking of creating, the sequence in which Paul, knowing they’re short of material, starts strumming one string on his bass over and over until we see, in the space of about three minutes, he wills a new song – Get Back – out of the ether. George and Ringo witness and go from being bored to enthused in three minutes. It’s just sort of a jaw-dropping moment to behold. Getting to watch Paul McCartney make up a song is one of the greatest gifts of the film, I think.
– Man, was McCartney on fire. After all of his White album contributions, as well as writing Lady Madonna and Hey Jude in ’68, he shows up in January with another trove of tunes, including Let It Be, and brings new ones in almost daily. Many of which end up on Abbey Road, and one or two in his solo work. Part of this is also clearly showing off for his new girlfriend Linda Eastman. It worked
– Not that this is important, but Linda, often derided by misogynists for not being as pretty as her husband is, in fact, quite beautiful as well as being funny and instantly likable. Her six year old daughter Heather shows up for one session. Paul’s clearly in love with her and is heartwarmingly paternal. The other Beatles are also great with her: Ringo makes her laugh by letting her bash on his cymbals and acting stunned, and John gently teases her about her new kittens, asking if she’s going to eat them. She finds this funny and tells him you don’t eat cats. She then describes the kittens, and John grudgingly agrees, “No you don’t eat those kind of cats, you’re right.”
– The film’s director is pretty unbearable, and they are all far more patient and polite with him than you’d expect of not only the world’s biggest stars, but just any sentient being. They make it clear they’re in charge, but in a very gentle and non-aggressive way.
– Billy Preston’s arrival and joining the group invigorates them and they are all spurred on to give their all- The unabashed joy Paul and John take in playing live together and the looks they exchange are thrilling and moving- Watching all four of them listening back to their music in the control room, clearly happy with what they’ve done, and being in each other’s company, making each other laugh, makes you understand how special their bond was.
- I’ve been right all of this time to like The Beatles
Anyway, that’s my first impression thoughts. If you had the patience to read this whole thing, you’ve definitely got the stamina to watch it in its entirety.
I hope I passed the audition.