Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
And so I say farewell to Disney+, having watched the entire Beatles Get Back documentary twice now—all 7.8 hours of it. And the rooftop concert a third time.
What a privilege, after all these years, to be able to see that footage and bask in what those four guys were as a band. The way the songs they wound up performing on the Apple rooftop evolved from mere noodlings to fully realized arrangements was breathtaking, accomplished only because the musicians knew each other so well and could find ways to come together in a short period. It didn’t hurt that Billy Preston arrived right on time and helped them salvage a little enthusiasm. He was a musical salve for them.
The early chapters at Twickenham movie studios were painful to watch at times, with John Lennon’s indifference and occasional catatonia, and when he wasn’t catatonic he was mugging grotesquely at the cameras as if to protest their presence. This whole thing was Paul’s idea, so it felt sometimes like John wanted to sabotage it. He keeps reverting to old rock and roll tunes with one variation or another of “don’t step on my blue suede shoes” in them. His guitar playing is sloppy and bland. Yoko is attached to him like a barnacle. Meanwhile, George is getting more and more upset at Paul directing him on how to play his parts and winds up leaving the band for a weekend. “See you ‘round the clubs,” he says on his exit.
Us Beatle obsessives always knew about these moments, but seeing them play out is hard to watch. Lennon says, “If he doesn’t come back, we’ll get Clapton.”
God, it just struck me: If Lennon was alive today, he’d probably be an anti-vaxxer like Clapton, embarrassing himself on social media. “I don’t believe in covid … I don’t believe in vax-eens. I just believe in me, Yoko and me.”
In the film, we get huge chunks of time when the boys and entourage appear to have lost track of the project and waste what feels like epochs on idle chatter and moldy covers. The thing is just not gelling. The idea of a live performance somewhere like Tripoli or Primrose Hill becomes more and more unlikely. Peter Sellers pops in on the set one day and quickly retreats when he seems to realize these guys are dying on the vine here. George Martin, formerly a more-than-capable Beatle wrangler, looks unwilling to offer ideas for organizing the sessions.
But then Paul comes up with the skeleton of “Get Back,” and promising early drafts of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” emerge from the fog. George performs “I Me Mine” almost as it will wind up on the Let It Be album a little over a year later. An anvil is brought in for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” struck with boyish glee by roadman Mal Evans.
Eventually, the guys move to Apple studios in central London, and there the numbers begin to take better shape, with Billy Preston adding nice R&B electric piano accents that ultimately become essential to our idea of the songs (his eight-bar solo in “Get Back,” for instance). Everyone’s smiling a little more. Joking around, trying different things, exploring. Linda Eastman’s daughter, Heather, brightens up the place playing with Ringo and grimacing at Yoko’s vocalizations. George does a great “Old Brown Shoe” with John on the Hawaiian slide guitar. Future numbers from Abbey Road are tried out. Many small moments in this part of the film give us a wonderful glimpse at how the group must have worked all along together, but it’s both heartening and saddening, because we know their days as a cooperative are numbered. Allen Klein lurks in the wings.
Still, subtitles begin to show up that say, “This performance appears on the album, Let It Be,” and I found that totally thrilling. The takes that ultimately make it onto the album are embedded in whole series of takes. You never know when the thing will click for real, and that’s one of the beauties of making music, I think. Sometimes there’s genuine magic, and if we’re lucky the magic gets recorded.
By the time The Beatles emerge on the rooftop, January 30, 1969, they’ve been through the material enough that the performance is solid and energetic. Paul and John exchange appreciative looks, just like the old days. They’re in great voice, and their harmonies are superb. John forgets the words to “Don’t Let Me Down” and comes up with hilarious gobbledegook to get through it. In fact, three or four takes up there make the LP, and it ends with John’s famous quip, “Thanks on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.” Laughter.
I know Peter Jackson defends his decision to keep so much superfluous material in the film, but I could have handled maybe a four-hour experience with representative moments rather than the sluggish pacing caused by the relentless fly-on-the-wall approach. It makes me wonder how dull the rest of the 160 hours of film must be. The quantities of toast, tea, and screw-top wine consumed must have been prodigious.
Most of us probably have an over-romanticized idea of how music is created and recorded. These days, my impression is that most of the creation is done in the musicians’ home studios where they have a hundred times the tools at hand than The Beatles had in 1969. A lot of it is the work of one main member of a band, who circulates demos for the others to hear and reproduce, whereas, though The Beatles had morphed into such a band (individual songwriters with a super-great backing group), Get Back shows true collaboration at work. It makes you wish they could have found a way to keep the collaborative spirit alive. Yet, many times in the film the truth comes through loudly that they were running on fumes. The fact that they wound up scrapping these recordings for a year because they didn’t like the mixes shows that inspiration and execution weren’t on parallel tracks anymore. Abbey Road, a few months later, made us all think it could go on forever.
The long and winding road has to end somewhere. Thanks to Get Back, at least we all got to go along for some of the ride.