Peter Jackson’s masterful “Get Back” is far too long to allow me to go into details, and I’m not enough of a Beatles geek to do that anyway. But, after watching all 3 parts of it, I have some impressions to share.
What stood out to me in the first part is that, in some ways, every band is the same at its core, including the Beatles. Watching them struggle to figure out what to do next, the familial sniping, the goofing around – anyone who’s been in a band can probably relate, and it certainly looked a lot like the ones I’ve been in. Sure, they had infinite funds allowing them to spend weeks and weeks burning studio time, as well as an endless supply of tape and film. But the band interactions were familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a band, in spite of them being the Beatles and the rest of us not. Even the way George walks away at the end of the part was something many of us have seen before.
They’d been together for almost 10 years at that point, and had gone from a time when living was hard and the music was easy to a time where music was hard and living was easy. They had lived together in cramped quarters, done those early tours crammed in one vehicle, hauled their own gear, played over rowdy club audiences. That shared experience, for better or worse, stayed with them and molded the band dynamic. To be sure, they had more creativity, more talent, more money, more success but even at their peak, the band environment was formed before those things rose to prominence.
The second part of the movie showed me some things that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. Watch their faces when they play any of the old rock and roll covers in the studio. They’re goofing around and avoiding the hard work of creating new music which meets the expectations put on them. But even in the first part of the film, it’s joyful, they’re loving what they are playing. It unexpectedly revealed (to me, anyway) that more than anything, they were a solid rock-and-roll club band, back when they were just the Beatles, before they became The Beatles With a Big T.
Another thing – Paul and John, in their bugged cafeteria conversation, admit that they’ve been shitty with George and their recognition of that colors the rest of second part – and for the better. They realize they want him back because they need his guitar (in spite of just saying they’ll “get Eric”), and they surmise that they won’t get that unless they can come to terms with taking his original songs and musical suggestions seriously. And, to some extent, they do.
But I think they had figured out by that point that it was never going to be possible for them to go back to what they once did. Beatlemania was too far along, and it was uncharted territory for them – for any band at that time, in fact. There was no recipe for dealing with it, especially after Brian Epstein died and left them without an effective advocate.
Their old mate Billy Preston, from their days in Hamburg, wanders in and, quite literally, saves the day. He was just happy to play, anytime, anywhere, and he was masterful. Watch the pure joy on his face – he’s having a blast and because of his infectious energy, the lads are (finally!) having a blast, too. This was what they were born to do.
But having been driven from live performances by the hysteria surrounding any concert meant they were never, ever going to be able to do that outside of a studio. And that gives rise to the third part.
The third part, of course, is the set up for the famous rooftop concert, and I don’t have much to add about that. I never saw the Beatles live (I did see them in glorious black-and-white on the Ed Sullivan Show) and seeing pretty much the entire short concert in context is amazing, no less for realizing that it happened over 50 years ago and still looked fresh and exciting (well, other than the old cars and fashions on the street). I think they were driven to do the live performance because that’s what they loved the most, and they might very well have known that it was for the last time.
What did I find to quibble about? Mostly that the in-studio footage was, in a way, misleading. Jackson includes far too much clowning around and not near enough of the polished performances that they didn’t interrupt with silliness. And there surely was plenty of that, because they laid down the fundamentals for a couple of albums to come. We just didn’t really get to see much of that until the third part of the movie. And I think that might lead one into the mistaken belief that they didn’t really find a way to bear down and record great versions of the brilliant ideas they were having.
Ultimately, I think the band suffered from the necessity of evolving from being the Beatles to being the The Beatles. The former was a solid, entertaining and creative club band who thrived on live performances. The latter was a brilliant incubator for changing the entire character of popular music, but hidden away in the deep recesses of the recording studio without any of the energy that comes from taking the show on the road. By the time “Get Back” was shot, they were simply making music, putting it to vinyl and pushing on to the next one.
It’s a shame they couldn’t embrace George’s suggestion that they preserve the Beatles as their cooperative effort and leave themselves free to pursue other musical interests without the others. It just wasn’t done that way back then, but his idea was a good one. And, they’d have had to find a way to manage the hysteria surrounding live appearances, since that’s what they really seemed to want to do. Somehow, over the years, the Rolling Stones managed to make that transition in a way the Beatles did not. That’s a damn shame, because they had a lot of rock-and-roll still in them.