With Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” We Got The Beatles Back
On Facebook, a friend of mine asked why the Beatles kept playing “Get Back” over and over again throughout Peter Jackson’s epic 3-part-nearly 9-hour documentary series. She was hoping they’d play a few other songs from the Let It Be record that she liked better. I realized I hadn’t even noticed any repetition of the songs. I was too busy being completely stunned by what really matters: The Beatles-the people and the band-in the midst of attempting to hold their lives and their band together, and both succeeding and failing at the same time.
With Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” We Got The Beatles Back
If you know me, you know The Beatles have loomed large in my legend. From age 8, I’ve been a super fan. Not a completist, but pretty darn close. Yes, I have a bootleg .mp4 of the original “Let It Be” movie on a hard drive somewhere. Yes, I have at least 3 copies of each “real” Beatles LP on vinyl. Yes, I have a tattoo of The Beatles on my right arm. If I had four sons, I’d likely have named them John, Paul George and Ringo.
I discovered The Beatles in a very 1980s, latch-key kid way: When I was young, I had a couple hours between when I got home from school and when my Mom got home from work. WPGH out of Pittsburgh started playing the old Saturday morning Beatles cartoons during that time and the first time I heard the harmonies, the melodics that pulled you into the songs, I was hooked. My favorite band at the time was KISS. The Beatles made KISS seem like clowns. I started saving my $1 a week allowance to buy Beatles records and that’s what I did. For years. The Blue and Red double greatest hits LPs were my Rosetta Stone of music. They taught me the language that would open many doors for me.
I was in college by the time I discovered the original “Let It Be” film. I didn’t want to see it. I knew it was filmed at the nadir of their career, supposedly when they hated each other and were completely dysfunctional as a group. I tried to watch it once, but I couldn’t get through a half hour. I didn’t need to see my heroes brought that low. George’s, “OK, I don’t mind. I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all, if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” quote seemed to be the dagger in the heart of the band.
But “Get Back” give us a different account of those event. Yes, that moment with George came at a low point of the sessions, the four Beatles in an empty sound stage on a film lot, surrounded by their inner circle of Mal Evans (who actually was a lot more involved in the creation of the songs than I ever imagined) and tea boys. No George Martin, a bewildered Glyn Johns, no proper recording gear. And a lot of film makers more concerned with the location of the planned concert than the actual music. You could sense the group retreating into themselves and then exploding (in a very British way) as George casually announced he was leaving the group as he walked out. He could have been saying he was going for a coffee, it was that low key.
But then he didn’t show up to the next rehearsal after the group had tried to talk it out over the weekend. And then John didn’t show up. As Paul and Ringo sat with the director and others discussing how to move forward Paul finally admitted he didn’t know. Tears welled in his eyes. He knew what he was losing and there was nothing more to say about it.
Of course, they did get back together. John showed up later that day and he and Paul had a surreptitiously recorded conversation that was one of the most dramatic moments of the whole series, where their love for each other and the group shined through. They were both humble, deferential and candid and soon enough they moved forward, eventually leaving Twickenham for their newly “completed” studio at Apple Corp.
All along, they worked certain songs over and over. “Get Back” went from Paul strumming the bass line absent-mindedly to a full-on protest song, and then slowly to what it ultimately became. “Two of Us” went from a shapeless rocker to the quaint acoustic ditty we all know. And as the themes of the songs present themselves you see that they boys have all been considering their places in the world and in the Beatles, half-wanting to “Get Back” to where they once belonged or conversely George asking what part he really played in the group through “I, Me, Mine”. And of course it had been a “Long and Winding Road” that brought them there.
Meanwhile, Paul had songs we would come to know on Abbey Road and later his first few solo records. John, overtaken with his relationship with Yoko (and a rumored heroin habit sometime around the era of these sessions) came with “Dig a Pony” and not much else, but with the guitar in his hands he was still whip smart and had the instinct for what was cool and what was not. Paul was a fount of transcendent songs one after the other, but he would suffer in years to come from the lack of a John in his life. But that’s another story.
As I watched, I barely paid attention to the songs other than to notice how they evolved and what brought one to the forefront while others faded away. But in the end, the actual songs in “Get Back” are at best tangential. The series is really about the Beatles and their relationships at that moment, when they knew the end was near.
What I find inspiring is how much their love and shared language through music was the common thread that revealed the love they had for each other, especially Paul and John. There are a lot of miles behind them-miles on the two of them had traveled-and they are almost one person at times. Paul can sound like John and vice versa, they know everything about one another and can anticipate every move both musical and personal.
To hear them effortlessly go from one esoteric cover to the next as almost a casual conversation in between takes and then Paul casually sits down at the piano and “The Long and Winding Road” floats out and disappears just as quickly. How does that even happen?
It’s fascinating to watch the songs and the group coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts as they transition back to the Apple Corp studio. You can also feel the constipation they all felt as the songs just didn’t yet work. But they kept pushing. The joy on everyone’s faces when Billy Preston comes in and glues “Get Back” together-finally, after so much work-is pure magic. And that doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not easy to let someone else into the inner circle, not just as a side player, but almost as a member of the band, but they did it and it paid off big time. You could almost argue that the record wouldn’t have happened at all without Billy Preston on keys, something as simple as a Rhodes electric piano made all the difference.
Artists dream of those moments. Artists live for those moments. Once you’ve experienced those moments you’re never the same again. They haunt you, the push you further and harder and they are elusive, like a half-remembered dream.
To see legends-the Beatles no less-human and struggling yet still a collective of geniuses-Ringo, the great Buddha on the drum platform, almost never speaking, just dropping in and never playing a wrong note. He’s always on time. The pocket is always miles deep. George, John, and Paul all proficient in a musical language only they knew…we’re behind the curtain watching the magic happen.
Being a fly on the wall for that is one of the most transcendent moments of my life. I watched the first two parts of the series in tears. They are a band, struggling with band things but sharing something no one else will ever share: what it is to be a part of that band. Anyone who’s ever been in a band knows what this feels like and it’s that shared familiarity that is what they are “Getting Back” to.
There’s a reason the album was originally call Get Back. They knew they had lost something and wanted to find it again. For years, the conventional wisdom was that they never did, that the sessions were a disaster and they hated each other the whole time. This series tells a different story. They loved each other deeply. That is so affirming.
The songs don’t really matter. Watching The Beatles be the Beatles is a joy I never thought I’d ever experience. The whole series feels stolen, like we shouldn’t be there, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen. And my love for The Beatles is reaffirmed. I came away loving them again, as people and musicians. I could see exactly what we lost not more than a year later when they finally split.
All of them had great moments as solo artists, but none of them had what it was that made that group what it was. Whoever they played with next would always be playing with A BEATLE. They would never again be four friends who caught lightening in a bottle and held onto it as long as they could. This is a view that had been lost to us until Perter Jackson gifted it to us here. “Get Back” has not only reaffirmed my love of the Beatles, but it’s reaffirmed my love of the artistic life, for all its good and bad moments.