ETA Fair warning: if you’re planning to watch this completely blind, there’s some spoilers ahead.
I finally took the plunge over the past couple days and watched the entirety of the Get Back documentary. There was just so much to see and unpack I don’t even know where to begin or end so I’m going to try to type out some of my stream of consciousness here – both to try to articulate some of what I felt from watching this and maybe get some additional thoughts and perspectives from others here.
At nearly 8 hours total runtime, it was a pretty intense watch – even spreading it over two days was a lot for me. I don’t recommend marathoning it. But it was well worth the time spent, even if it could have been trimmed down a little in places – and I’m saying that as someone that genuinely loves this kind of thing. I take great enjoyment watching and hearing how the sausage is made with music. When it comes to groups I love like the Beatles or The Beach Boys among others I’ve probably listened to hundreds of hours of session material over the years. Hearing the creative process with competent musicians and producers is really inspiring to me. In spite of all that Get Back was pretty exhausting. I don’t know if I see myself watching it in its entirety again - at least not for a while.
To be clear this isn’t a criticism of the series itself. It was well worth the watch and I’m glad I took the time to watch it. I have zero regrets. It was just a lot.
To back up (or to “get back” as they say – I’ll be here all week folks), I’ve long looked upon this period of the Beatles with a lot of angst. Clouded by the long-established narrative that at this time the Beatles were fighting non-stop to the point of fisticuffs, that Yoko Ono was the evil harpy interloper coming in and driving a wedge between the group, that they were suffering creatively, that they were completely dysfunctional, that their breakup was inevitable – it was hard to look at this period positively. This perception wasn’t helped by the original 1971 Let it Be documentary where all this footage came from. With its dour and oppressive mood throughout, Let it Be painted a really ugly picture of the group. Similarly, I’ve never really been a big fan of the resulting Let it Be album – partly because of its surrounding narrative, but also because of Phil Spector essentially ruining it (which on retrospect after watching Get Back felt like a huge irony to me – more on that later). Let it Be…Naked improved my perception of the album somewhat by cleaning it up and removing the Spector treatment, but it still wasn’t a top album of mine. After watching Get Back, I can finally look at the Let it Be album in a more positive light. Even if it still probably won’t ever be a top pick of mine, I can at least appreciate it more than ever after seeing what went into it.
In contrast to the 1971 film, the Get Back series seems to be a near antithesis to the past 50+ years of narrative that the Beatles were a dysfunctional and self-destructing unit during this period. Maybe it’s just Get Back cherry picked the best parts? I’m more inclined to believe Let it Be just cherry picked the worst parts. After all we have some nearly 8 hours of largely upbeat and positive footage in Get Back versus the hour and 20 minutes of mostly negative footage in Let it Be. And to be clear, not everything in Get Back is positive.
From day 1 when they are in Twickenham it’s apparent the group is unhappy. From the very beginning the band is complaining about the environment – it’s too cavernous, too empty, the acoustics are terrible, they miss their studio, they can’t record anything because there’s no recording equipment (George eventually ships his personal “over 10000 quid” 8-track so they have something). There’s a lot of snipping back and forth. John is late to every rehearsal. There’s a ton of distractions going on around them. It’s clear there’s discord (just like Let it Be portrayed), but it in Get Back much of it came off more as a kind of sibling bickering and frustration with the situation they were in rather than any genuine anger toward one another – save for a couple of tense exchanges between George and Paul that eventually culminated in George quitting the group briefly.
I’ve always found it odd that given the negative pall of the Let it Be film that it never actually showed George quitting the group. It’s finally shown in Get Back, and after all the wild speculation it’s … pretty damn anticlimactic. Far from the sensational accounts of George quitting amidst all-out brawl, it was basically George – at his wit’s end – getting up in the middle of a rehearsal and matter-of-factly announcing he was done with the band and then walking out. A far cry from the sensational reports in the media. If anything, the other members didn’t take it seriously with John joking that they should ask Eric Clapton to fill in. Eventually it sunk in with the realization that they needed to patch things up with George.
Despite all of this drama at Twickenham, there were a lot of great moments shown during these sessions. One particularly memorable one is John, George, and Ringo in a huddle discussing increasingly ridiculous ideas for what they want their upcoming performance to be like. Paul is in the background noodling on the piano and writing Let it Be with the rest of the band oblivious. Mrs. Ficus who was watching with me exclaimed, “they are all just fucking around while Paul is right there creating Let it Be?!” in utter exasperation.
A laugh out loud moment at Twickenham happened when the group was yet again brainstorming potential venues for the upcoming show. At one point, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg suggested a hospital – but not one with “really sick people” or anything – maybe “one with kids with broken legs”. Or maybe an orphanage? It really felt like I was watching a scene straight out of Spinal Tap. (I find it rather funny that the biggest “villain” to come out of the Get Back film ended up being Lindsay-Hogg himself.) There were many other great moments and while we all know how the Twickenham sessions ended in disaster and ended up being a pretty lousy idea, it didn’t seem anywhere near as awful as was portrayed in the Let it Be film. If anything, the bulk of the anger seemed to be centered around their rehearsal space and associated baggage.
The mood seems to take a complete 180 when the band convinces George to come back (on the condition that they abandon the ridiculous ideas for the upcoming gig) and abandon Twickenham for their newly furnished Apple Records studio to work on the rest of the album. Billy Preston becoming a spontaneous studio partner further livens things up as everybody is on their best behavior when he’s around. There’s entirely too much to say about these sessions which is covered in great depth in episodes 2 and the first half of episode 3 that I won’t even deign to take it on in detail, but suffice to say there was a lot of creative inspiration flowing in all directions and everybody was largely getting along just fine. At one point they were even mocking the news reports and the dramatic recounts of George leaving the group. One lovely moment was George and Ringo collaborating on Octopus’s Garden. While it’s not a song I am a fan of, watching them figure out some of the chord progressions was delightful.
Finally, of course, it culminates in the rooftop concert – which was essentially planned at the last minute as sort of a “fuck it, let’s just do this given we have no other options and we should do something” compromise. The concert shown here in its entirety which was a real treat as I had never seen this before other than the chopped down 20 or so minute version. The setlist itself wasn’t super awesome or anything – 3 takes of Get Back, 2 takes of I’ve Got a Feeling, 2 takes of Don’t Let Me down, and 1 take each of One After 909 and Dig a Pony. What was more interesting was watching the drama unfold throughout with the police coming to try to put an end to the disturbance, to the crowds gathering outside along with interviews with random people in the area. This is all stuff that was also shown in Let it Be, but in Get Back it’s much more comprehensive. The mood seemed jovial. Then it all sunk in with the title card that appeared as they were walking off – this would be their last performance ever.
Speaking of title cards, while the Let it Be movie had nothing in the way of any narrative this was mercifully fixed by Peter Jackson with Get Back. There were just enough title cards throughout to give a bit of context as to what was going on, identify who certain people were, and in some cases inform about a particular cultural reference that may not be well known today. It was just enough to provide pertinent information without being overwhelming or distracting. I also really appreciated how when a take was the one that ended up on the Let it Be album that it was noted on-screen rather than having to guess or wonder. I had never realized just how much of the rooftop performance actually ended up being the definitive album take.
Some other observations:
For all the constant racist and misogynistic grousing around how Yoko ruined the Beatles, and how she was there messing up sessions I really hope Get Back finally dispels this notion. Yes, Yoko was by John’s side throughout the entire film. And you know what she was doing? Basically, sitting by John largely minding her own business. Sometimes she’d be reading, sewing, or otherwise just sitting there and listening. A few times the band would be doing a jam session and she’d be shown screeching into the microphone but nobody seemed to be bothered by this. At one point during one of the rare spots in the film where anything like an interview is being conducted, Paul is asked directly about Yoko and John’s relationship. He says he’s fine with her and it doesn’t bother him that her and John just want to be close to one another. That’s a pretty drastic departure from the overarching narrative about how the rest of the group hated her.
About the nearest I heard to any kind of real criticism toward Yoko in the film was when there was a discussion about the band meeting privately with George after he left the group and how “she did most of the talking for John”. You could construe this as Yoko being some kind of control freak, but I interpret this more as her being forward enough to say the uncomfortable stuff John didn’t want to say.
But for all the criticisms about Yoko being there constantly with John, you know who else was around the studio a lot? All the other wives and girlfriends. Especially Linda Eastman who was there at many of the sessions taking photos or sitting with Paul. Maureen Starkey and Patty Boyd were also present at some of the sessions (although not as much as Yoko and Linda).
One theme I found throughout the film was the real intent of the Get Back project was to be a (no pun intended this time) “get back to basics” approach. After the hugely draining production efforts of the White Album and Sgt Pepper, they wanted to be able to just do some songs with everybody in the room, no edits, no studio trickery, no overdubs – just like they used to do. At one point Paul mentions adding some strings to the Long and Winding Road to punch it up a little but there’s little wavering beyond the oft stated commitment to make an album of straightforward rock-and-roll. This makes it all the more ridiculous to me how Phil Spector came in and drenched much of the eventual Let it Be album with his “wall of sound” treatment – it was the literal opposite of what the band was clearly going for when they were working on the album.
Visually the film was stunning. Despite the work to remaster and upscale to 4K HDR nothing looked fake, smoothed, or otherwise overly processed. Colors popped and details were clear but looked natural. There was enough film grain evident to add a level of authenticity. Jackson’s team did an amazing job with this restoration effort in my opinion.
Finally, for all the talk about how the group was “obviously finished” at this point – I kind of agree and disagree. It’s clear that the band members know that the path they are on is unsustainable. In one moment the group agreed that since Brian Epstein had died they were rudderless – that despite hating the discipline he forced on the group, it actually benefited them by giving structure. At one point George openly talked to Ringo about his desire to release a solo album so he could get more of his creations recorded – Ringo felt it was a great idea. While there were clearly discussions about the future of the band being in doubt, there were also discussions about what to do on the next albums – or even in one heartbreaking moment a semi-joking discussion about finally agreeing when they are old and performing together – of course John would be killed just 11 years later. While I don’t think there was any eventual surprise among the group about them going their separate ways, I wouldn’t go as far as to say the writing was clearly on the wall here.
Anyway – I’ve already written entirely too much here. There was just too many muddled thoughts to try to reconcile. Clearly Get Back left a huge impression on me and did a lot to reframe this era of the Beatles for me and give me a new appreciation for it. If this was what Jackson was going for – and I have no doubt it is – I’d say mission fucking accomplished.
Was it overly long? Sure. Could it have had an hour or two cut? Yeah, probably. Do I regret watching any of it? Absolutely not. To be honest, I would have happily watched all 60 hours of footage this was mined from had it been available to me.
ETA: Fixed a few things that I had got wrong originally.