Why the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ May Stand as the Best Rock Doc Ever
Art and Experience:
A moment of silent, please, for “This Is Spinal Tap,” as that satire formally abdicates its title as the best and truest movie ever made about what it’s like to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band. There was something wonderful, silly and sad about how, up until now, musicians had to look to the fabricated saga of an unabashedly terrible group to be able to say, “Yes, this is our story.” Heaven knows there’ve been other fictional tales that tried to pull off that same kind of Everyband story while treating rock with a modicum of dignity, too — some with a bit of success (“That Thing You Do!”), others not so much so (David Chase’s “Not Fade Away”). And we’ve seen our share of rock documentaries that brilliantly captured an artist at a singular moment in time, and/or looked to unwrap a riddle wrapped in an enigma (see the entire Bob Dylan filmography). But a film project that lets us look in, at leisurely length, on the creative process as well as personalities of genius-superstars who really are Just Like Us? In 60 years’ worth of pop music movies, that’s something we’ve never really gotten.
Until now. Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” is the only mega-movie you’d really need to show to an alien wanting to understand the creativity and psychology of the rock ‘n’ roll that’d been coming through on radio waves across dimensions. Of course, you’d have to tell them, “Park your saucer — it’s going to be a while.” Jackson has taken 468 minutes to tell the story of roughly 20 days in the life of history’s greatest band. It sounds grueling, but it’s hard to think of many of those minutes that feel wasted. I may think this epic could have done without the scene where Peter Sellers shows up at the recording sessions doing nothing but anxiously grinning; you may in turn believe it could have done without an entire take of John Lennon and Paul McCartney singing “Two of Us” through clenched teeth, for no other reason than maybe considering ventriloquism as a backup career if this Beatles thing really goes south. But let’s not quibble about which few minutes any of us think it could’ve lost. Over eight hours, details and moods accumulate to form a picture that encompasses divine inspiration and drudge work, camaraderie and conflict, and good ideas and horrible ones. It chronicles the dark nights of the soul that might trouble any band before — for the talented and blessed ones — joy comes in the morning, along with perhaps a permanent spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums lists, or just a little local glory.
Too bad the title “Scenes From a Marriage” was taken, because that would’ve been a fitting name for “Get Back,” too. OK, it would have been a terrible title, but you catch the drift. To say “Get Back” is a great, maybe the greatest, movie or series about rock ‘n’ roll is accurate, but slightly reductive. What it might really be about is the art of negotiation … which means that it’s also kind of about what it takes to survive in marriage, family and business, on top of music, film or theater. You don’t have to have been in a band to relate to the dynamics that make “Get Back” fascinating, though it doesn’t hurt. You just have to have had a spouse, sibling, boss or employee that you played mental chess with, to try to get to a place where everybody wins. Really, you just need to have had a best friend.
Most music performed by a group is the product of constant, gracious compromise. In the Beatles circa 1969, Paul McCartney is the negotiator-in-chief, and he’s aware of every eggshell he has to walk around or smash to achieve greatness or just to get shit done. Perhaps not hyper-aware, at all times, or else George Harrison wouldn’t have quit the band for a few days, setting up “Get Back’s” Act-1-ending cliffhanger. But contrary to the prissy picture that’s sometimes been painted of him during the Beatles’ latter days, he comes off as surprisingly aware of the minefield of sensitivities around him, if sometimes a beat or two after the fact… and he’s certainly beyond aware that he’s paying a cost to be the boss. He’s a domineering older brother to George and rival/BFF/frenemy to John, and now he’s playing de facto manager to everyone — not necessarily because he’s taken pole position in the band on merit alone, but because Lennon is suddenly more invested in a woman than he is in being in even the world’s greatest boy band. Seeing McCartney recognize and articulate all these shifts, and soldier on while he gets a little bit sad about them, is one of the pleasures of “Get Back.” If you don’t come away from this with just a little more admiration for Paul, you may just be too in the bag for John and Yoko and their bag-ism, but that’s all right. Everybody is going to be your favorite or most admired Beatles some time before you complete the eight-hour Get Back Challenge.
“Daddy’s gone away now, you know, and we’re on our own at the holiday camp,” McCartney says, about they’ve felt rudderless since the death of manager Brian Epstein. In the contretemps with Harrison where the guitarist famously says “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play,” McCartney tells the whole group he’s aware of turning into dad, and he doesn’t like it: “I’m scared of that one… me being the boss. And I have been for, like, a couple of years – and we all have, you know, no pretending about that.” In a voice recording of a conversation with John Lennon about how to resolve the situation with Harrison — recorded surreptitiously by the original filmmakers, with a microphone in a flower pot! — the subject turns to their own relationship: “You have always been boss,” McCartney tells Lennon. “Now I’ve been sort of secondary boss.” Lennon replies, with bracing honesty: “We’re all guilty about our relationship to one another. … Me goals, they’re still the same – self-preservation.” Back at the studio, while waiting for Lennon to show up, McCartney talks about the other shift in the sands: “It’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing, like, in 50 years’ time, you know: ‘They broke up ‘cause Yoko sat on an amp.’” (A line like that sounds so prescient, it’s a good thing hardcore fans already had their bootlegs of these convos, so no one can accuse Jackson making it up and dubbing it in.)
By 1969, the Beatles had wrestled for years with what would be their contractually mandated third feature film, to follow up “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” Finding a script idea that would reflect their matured status and not just be Richard Lester redux proved elusive, obviously. But as the ongoing articulation of ideas and unending series of offhand gags in “Get Back” proves, what they really needed to do was write their own screenplay, however inadvertently.
In the immediate wake of Harrison’s walk-out, Lennon coolly says: “If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday we get Clapton.” If a screenwriter had written that into a draft of a film about the Beatles, you’d say: too contrived, too on-the-money. But there it is. Consider Harrison’s departure, itself: “Shall we go to lunch?” someone asks. “Um, I think I’ll be leaving the band now,” Harrison offers. “When?” “Now.” Find the dramaturgist who could have written that exit scene with such stark, almost comical simplicity. “What’s our next move?” asks director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. “We split George’s instruments,” quips Lennon, sentimentalist that he is. It’s shocking how cavalier, and so quotably cynical, Lennon seems about this. But maybe that’s because he knows he’s being filmed, and Lennon is nothing if not a spark plug just about any time he’s in range of a camera. When Lennon and McCartney go to lunch, and they aren’t aware there’s a microphone in that flour pot, they can react with more tenderness, or real concern: “It’s a festering wound” with Harrison, Lennon is able to admit, “and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t even give him any bandages.”
Aside from the Beatles’ running self-commentary, “Get Back” has some moments of Pure Cinema, too. (Full credit due to the four years Jackson spend more or less locked in a room with Jabez Olssen editing almost 60 hours of footage, and also to the underrated Lindsay-Hogg, who doesn’t get nearly enough credit from Beatles fans for capturing all this.) If you’re a super-fan, you’ll probably end up replaying the moments leading up to Harrison’s departure like it’s the Zapruder film, looking for a straw that broke the camel’s back when there really doesn’t seem to be a singular one. McCartney has asked both John and Paul to stop playing something he doesn’t like, but Lennon can let it roll off his back. Harrison doesn’t have that luxury, having already had words with McCartney, and having been in a relatively supine position for the better part of a decade now. Jackson and Olssen cut between John and Paul, who are facing each other, harmonizing on “Two of Us” like happy lovers, and closeups of Harrison’s face, water pooling in his part-angry, part-dead eyes as he probably thinks about how, 10 years from now, he’s still going to feel like the hired hand who can’t get “All Things Must Pass” a proper audition. We’ve all been George at some point, whether it was in a band, a workplace, a friends’ group or a love triangle. And if you’ve been there, watching what’s being conveyed purely visually in this scene is just heartbreaking.
McCartney gets something in his eye, too, before long. Harrison hasn’t come back, and Lennon isn’t reporting for work, either, after an off-site, off-camera meeting where Yoko came up. “And then there were two,” he sighs, water slightly pooling in his stoic eyes, just as it’d pooled in Harrison’s. Yet rather than wax resentful, McCartney delivers a short, sweet speech to Ringo Starr and the few others gathered around, saying of Onos, “She’s great. She really is all right. They just want to be near each other.” McCartney really does seem to get and accept Lennon’s need for Ono as an Emotional Support Person in the studio — maybe because he has no other choice if he doesn’t want to go out on The White Album, but also, seemingly, because he wants the buddy who’s bound to leave him in a year, or three, to be happy. If you were Ono at this late date watching McCartney talk about you in this film, you might even be surprised to find yourself saying, “He likes me. He really, really likes me.”
(One of the stranger fleeting highlights of the film is an Ono-fronted jam session after the couple happily surprises McCartney by returning to the studio, with Yoko caterwauling as Paul bashes away on the drums. With Harrison still MIA, and a band divorce seeming more palpable than it ever has, they’re all into primal screaming at that emotionally fraught, oddly fun moment.)
If “Get Back” were a film just about personality conflicts and resolution, that’d be enough for most. But it’d be a disappointment for the real fans, given how underrated the “Let It Be” album is, with songs as great as “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Dig a Pony,” “One After 909,” “Two of Us” and the B-side “Don’t Let Me Down” that the faithful would still be left craving to hear come together. It’s not like footage of musicians getting on each other’s nerves is a novelty in 2021, however much of an electrical charge it provides. I spoke recently with director Edgar Wright, who’d just seen the entirety of “Get Back” and was thrilled about it (and of course took an offbeat tack with his own recent rock doc, “The Sparks Brothers”). Wright told me he’s leery of music documentaries “where the inter-personal stuff becomes the legacy. Like when I think about a band like Oasis, my first thought isn’t about the music — it’s more about the brothers hating each other’s guts. Or with the Police, I think more about the acrimony within the band than I do about that killer catalog, having seen more than one documentary about that. ‘Get Back’ manages to do both — you see the black-box recorder of a band struggling to keep it together, but you also at the same time literally see them working out the songs. That, to me, is so perfect, because I know exactly what’s going on now in terms of the dynamics and how difficult it is when you’ve got internal and external pressures, but you also get to see people actually writing.”
The making of music as the focus of a music documentary — what a concept. “Get Back,” playing out as it does at boxed-set length, is filled with dozens of moments of creative breakthroughs, and just about as many of the Beatles being stymied. Some of the musical discoveries do some in the tense first part, but things really explode once they come to some understandings (mostly rendered off-screen) about how they’re going to treat each other. “Get Back” isn’t a breakup movie — it’s a miniseries filled with great musical makeup sex. And even the official malcontent of the series, Harrison, ends up going with the flow. When he breaks into that imperfect smile of his, again and again, as good musical things happen in the second half, it’s like: Here comes the sun.
The Beatles are mostly taking input from one another, but I enjoyed little scenes like the one where McCartney is taking a little bit of advice from longtime associate Mal Evans, hovering genially above the piano, about whether to use the word “standing” or “waiting” at a certain point in “The Long and Winding Road.” McCartney adds, “I was thinking of having, like, the weather obstacle,” thinking aloud about putting a storm in the tune as a metaphor. (If hearing the phrase “the weather obstacle” in connection with a Beatles classic does not make you laugh out loud, this may not be the miniseries for you.) Evans picks up on this, and suggests more — “like, what about the obstacles on the road?” McCartney is suddenly done soliciting input on his masterpiece. “There’s enough obstacles without putting them (all) in the song,” he tells Evans. But he says it in a nice way, and you’re left thinking about how un-precious these guys were with their art and who got to have a comment on it as the collaborative process unfolded in front of a gazillion engineers and grips and friends and lovers.
We see other songs in the making that could have gone very wrong. Harrison is still stuck on “Something in the way she moves attracts me like a pomegranate, after six years of trying to get the fruit out of his head. McCartney is workshopping “Golden Slumbers,” and instead of singing “Once there was a way,” he’s singing “Once upon a time, there was a king…” He states his intention aloud: “It should be like a fairy tale.” No, it shouldn’t!, you want to shout at the screen, hearing this awful idea — but not to worry; he’ll axe that and make the song perfectly poignant by the time “Abbey Road” is recorded later this same year. “Get Back” is the one song the audience gets to see develop from its first headwaters to a river so strong, it both opens and closes the climactic rooftop performance. “I don’t know what it’s about. It’s about going away, and then the chorus is… get back,” McCartney admits initially, not too promisingly. At one point, it unexpectedly turns into a clunky satire of white-nationalist politics in both the U.K. and America — “All the people said we don’t need Pakistanis / Boy, you better travel home… / Don’t need no Puerto Ricans living in the USA,” some of the lyrics he’s considering go. Eventually topicality is eschewed and, sensibly, the song ends up being about cross-dressing and cannibis.
Lennon is on less of a creative bender than McCartney or Harrison, but what comes through is his utter supportiveness of Paul here — which is startling, honestly. McCartney is constantly making Lennon break out into a surprised, hearty laugh, which seems quite at odds with the contemptuous remarks that John would make about some of Paul’s songs in the years after the official 1970 breakup. The proof of how these guys really felt about each other seems more in the pudding of the footage Jackson puts on screen here than whatever they had to say about each other when spirits were at their lowest later. Supportiveness doesn’t begin to describe what the four members did for one another, most of all on a musical level. Seeing Lennon and McCartney invested so thoroughly in each other’s songs here, and Harrison taking great pains to offer brilliant contributions to both despite the feelings expressed earlier, and Starr as the glue-iest glue of all time… there’s little way to compare their complementary humility to anyone else’s, other than to imagine that Tchaikovsky kept coming by Beethoven’s flat because he really wanted to help out with the arrangement to make his songs better. Harrison may or may not have been sneaking in a secret message when he finished off “I Me Mine” as the last thing to be recorded for the “Let It Be” album — well after this original film and these recording sessions were over. But seeing the ebullience that clicks in for the Beatles as victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat in the second and third parts of Jackson’s opus, it really does feels like: “We, Us, Ours.”
Some of the lessons that seem to be learned by the Beatles are applicable across different kinds of relationships, and some might be specific only to bands. Like: In a failing marriage, it’s wrong to believe that having a baby will solve your problems. However, if it’s the Beatles who are bickering, it is absolutely right to believe that bringing in Billy Preston as a fifth member of the family will make almost everything right again.
If only certain other people weren’t also brought aboard. Jackson doesn’t provide any modern talking heads to contextualize what happened after the “Let It Be” sessions in January 1969, so you have to be paying attention for the embedded portent. McCartney says he can’t decide whether or not to add strings to “The Long and Winding Road,” and all you can think of is how Phil Spector will soon schmaltz up the track, and the Beatles will be so distracted by breaking up in 1970 that somehow the nixed Spector-ization will slip out and become canon without McCartney’s approval. More ominously, Lennon engages in chatter about how magnificent his new friend, the lawyer and would-be Beatles manager Allen Klein, is, even though Glyn Johns tries to warn Lennon that he’s not to be trusted. These provide glimmers that there will be trouble after this movie’s exuberantly-ever-after rooftop finale. It was Orson Welles who said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story” — but the place where Jackson ends his sure seems like a place that could have been sustained, if art and friendship had trumped attorneys. Maybe it’s enough that “Get Back” is about to end up in a state of grace that could be summed up in a contemporary meme: “Not today, Satan. Not today.”
Possibly the most bittersweet moment in “Get Back” goes by in a flash early in the second part. It’s not even accompanied by any video; it occurs during that audio-only “flowerpot” scene where Lennon and McCartney convene by themselves, for once, to hash things out. McCartney tells Lennon: “Probably when we’re very old, we’ll all agree with each other. And I think we’ll all sing together.” It’s a prophecy that could put a lump in just about anyone’s throat as they inevitably drift to the thought: Eff you, Mark David Chapman. But thank you, Peter Jackson, for pulling together a movie in which the Beatles are suspended in time, agreeing with each other and singing together, and it’s not even the whitewash some predicted. It’s the great fade-to-white the band deserved and never really got until now. Their memory is a blessing, and, for a lot of young bands who might sit down to watch “Get Back” now, a road map to how to take a sad song and make it better.