A Different Take on Get Back – The Beatles Documentary
On his way to writing perhaps the best review of Peter Jackson’s documentary Get Back for Slate, Carl Wilson wrote that “it’s an act of witness and recovery of misplaced history, though this time from a tale that has been in a sense too well known for even the people involved to comprehend.”
If you don’t know the story, you’re not Rock & Roll. The Beatles fraying at the edges agree to record a live television broadcast. As they begin to rehearse new songs, the stresses of the task trigger latent animosities/insecurities.
Because the band broke up 10 months later and the original Let It Be movie suggested a connection between these sessions and that breakup, everyone – perhaps even the Beatles themselves – have assumed that the January 1969 footage reveals the disintegration process.
Like many myths from that time, the Get Back documentary busts that myth. Toward the end of Part 3, George talks with John and Yoko about recording a solo album. John does not react as if such a thing would presage the end of the Beatles. On the contrary, he says it would strengthen them. At this point, none of the four seem to believe the Beatles story was about to end. Whatever actually caused the lads to call it quits, it didn’t happen in January 1969.
And so long as we are busting myths, let’s get the obvious one out of the way. The motif of Peter Jackson’s curation of the video and audio footage is that the lads still found joy in making music together despite how hard it was to live up to who they were. And we get to see and hear it in joyous color and sparkling sound as if it all just happened, can we say it, yesterday.
But that’s only the half of it. Maybe less. This movie undoes so many false myths that have long populated Beatles lore. A few critics including Wilson and Craig Jenkins in his Vulture review effectively revealed one of them – that Yoko Ono’s presence somehow negatively influenced the Beatle’s creative process or led to their breakup. Jackson’s document reveals that to be, as Jenkins put it, “bullshit.”
What’s actually stunning is how little Ono appears to influence John Lennon. For the most part, he acts like she’s not even there. In fact, one wouldn’t have blamed Yoko if she said to John after a day of filming, “why should I go in there with you if you’re just going to ignore me.”
While we see Harrison kissing his girl her only time on screen, and McCartney holds Linda’s hand like a schoolboy, John and Yoko are pretty damn cool. There’s a nice smooch during a loose rehearsal of “Oh Darling,” when they learn that Yoko’s divorce was finalized; a supportive snuggle after the rooftop performance; and the dancing a waltz during “I Me Mine,” that they saw as a potential performance piece for the TV show.
Yoko does her patented vocals on a couple of short jams. But tellingly, Paul is wailing on the drums, clearly enjoying it as much as John. And when Linda’s daughter imitates Yoko, it’s hilarious.
Yoko’s only two “lines” were an innocuous question to George Martin about where one can buy a piano score, and the reassuring statement when the others realize that George had gone to Liverpool and wouldn’t be back for two days. “Well,” she said reassuringly, “I guess we’ll talk to George Wednesday.”
Paul, at one point, flat out declares, “she’s alright” and makes the joke about the band breaking up because she sat on an amp. The worst he can say is that “they’re going overboard with it.” But then, he has to acknowledge that’s just the way John does everything.
Linda then-Eastman does confirm that Yoko may have been speaking inappropriately during the meeting with George, insinuating that John may not have agreed with her. Paul repeats that Yoko spoke for John, but pointedly without the insinuation. Think about that. What was Linda doing at that meeting? And it’s telling that she’s saying it, not any of the lads. When someone jokingly suggests they play the show at Brighton Beach, Linda interjects “Yeah, Brighton Beach would be alright.” Paul jokingly rebukes her saying “stay out of this, Yoko.”
Soon, we get to hear a surreptitiously recorded John and Paul pow-wow. It was the critical discussion that enabled Paul to see the group dynamic problem and ultimately led to George returning. Yoko was nowhere to be found.
The next myth is that, by this point, John and Paul had evolved into separate song writers, a team in name only. As Paul explains, obviously things were going to be different from when they basically lived together on the road spending every day in the same hotel. Now, back together on a daily basis, Lennon & McCartney was still smoldering, if not as hot as ever. One of the first songs they attempt is “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Paul brings it, but John soon adds a fabulous vocal coda built around the “everybody had a hard year” lyric. And in one of many magic moments, John shouts “sing Paul” during a rehearsal when Lennon is doing his bit so that they can see how the two blend together. And that’s far from the only example. Paul contributes to “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Dig a Pony.”
Perhaps the most breath-taking example of how they worked together comes just after John and Paul have the flower pot conversation. The pair rejoin Ringo and excitedly decide to reach out to George again. Deflatingly, they learn that he’s gone to Liverpool. Yoko says her it-will-be-alright line about meeting Wednesday. And then – in my favorite moment of the entire documentary – Ringo looks at John and Paul and says, “Should we rehearse the numbers.” The camera catches a smile erupt across Paul’s face as he realizes that the Beatles aren’t done yet. “Yup,” he says.
What follows is an extraordinary scene in which Ringo watches John and Paul work on the lyrics to a song that had long been entirely attributed to Paul – “Get Back.” To be sure, Paul comes up with most of the words. But Lennon is a vital sounding board. When Paul toys with “Jo-Jo left his home in Arizona,” John assures him that was good. Then, Paul throws out “Northern Arizona.” John has a blank look, conveying “no, that’s not it.” Then, Paul tries “Tucson Arizona.” John’s eyes light up. He doesn’t have to say it. “That’s it.”
The third myth to be busted was that John Lennon had lost his creative powers, surrendering his soul to heroin and the band to Paul. There is a scene early on where Paul declares that he has been the boss for the last couple of years, as he dictates arrangements at early rehearsals. But the footage soon reveals how untrue that was.
Paul reveals himself to be a bundle of emotions. Passionate and with a full quiver of fabulous songs, but wholly unable to lead the band in the direction he wants it to go. He needs John as much as ever, and John’s love for Paul can’t be denied, even as he pokes fun at his granny songs.
The chemistry between the two reveals itself over and over, most starkly in the lead up to and during the flower pot conversation. For my money, the best sequence in the documentary is the first half hour of Part 2. Ringo and Paul sit with Lindsey-Hogg and a few others, wondering if the Beatles are over. Paul, figuratively in a pool of tears – but with real ones in his eyes – makes the heartbreaking “and then there were two” revelation.
Then, John calls. Paul leaps to his feet and rushes off to take the call. He returns a new man. With a broad smile he announces that “John is coming in.” When the two talk, Paul takes back his declaration of leadership. He tells Lennon, “you have always been the boss.” McCartney had been only a secondary boss. To be sure, some scenes – particularly early on – suggest that Lennon was using. But he, not Paul, was clear headed enough to take the reins; explain the problem to Paul; and suggest a way forward.
The deluxe box set – though not the documentary unless I somehow missed it – provides another revealing exam of John’s role. Paul laments his melancholy despite the band’s progress, asking whether they were once again “recording an album in a London studio.” Others try to explain that they’re playing live. That might not have been the public performance Paul had dreamed of. But it was different.
It takes Lennon to bring perspective, analogizing their current project to a song. “If it were a number,” Lennon explains, “and we took it in a different direction. Like you wanted it to be a soft number, we made it a rocking one.” Paul responds, “but that’s ok.” And Lennon confirms that “ok” isn’t the point. It’s the change in focus from recording an album live on television to simply recording one live in the studio that has Paul feeling down.
Even as to creative output, the myth of John’s minimal contribution is at best exaggerated. To be sure, Paul showed up with endless song ideas. But most of these – however fabulous – were fragmentary and wholly inappropriate for the live album project to be completed in three weeks. Complex piano-based songs would be fine for a studio effort with overdubs. But not for a live recording.
Paul tacitly acknowledged this by introducing “I’ve Got a Feeling” before the superior “Let it Be” and “The Long and Winding Road,” not to mention “She Came Through the Bathroom Window” and “Golden Slumbers.” Perhaps if Paul had these songs completed on day 1, the band could have mastered them in a couple of weeks, at least once Billy Preston joined in. But they were nowhere close to finished.
By comparison, Lennon showed up with “Don’t Let Me Down,” a perfect song for this project and virtually complete except for the lyrics on the verses. Later, he contributes “I Dig a Pony,” another well suited song in close to final form.
The last myth is that George was the level-headed, pragmatic one who John and Paul didn’t respect. There’s some truth to this, of course. But there’s also a sense in which George is a petulant kill-joy who just can’t accept the reality of his situation. When Lennon suggests making Preston the fifth Beatle, George retorts sarcastically that they should invite Bob Dylan to join. And he suggests paying Preston like a session player. How would it have hurt to toy with the fantasy of the Beatles reaching new heights as an inter-racial band with an immensely talented, dedicated keyboard player?
If this documentary reveals anything, it confirms the brilliance, charisma, and pure magic conjured by John Lennon and Paul McCartney making music together. George, immensely talented as he was, just could not hold a candle to these guys. Here’s a metaphor for sports fans. In a crucial early-70’s game between the Jets and the Raiders, Joe Namath and Daryl Lamonica led their teams. The Raiders won, knocking the Jets out of the playoffs. But after the game, everyone – including the Raiders coach and owner – praised Namath’s gutsy performance. Lamonica quipped to the press something like “I think that the quarterback who puts the most points on the board has done the better job.” No! Joy, passion, the stuff of entertainment writ large cannot be measured so objectively. George was Daryl. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were The Beatles. And George was the problem for not being mature enough to deal with that reality.
Was George the reason they broke up? I doubt it. The Get Back documentary busts a lot of myths and conveys a lot of joy. But in the end, it sheds no light on why 12 months later, just three Beatles would put the finishing touches on the Let It Be album. And the lads would never again be altogether in a recording studio or on a stage.