By Matt Hanson
Who else but the Beatles, could command this much attention, of this many people, for that long of a time, and still be interesting, even joyous?
The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson.
Unless you’re already a diehard fan, there aren’t that many bands who could conceivably get away with a nearly eight-hour making-of documentary. We can only imagine what an epic, behind the scenes, fly-on-the-wall documentary would look like if it showed us, say, Fleetwood Mac’s emotional anarchy during Rumors or Brian Wilson schizophrenically composing Pet Sounds. The Clash has some brief grainy video of studio engineer Guy Stevens trying to fire up the lads during the recording of London Calling. Godard filmed the Stones developing their spell-binding Sympathy for the Devil in the studio, but he constantly interrupts the intriguing footage with random radical gibberish. Someone on Twitter tantalizingly wondered what it would be like to have eight filmed hours of Miles Davis and his crew jamming what will become Bitches Brew.
But it turns out that director Peter Jackson does have hours of footage of the fab four making Let It Be, which he edited down to an eight-hour, three part special for Disney Plus. Admittedly, it’s a lot to watch — my wife took a catnap at one point, and I couldn’t honestly tell her that she missed very much — but who else could command this much attention, of this many people, for that long of a time, and still be interesting, even joyous?
Nevertheless, the sense of an ending pervades the film. Those fresh, boyish faces and iconic mop tops have now morphed into shaggy beards and long greasy hair. They all look older than they really are; nobody is out of their 20s yet and the weary Harrison looks like a very old 25. Beatlemania (phony or otherwise) has well and truly bitten the dust, the masterpieces have been made, though others still await, all the live shows and money and press conferences and drugs and marriages and travel have each taken their toll. When Paul sings in “Two Of Us,” one of the stronger and most moving songs on the rather spotty record, that “you and I have memories/ longer than the road that stretches out ahead,” it’s hard not to see who he’s really referring to.
I’d already seen a few snippets of the film and expected a longer version to offer more passive-aggressive, awkward situations. That turned out not to be. Everyone is casually mucking about, cracking jokes, reading the paper, being visited by their spouses and families, quickly starting and stopping Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly tunes, drinking wine, perpetually lighting another smoke. Thank god that the gifted Billy Preston, a friend from Little Richard’s band from the German days, dropped by the studio just to say hi and ended up adding plenty of tasty piano work. His instant deputization is a far better idea than director Michael Linday-Hogg’s cockamamie scheme to play a show at an abandoned temple in Libya, of all places, with thousands of fans flown in no less, which gets brought up and swatted down a number of times.
Watching real people on screen do more or less ordinary things play out in real time has its drawbacks, boredom being not the least of them. Duration itself doesn’t automatically translate into drama; sometimes one longs for the artificial plot arcs of thrillers and dramas. But sometimes you really just want to be a fly on the wall — and when it comes to the Beatles, who doesn’t?. It’s immersive watching the lads mill around and stare off into space, wondering what they’re doing and what’s happening next, just like the rest of us. In this way, the Beatles reveal themselves to be the regular blokes they have paradoxically always and never been.
At first, Paul assumes the unofficial role of den mother, brainstorming and cajoling the others, much to Harrison’s annoyance. Paul’s trying to feel his way through the ideas (“I think it should start simple, and then get complex”), while George silently fumes (“just tell me what you want me to play, and I’ll play it”), only to eventually abruptly shade out of the room and essentially quit the band with the devastatingly casual kiss-off “see you ’round the clubs.” The others don’t seem to care very much at first and continue goofing off until it gradually starts to sink in. As British lads, being direct with one’s emotions doesn’t come naturally. It takes some serious off-camera cajoling — I wish we could have seen it, but maybe it’s better left unseen — to get him back in the studio.
At one point, Paul and John meet in the cafeteria and discuss the current state of the Beatles’ union, a conversation we are definitely lucky to have recorded for posterity, even though the microphone is rudely hidden in a nearby plant. Paul explains that John always seemed like the boss of the band, at which the newly radicalized Lennon balks, even though there’s plenty of evidence for it in the band’s history. Throughout the film, Lennon is probably high as a kite on something stronger than weed and obsessively in love with Yoko, which means he’s got one foot out the door already, and it’s not too much longer before he’ll start viciously slagging poor Paul off in the press.
Paul also correctly mentions how their late manager Brian Epstein was the one to crack the whip, which is undoubtedly true — had Epstein not told them how to dress and how to act on stage, they’d probably still be playing to sloshed dockworkers. Now each of them seems to be complacently veering off into their own idiosyncratic musical and aesthetic directions. That is entirely fair for each of them as individual artists. But it is a nightmare for any band attempting to work as a coherent unit.
Any musician will tell you how hard it is — physically, financially, emotionally — to be in any kind of band for very long, let alone one as heralded as the Beatles. It takes considerable stuffing to handle touring, collaboration, the audience, the critics, one’s own muse, and all the rest of it. With music there is the understandable temptation to assume that it all flows effortlessly, as if pouring down from the heavens. Of course, there’s some level of spontaneity involved, but a great deal of hard work is behind that spontaneity. We see how much ordinary human drudgery and confusion is involved in making the songs that millions take for granted.
When they finally decide, pretty much on a whim, to play their famous set on the Apple building roof, the performance is inspiring. And not just because they get to play live for the first time in ages. As they lock into the groove on that frigid January day, they clearly dig playing together to the delight (and occasional irritation) of the Londoners below them, who most likely couldn’t hear much of anything anyway but are nevertheless chuffed to see such a cracking group in the flesh. The bobbies, in their silly hats and amusingly British diction, politely try to shut them down, but even they can’t stop the show.
It’s great fun to hear them cut a couple of the tracks that end up making the final cut of the record, especially the slickly rocking “Get Back” and the forcefully vulnerable “Don’t Let Me Down,” which has gotten a lot of love on social media lately. And there are alternate takes. What enhances the experience, despite all the history in the making and the brush with greatness, is that we have already spent enough more or less dead time in the studio with the band to have a sense of what it took for them all to get there, playing and singing as a band again, back to where they once belonged.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.