The Beatles: Get Back. Peter Jackson’s Love Letter to the World and the Fabs
Beginning in 2017, director Peter Jackson’s team of filmmakers commenced an odyssey to discover the Holy Grail of pop music. Reviewing, restoring and upgrading 60 hours of 16mm of film and 150 hours of audio recordings was a Herculean task, in and of itself. But Jackson and his corps did more than that. They created an epic documentary that rewrote Beatles history and re-injected life into the Beatles’ final, and most controversial, album. In doing so, he created a film that does four amazing things:
One: He Shows Master Songcrafters Working at the Peak of Their Game
We all know the triumverate of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were very capable, if not extraordinarily gifted, musicians. But Get Back reveals George Harrison coming into his own as a songwriter and musician finding his superpowers. Lennon and McCartney struggle with Harrison’s emerging songwriting skills — by their own admission, their egos impede their ability to treat Harrison with the kind of respect he deserves. At the beginning of the Get Back sessions, Harrison introduces them to his new composition All Things Must Pass. It is a song that would later become the title of his monster solo triple-LP album and it is one that music historians view as one of Harrison’s top songs and perhaps one of the great solo Beatle songs. The Guardian included it in its 2009 list of 1000 top songs ever written. John and Paul give show little interest in including it on their album. WIthin two days, Harrison writes two more songs in the evenings between sessions: I, Me, Mine and For You Blue. The former is another great song that NME ranked in the top 100 Beatle songs and it has since been covered by numerous famous artists. And, here’s the topper, Harrison also unveils Something and Old Brown Shoe, but neither of them make it on the album either.
Harrison’s new-found compositional fire power was impressive. But the other two Beatles were also in top form. McCartney conjured up three of rock’s greatest songs: Let It Be, Get Back and Long and Winding Road during the sessions. Lennon admittedly was emotionally detached from the project, yet he contributed one of his greatest songs Across the Universe. Moreover, Lennon’s compositional abilities are in plain view during the documentary, as he cajoles, encourages and critiques the songs McCartney and Harrison bring to the table.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring part of the Get Back sessions, as reformulated by Jackson’s team, is the Beatles’ jaw-dropping ambition. They gave themselves 2 weeks to write, hone and perform 14 new songs — no covers. Few of them had written any songs prior to the sessions — no demos are introduced. Jackson’s film shows the births in the studio of many of these great songs. It is a marvel to watch.
Even with the significant advancements in digital recordings, few, if any, current-day musical artists would undertake such a challenge. To write 14 songs in 2 weeks would be impressive. To record and then perform those same songs would evoke laughter and then concern about one’s mental health. Yet, that is exactly what the Beatles set out to do at these sessions and they almost pulled it off! It took three weeks (not two) for them to write closer to 30 songs and they performed ten of those songs for inclusion on the Let it Be album. The whipped cream on this sonic sundae was seven of the songs that were written at the Get Back Sessions are considered masterpieces that have clearly stood the test of time. And eleven of them turned up on their next album Abbey Road, universally regarded as among The Beatles’ best.
Two: The Impressive Self-Awareness of Two Twenty-somethings
The beginning of Episode Two contains a remarkable moment. It begins with John and Paul’s “let’s face the music” luncheon conversation prompted by Harrison’s low-key departure. Surreptitiously captured on tape via a hidden microphone in a flowerpot, their chat is nothing short of a revelation. They grapple not only with their own shabby treatment of their “little brother” but face-off with each other over who is the boss of the Beatles. McCartney, who had assumed the mantle as de facto manager after “Mr Epstein’s” death flatly states that he assumed John was and still is the dominant force in the Beatles. Paul feels partially shut-out by the other three. John counters with the observation that Paul is effectively running the show now. Notably, this emotion-charged introspection by the two men is calm, respectful and uncharacteristically insightful for two uber-talented artists. At ages 26 and 28, respectively, Paul and John show a wisdom and maturity that is well beyond what might be reasonably expected of their years and life experience.
And they weren’t all talk. The subsequent sessions showed the effort made by the two group-leaders to be more inclusive, less critical and to honor the other band members’ contributions. They walked the walk and did it with real affection and respect for each other and their two other mates.
Three: The Comic Genius of these Four Musical Geniuses
The four Beatles’ musical skills have been well-established. While McCartney has proven himself to be a virtuoso, the three others are largely regarded by professional musicians as ground-breaking and influential in their own rights. Lennon’s songwriting, Harrison’s guitar work and songwriting and Starr’s drumming are frequently studied and lauded by people in the music business. But Jackson’s documentary reveals a similar superlative talent: comedy. Sure, the Beatles’ Hard Days Night movie was hailed as a Marx Brothers-level comic escapade, but it was written by a professional screenwriter and directed by a highly-regarded comedy film director.
The eight hours that we spend with the Beatles at the Get Back sessions showcase McCartney and Lennon’s gift for humorous dialects, Lennon’s effective use of humor to lighten the mood, Harrison’s razor-sharp wry wit and Ringo’s understated capture of gentle, but germane, observational humor. It is exceedingly difficult to watch their banter and clowning without breaking out into belly-shaking laughter. Lennon, in particular, displays the heart and soul of a clown. And like any clown, he has a dark side that is concealed by his comic antics. But when he holds court, everyone in the studio is laser-focused on John. And Lennon shows his aptitude for using that humor to keep his bandmates connected and engaged in the drudgery of honing and crafting songs.
Four: A Tear-Inducing, Heartwarming Love Story
Peter Jackson has stitched together a multi-faceted love story. First, and foremost, it is his love letter to a group of musicians who enhanced his own life. In interviews, Jackson admits that he is not musically inclined and doesn’t follow pop music. In fact, the only albums he owned were Beatles albums –all of them. He was a fan of the Beatles, not a rock music fan. And his 4-year commitment to this project was driven by his love and respect for them, as well as the need to correct a historical misjustice.
Second, he’s created a love story for fans about the Beatles’ music, itself. Watching these talented men piece together memorable songs that remain fresh and relevant today will appeal to any fan of popular music. If you love great music you will love this film. But Jackson does more than this. His documentary reveals to us a love story of four men who grew up together, began growing apart and then attempted to re-capture the bond that they’d built over the previous 12 years.
George was all of 13 years old when he joined Paul and John, who were two and three years his senior. The four of them had grown to love each other, as brothers. And after the death of “Mr. Epstein” (none of them referred to their recently departed father-figure as “Brian”), they struggled to maintain their depth of connection. The Get Back sessions turned out to have clearly been an attempt by the men to reconnect to that love that they’d once had. Jackson shows that they largely succeeded. The overt displays of affection and the knowing looks between the men shows the three words that the four musicians wanted to say to one another but, due to British social norms, they could not: “I love you”. Jackson’s docuseries puts that love on full display in a way that will bring tears of joy to just about any warm-blooded viewer, and perhaps even the odd crocodile.
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