If you are a Beatles hater (as I know some of you are), then for the love of God, do not attempt to sit through the eight hours of “The Beatles: Get Back” documentary recently released on Disney+. You will die of Beatles overload. If, however, you love, like, or even just casually enjoy The Beatles’ music, you won’t be disappointed. Or if you have an appreciation for the music writing and producing process in general, then you will be hard-pressed to find anything as fascinating and wonderful as this documentary to assuage your thirst for the craft of song. It is, in short, a music lover’s delight, showing a band at its creative summit and immersed in the album-creation process. It is an intimate and privileged glimpse behind the curtain as one of the world’s most influential bands creates one of its last studio albums. It is simply magnificent.
The documentary also offers some surprising and new insights into the band as it nears its final days as a musical unit. They may not be new to the hard-core fans who have poured over the tapes of the “Let it Be” sessions for years, but for the rest of us, Director Peter Jackson has ushered into the world a masterpiece of the artist at work. This is every music aficionado’s dream, to see a band like the Beatles in the act of creation, unfiltered.
Without further ado, here are the ten major takeaways that this listener/viewer discovered in watching the eight-hour documentary.
1. The band in 1969 was prolific in its songwriting output
The four Beatles were salty, music business veterans by this point in their careers, and had made gobs of money and achieved unparalleled success. One might think that the creative juices would have slowed down by 1969. On the contrary. Not only did the band churn out the required songs for the “Let it Be” album in the roughly 22 days spanning the documentary, but they also germinated songs that would end up on “Abbey Road,” as B-sides for stand-alone singles, and on future solo albums.
We hear the initial fragments of “All Things Must Pass” (for George Harrison), “Another Day” and “The Backseat of My Car” (for Paul McCartney), and “Jealous Guy” (for John Lennon). The Beatles were a rich vein of musical gemstones, mining melodies with seeming ease. We even see Ringo Starr during the sessions introduce the band to the creation of “Octopus’ Garden,” seemingly on a lark. Watching songs like “Let it Be,” “Get Back,” and “Old Brown Shoe” created before our very eyes is a marvel akin to seeing lightning strike up close.
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2. George, not Yoko, comes across as the immediate impetus for the band’s breakup
The conventional wisdom is that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles during this time frame, with her clinging attachment to John and her always-there presence (John was the first member, after all, to officially leave the band in 1970). Paul admits that it was harder to write with his one-time partner at that time, because he simply was not around John (alone) as much as he used to be. That said, the real crack in the Beatles’ armor at this time appears to be George Harrison.
The quiet Beatle seems put out with being the third-wheel in the Lennon/McCartney songwriting relationship, and the documentary’s most poignant moments revolve around George leaving the band abruptly shortly into the album writing process. While his departure was brief, George was clearly restless to strike out and do his own thing, and appears to have delivered the first real cut amidst the thousand others that would lead to the death of the Beatles.
3. Yoko and Linda were loving and ever-present partners
Yes, Yoko Ono is ubiquitous in the film and the process of making the album. There is hardly a shot that goes by without her faithfully present at John’s side. The thing is, though, it does not appear to bother any of the other Beatles in the slightest. She does not disrupt the process, doesn’t become involved where she is not invited, and is there seemingly only to support her man. In fact, in one tender moment, she splits a piece of gum in half — after it is offered by Ringo — and places one half lovingly in John’s hand while he discusses some finer point of the recording process. That is her involvement in a nutshell.
The same goes for Linda Eastman (later McCartney), who is almost as ever-present as Yoko. Linda takes pictures, weighs in on some band matters, and brings her daughter to the studio at one point. She is there to support Paul, and also refrains from interfering when it is clearly not her place to do so (as a band outsider). Both women are supportive, loving partners over the eight hours of film, and it is impossible to draw the conclusion from the footage that they played any significant role in the breakup of the band.
4. Paul was the (reluctant) driving force and leader of the band
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In the wake of manager Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, the Beatles were like four teenagers without a parent to prod them to finish their chores and focus their efforts. They admit as much in the film. In response to this lack of management, Paul becomes the de facto leader of the band, and must prod them in the songwriting process, in performing, and in seemingly all other band-related matters. Not only does he regret this fact, he also doesn’t like to be in that position and tells John as much in a private conversation caught on a hidden recording device. Paul knows this will lead to resentment on the part of the others in the band (and it does, in George’s case), but he does it nonetheless, for the good of the band and for the music they created. It is a case study in leadership and band dynamics as he tries to use a light touch to goad the members into going in what he sees as the right direction.
5. John was the peacemaker between Paul and George
If Paul was the reluctant leader, then John Lennon was the emotional center of the band, and the one who was able to bridge the gap between Paul’s leadership and George’s creative frustration. Specifically, in the surreptitiously recorded tête-à-tête between he and Paul after George’s abrupt departure, John tells Paul that they needed to respect George and his contributions, and lift him up instead of beating him down. What’s more, John explains this in a way that Paul can only acknowledge as fact, and John delicately makes Paul realize that he needs to change tack if he wants to keep George as a productive member of the band. It is a touching scene of intimate friendship and the inner workings of a band dynamic grown fragile after nearly a decade of success.
6. Ringo was the affable jester and the band’s dark matter
Where John and Paul concerned themselves with George’s frustrations, wrote most of the songs, and worked to keep the band together and productive, Ringo Starr really comes across as the cosmic force acting as the glue holding the Beatles universe together. He is the unseen dark matter that makes the whole theory of Beatles relativity work. He rarely speaks, but to joke (and lighten the mood), plays his drum parts flawlessly and on cue, and throughout looks in turn bemused, resigned, tired, devil-may-care, and wryly observant. It is as if he can’t be bothered with the intricacies of the personal conflicts, and his rock-steady presence (both on drums and in person) carries the Beatles forward. It is no surprise that Linda Eastman at one point says that she feels most comfortable around Ringo. We all do.
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7. Billy Preston was the 5th Beatle
Preston is a revelation in the film, at least for those of us not steeped in Beatles lore or ’60s soul and funk. The one-time session musician-turned-solo artist was a reinvigorating breath of fresh air for the band during the recording of the album. Seemingly by fate, he ended up as a part of the band for the sessions, and his electric piano playing is superb and adds a lushness to “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Get Back,” in particular. He is jocular and just happy to be there. He even contributes to helping George flesh out what would become “Old Brown Shoe,” one of Harrison’s best songs for the Beatles. “Let it Be” would not be the same album without him.
8. The support players, roadies, and engineers were just right for the band’s dynamic
As is likely the case with all bands, the group was surrounded by a staff of support personnel that catered to their every need. While this particular cast never interfered except when asked to, or when their responsibilities demanded it (such as engineer Glyn Johns trying to, you know… record an album), they were nevertheless reliably there for the band members at all times. Mal Evans stands out in particular as an all-around fixer and body man. There was also the seemingly-mute red-headed roadie who brought endless supplies of booze and smokes, and the film’s director, who did his mighty best to make a story out of the melee. Whether bringing the boys ciggies, tea, wine, or toast, fixing mic stands, or demanding that they play it straight for the recorded version, the support staff did its mighty best for the band so that the lads could focus on the music.
9. The Beatles loved the music
While this seems a fairly obvious takeaway, the fact that the Beatles loved music is driven home throughout the documentary, as they cover everyone from Chuck Berry to Bob Dylan, Elvis, Canned Heat, Ben E. King, Hank Williams, Conway Twitty, Ray Charles, and more during rehearsals and jamming sessions. On a whim, they would break into a song they all seemed to know, if even only partially. They even rehash some of their own older hits, gently mocking their younger selves while playing some songs in radically different arrangements and tempos. It is as if they had music coursing through their collective consciousness at all hours of the day, and no one would be surprised to find out that that was indeed the case.
10. The “Let it Be” rooftop performance was their last, glorious, goodbye
It is well known that the Beatles’ performance on the roof of the studio that day in 1969 would be their last ever public performance as a band. However, none of that valedictory sentiment comes through in the performance itself. It is raucous, fun, and exhilarating as hundreds gather below (and on adjacent rooftops) to watch, and as London Bobbies close in to shut down the “disturbance of the peace.” Cops and fans and mere passersby look on in wonder, as the band plays through the set, the wind blowing cold enough to hurt John’s fingers as he tries to make chords. Ringo and John were keen to do the outdoor concert, Paul was reluctantly concerned with the band’s preparedness, and George was stubbornly opposed, but resigned if the rest of the boys wanted to do it.
The valiant delaying tactics by Mal Evans to keep the bobbies at bay coincided with the exhalation and exuberance of the band to be playing those new songs. The mix of nonchalant, supportive, and dismissive reactions of the crowd only add to the carnival-like atmosphere. One elderly woman clearly couldn’t even be bothered with the Beatles: “They woke me up and I don’t much like it.”
The documentary is like an eight-hour visit to a preserve where rare pop-rock savants reside, and where we, the viewers, get to observe the four bandmates in their natural habitat. We marvel at the creative process in which they engage, seemingly for our benefit, but also with wanton disregard for anything outside of their circle of four. Director Peter Jackson deserves huge thanks and credit for bringing this magic into the world.
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Feature image: Apple Corp. Ltd./ Disney Platform Distribution
George Y says
About Billie Preston (another takeaway IMHO):
We once again see how anti-racist were the Beatles; after their 1964 refusal to play to segregated audiences in Jacksonville, Florida we see on camera Billie and John paying tribute to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech while composing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
These were strong political messages from a group of young musicians who were not afraid to go against the flow, it’s no wonder that John was on the FBI watchlist because Hoover was sure that Lenon was a communist (how typical!).
P.S. Not that it matters but I am a white guy writing all this.
Thanks so much for your great review!
Joni Smith says
Great review,Fru! Having owned my own recording studio in the past I can tell you it’s the best thing in the world to watch artist create music. The glimpse this documentary gives into that process of this legendary band is like getting a peak behind the looking glass or to see the wizard at work behind the curtain. The place where the magic happens. What’s also amazing during the time of The Beatles the recording process blossomed and technology grew through engineers like Glyn Johns and producers like George Martin. If you are interested that piece of the creative process there is a really interesting documentary on Glyn Johns I highly recommend. He worked with everybody and his work was exceptional. He clearly lived and love music just like The Beatles. I enjoyed the review, Fru.