The Beatles: Get Back
The Beatles: Get Back
I sat through the entire „Get Back“ documentary on Disney+ , which Peter Jackson put together from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s extensive footage (56 hours of film, 140 hours of audio) for the film “ Let it Be“.
„Let it Be“ has a controversial reputation. On the one hand, the film documented the legendary performance of the Beatles on the roof of the Apple studio, on the other hand, it also shows a band that is slowly breaking up. It also cemented forever the clichéd image of Yoko Ono as the evil bitch responsible for the Beatles‘ downfall.
When Peter Jackson was given the unique opportunity to re-view and edit the footage, he took the task very seriously. He was interested in taking a detailed look at the different human constellations that were going on in the background of these sessions. After four years of work on the material and many creative solutions, in which he sometimes put audio-only dialogue under suitable film material (which is sometimes repeated out of necessity, since there was more audio than film), he gives us an unusually intimate insight into artistic work processes that has perhaps never existed in this form before. After all, that’s 6 hours of film, just as long as Feldman’s infamous String Quartet No. 2!
These recordings are also of great interest from the perspective of contemporary music, because the Beatles not only represented successful pop music like no other band, but also the avant-garde zeitgeist. And with George Martin – who was not only the arranger for the Beatles’ most famous albums, but also a kind of co-composer – just think of the orchestral parts of the legendary song “A Day in the Life” or the string quartet part in “Eleanor Rigby” –Beatles had a classically trained composer at their side for much of their career who actually ingeniously used those skills.
George Martin also appears several times in „Get Back“, mostly listening quietly and patiently, presumably always annoyed by the sometimes astonishingly amateurish attempts by the Fab Four to describe their harmonic and melodic ideas.
The whole thing is like a kind of Beckett chamber play. As in “Waiting for Godot”, the Beatles first sit around in an oversized studio for weeks waiting for anything to come up (usually nothing, as they’re either too stoned or too silly). In the end they are planning some event, but they don’t know exactly where to put it on. All sorts of crazy ideas are discussed, including concerts in Africa or India. The camera stays remorselessly on the Beatles going through an existential crisis while bickering with each other.
The roles are clearly distributed. It’s clear that Lennon and McCartney share a kind of deep symbiosis that goes back to their mutual youth. For the most part, they talk to each other in codes that are difficult to understand since they refer to inside jokes only known to them. But this symbiosis is also crumbling because their personalities have developed differently. Put simply, McCartney is the „hardworking“ one who is interested in keeping the band going and automatically dominates all sessions because he always wants to get a result. He is also the one who is always prepared and has concrete ideas. You might spot him sipping a glass of wine, but unlike the others, he’s amazingly focused, especially when he’s the center of attention.
Lennon, on the other hand, was in a kind of cutting-off process at the time, which certainly has something to do with his relationship with Yoko Ono. But that’s exactly where it gets interesting for us, because in this phase of his life Lennon was together with an artist for whom the whole commercial pop business was completely unimpressive because she saw herself as an independent avant-garde artist close to Fluxus.
What did that mean for the Beatles? At that moment, Lennon – who was significantly less musically adept but by no means less talented than McCartney – was certainly closer to John Cage and Stockhausen than to commerce and success. And he lets McCartney feel it – either arriving late or stoned into the agonizingly endless and unproductive rehearsals. Instead of engaging in McCartney’s elaborate, but often conventional, arranging ideas, he sabotages them with deliberately wacky ideas that often go against the original intention.
His girlfriend Ono, while reticent, is a very strong presence. And yes, sometimes she also sings (unfortunately) and then immediately transforms the whole thing into an avant-garde performance, which of course doesn’t always fit. You can tell that Lennon loved her very much and also seeks her judgement. After the famous roof performance, the first thing he does is to ask her how she found it and whether „everything is ok“. She’s pouting a bit at that moment and I’m sure she said something to him, but you can’t hear that because she doesn’t have a mic.
In this constellation, George Harrison had the thankless role of the third wheel on the wagon. One can understand his frustration when he quits the band and only returns after long apologies and the promise to give him another short song on the album. Very similar in temperament to Lennon (sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart by their voices as they speak exactly the same dialect), Harrison was probably the best instrumentalist in the band and certainly very gifted as a composer, but he lacked a direct counterpart that challenged him.
While Lennon and McCartney benefit from being accustomed to criticizing one another but also being able to mutually transcend their ideas, he lacks an equal challenge. He was always „the boy” who joined late. But with his always interesting guitar playing he is an important addition to the “Beatles” sound. Incidentally, it is said that he always had the most female admirers on the Beatles‘ many concert tours.
An interesting oasis of calm is Ringo Starr, to whom we probably have to thank – due to his unshakable stoic attitude and general kindness – that the Beatles have existed for so long. He says almost nothing, but is always present, ready to brandish the drumstick when needed. The cinematographer at the time claimed in an interview that Starr never had to be told anything and that he always found the right beat, but that’s not entirely true, as McCartney even lectures him at some point. But Starr doesn’t care, he just listens to everything and doesn’t let his mood being affected. At the end of the documentary, one would like to present him with a medal because of his eternal understatement.
Various business dramas are also taking place in the background of this agonizing chamber play situation. The Beatles were looking for a new manager at the time, but also distrusted each other because of different relationships with other famous bands of the time, for example the Stones. Once even McCartney and Lennon are recorded having a private conversation about Harrison, a microphone had been secretly placed in the canteen without their knowledge!
In addition, new characters who really have no business there are always shuffling into the studio, hanging out there for a few hours or a few days, and then disappearing again. At one point, even comedian Peter Sellers (then a global star) shows up and manages not to say a single funny line for several hours (which doesn’t help the mood either).
At some point they end the tragedy and decide to move to the Apple studios, hoping for a little more concentration there. But it goes on the same way. Now the spouses of the band are constantly present at the rehearsals, children are crawling over keyboards and drums, new people keep appearing who are mostly just annoying (at some point even Paul McCartney’s brother, who then also films), and the situation becomes more and more absurd, since the Beatles clearly have too few ideas and they only indulge in silliness.
But in this silliness, there is genius, and that’s what’s really fascinating about this documentary: the music. And how they rehearse as a band. The endless sessions are always similar – Lennon and McCartney crack jokes or tell anecdotes. Then they start „playing“ their old songs (or some old “classic”) which is more like „massacring“ them. A large part of the documentary sees them perform horrible versions of their biggest hits, which they deliberately make fun of, almost as if to completely immunize themselves against any form of self-infatuation or aloofness. Then they start a new piece. There are short moments of concentrated work, then the new piece quickly becomes a joke as well.
It goes like this for days. When the new pieces are rehearsed, then only in completely derided versions, with John Lennon in particular ruining the rehearsals as a kind of clown with various voice parodies and deliberately stupid accompanying voices on the one hand, but on the other hand driving them in ever crazier and more interesting directions. So the working process is not dissimilar to that of Janacek, who was known to endlessly pound away his melodies on the piano to find the parts that won’t wear out or become annoying with repeated repetition. The Beatles take a similar approach – they aggressively smack their own songs against the wall until there’s something left that’s actually brilliant. A kind of „survival of the fittest“ so to speak, musical selection to the bitter end.
Many songs were not created during this time, but at some point they have a program that they could play on the roof of the Apple studios, with the somewhat hidden away but musically highly competent Billy Preston playing the Fender Rhodes (who would have certainly become the fifth Beatle if the band had existed longer). Of course, this short concert (in which some of the few songs are even repeated because there were always sound problems) was a legendary event, but those involved at the time were hardly aware of it. In the extended version that this documentary offers one can enjoy the desperate attempt of a brave Bobbie who, due to the noise complaints, tries to stop the hustle and bustle and almost like in „The Raid“ first has to get to the roof through several floors with various distractions.
At another point, the film team asks an older, very conservative and strict-looking passer-by how he finds the whole thing. The gentleman then surprisingly launches into a great eulogy to the wonderful Beatles and says how happy he would be if his daughter married one of the „long-haired ones“, because then she would always have enough money!
Overall, you see a lot more of the concert and what happened behind the scenes than in „Let it Be“ and that alone is worth watching the documentary.
At the end we learn about the creative process and how music can actually emerge in a very special group dynamic that was more than the sum of its parts. And that has to do with the fact that the Beatles were basically real friends who could tease each other without being offended. And at least back then, producers and majors were holding back and not constantly telling them what „sells“ or what audiences want. Back then, the Beatles alone decided what „the audience wanted“, and that’s why they were good.
But at the heart of her art – despite all human weaknesses that we all know ourselves – there is something deeply lovable and philanthropic. It’s a celebration of play, the childlike and the possibilities of creativity. And that is what makes the Beatles so special for eternity.
It is therefore not wrong to count them, together with George Martin, as one of the greatest “composer collectives” of the 20th century.