If this is really a "review" of the Peter Jackson "Get Back" documentary of The Beatles, then the one thing I want to address at the top is people who are dubious about the 8 hours running time and if it really needed to be that long. In my opinion, yes it does have to be that long. You have to be in that studio with them for a long period of time (and the 22 days are distilled down to 8 hours which is just right). We, as the audience, have to be in there with them for that long to watch the songs evolve, watch them writing and creating in something close to real time.
I'm sure you can have this on your tv while you're doing some mild work on a laptop or playing Words With Friends. It actually might be the perfect "multi-task watch" now that I think about it. If Yoko was three feet away from this in the flesh and wouldn't look up from doing her knitting, don't feel bad that you're only giving 50% of your attention in the room while you watch it. Just put in your time, and you can tell when something big is happening toput the iPad down then and enjoy the big moments. But the slower stretches of viewing are still essential to the experience; I guess that's my review.
The rest of this article is just gonna be chronological notes or a running diary on my viewing
Part 1: Days 1-7
The 10-minute fast history of the Beatles at the beginning really is an incredible setup. You probably know most of what you see there but seeing it that condensed and well-edited gives so much context.
Ringo stepping in to Don't Let Me Down ï¿½" took him about 5-6 seconds to find a beat and that was the song all of a sudden. He's always the unspoken hero of this band. Always brough energy. But also when a band is jamming, he was dead quiet until the band wanted to run through a group version. If you've ever been in a studio where 4 or 5 musicians are noodling out loud on their instruments, it's a hellacious (and unproductive) sound. Anyway, we won't discuss it too much in this diary, but just remember that there's no way The Beatles would have existed with Keith Moon or other more talked-about drummers; I'm not even sure the ever gracious Charlie Watts had the patience and positive temperament that Ringo does.
Paul, while they're learning and playing with what they have so far, asks "Is that all you've got?" If somebody said that in a situation where a band is in turmoil, that's a match that's gonna set off a fire of bad feelings. John is totally fine with this comment. They really are brothers that didn't get pissy about things like that. Picture Liam Gallagher asking Noel "is that all you've got?"
Yoko's presence (and George's trippy monk friend) creates a weird energy in the studio. At least it would have been for me. We had this once with The Bigfellas with our guitarist friend Keith Goodwin in studio. His wife was there no more than two feet away from his guitar while he was recording tracks. By the way, the only day I've heard Keith play and thinking that he didn't sound good. I hesitate to even write that down; I love Keith and I know Shay loves Keith. But even at the time it was a "Yoko moment." That's my perspective. And the non-musicians friends I've talked to about the documentary would feel similarly creeped out about Yoko the living ghost over their shoulder. But ï¿½"
None of us have had riots of girls chase us down hallways. We've never been threatened by the KKK to have our concert shut down. We've never had a nation angry at us because we pointed out that we get more attention than Jesus (which was absolutely true). Just like if you watch The Last Dance about Michael Jordan, when you're a big enough star that you live your life a bit in captivity, then you get used to having extra people in your room who don't say a word. (e.g. an additional security guard, a gofer, a stray production assistant). So, for them, perhaps it's not weird at all.
Lots of toast. Literal toast. Rock stars had not yet figured out how to make unreasonable demands. Or even reasonable demands, like better snacks than toast.
I've Got A Feeling was collaborative as fuck.
The lyrics to their songs like secondary concerns to them. The first draft and often the completely different second draft of lyrics on so many of their songs in here just seemed so meaningless. Just sounds.
The film producer (Michael Lindsay-Hogg) understandably needs to join a conversation with the band to define what the live concert will actually be. First of all, the fact that this concert idea is completely up for grabs while being less than two weeks away is insane. But Jesus, Michael, stop pushing this weird idea of a concert in Tripoli. But there's a short sequence where the band really starts asking themselves "What is the point of the live show?" ï¿½" or basically "Why?" They all point out it's not for the money, and John has a sweet moment when he says it's about communicating with people. Being on tv is an opportunity to say "All you need is love." Then without missing a cynical, entertainment-industry beat, Michael pipes in what a fantastic "package" they have ï¿½" an album, tv special and live performance. Yes, it's true. But fuck you, Michael. Maybe I'm overreacting but that made me a little sad. Not that The Beatles took any of it to heart; they politely ignored his hacky observation and got back to creating. But being surrounded by this crew was not an easy environment to be creative in.
Speaking of this crew and poker-faced Yoko, it's a good chance to include the photo I have of the unhappiest audience member I ever had to play for. This woman was directly in front of my for a full show at Humphrey's in San Diego. It threw me off for the first half of it, then it just got to be funny!
John bringing in "Across The Universe" was interesting. That song was pretty complete, but it was still magical to watch the group flesh it out. John's chorus (is it even the chorus?) of "Jai Guru Deva" obviously meant something to him when you watch him sing it. While rehearsing, I was really watching a look of joy on Paul's face while he was harmonizing. I don't think the words meant particularly much to Paul, but he saw that John was singing them with total feeling so that's enough of a moment for Paul to have his own energy and feeling from seeing John so engaged. Of course, I'm overanalyzing. It reinforces the hypothesis that it's 5x easier to sound great singing when you're connected to the words.
Music is so weird. How the band includes George's song "I Me Mine" in this batch instead of "All Things Must Pass" is baffling.
Good God, producers ï¿½" give up this Tripoli idea. How many times do all 4 Beatles need to tell you, "No" before you start reading the room?
Watching them all work out "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window", John and Paul do not look like they're heading for a musical divorce. At all. The same goes for them when writing "Get Back" lyrics ï¿½" and "Two Of Us"
George Harrison had plenty of good reasons to walk out. I totally understand how powerful and annoying the Little Brother Complex he had with Paul and John. No matter how much George developed as a songwriter, he never was going to be seen as an equal by John and Paul. I think he was trying to be as patient as Ringo but held it all in too long to the point saying nothing while frustrated until he felt his only move was to quit the group. (Or, quite possibly, he just might have been having a bad day or unseen trouble at home.)
Part 2: Days 8-16
Paul's understanding of how John & Yoko needed to be together 24/7 is a pretty amazing scene, especially after the band sure seems broken up that Monday morning. Meanwhile his girlfriend Linda is right next to him and takes his hand. Without a word I think they were saying something on the order of "we are definitely two separate people, but I love you just as much as Yoko and John, if not more."
Then Paul is literally shaking in a silent moment there in a small group discussion. He absolutely understands how special The Beatles are, he's been the one busting his ass for the past two weeks (and perhaps longer) to keep this going, and on that depressing morning he has no idea how to keep this thing together anymore.
By the way, the director trying to shut Linda's opinion up by saying "I'm a bigger fan than you" is awful. I'm really beginning to hate this guy.
Paul saying to Linda "Stay out of this, Yoko" jokingly - that's the at 0:15 of this video on the left
John & Paul's secretly taped conversation about knowing they've done George wrong in some ways over the years is pretty phenomenal. And both of their ability to have enough personal insight about all of their dynamics is pretty incredible. Nobody's storming out. They are being more honest with each other than almost any other conversation I've seen on a screen.
When you're hitting a wall in a recording session and things are getting stale ï¿½" the best solution seems to be bringing a Billy Preston into the room to change the energy.
- Incredible how he's showing up to grab lunch with George, then after playing a song ï¿½" he's the fifth Beatle an hour later.
- From the get-go, it's like he's been playing with them for years ï¿½" and knowing how to functionally ignore Yoko for years
- I don't think I've ever seen a piano player hold a lit cigarette while playing even half as well as Billy Preston
I'm not the first one to bring this up, but was everybody in late 60's Britain this much into eating toast or was it just The Beatles?
Embryonic versions of solo songs are really what's worth the price of admission here: "Jealous Guy". "Another Day", "The Back Seat Of My Car" (totally underrated Paul Wings' song for me).
Actually keeping their instruments in tune did not seem like a priority for these guys.
Part 3: Days 17-22
Did anybody think Linda's little daughter observing Yoko doing her patented primal screaming and then doing it herself was actually trolling Yoko with a spot on impression?
Watching Paul struggling on what to do with The Long And Winding Road was interesting. At least to me, who's made a couple records. (The fact that not many people have heard these records is immaterial; the process of writing and recording has been similar for us to what I saw The Beatles dealing with; the only difference is that their end result was obviously better.) When you finish writing a song, there's a good feeling about it. Then, always very early into the tracking and recording, it feels like a mess. You feel lost. Confused. You have no idea how this is going to end up as a finished, produced song. You do eventually get there, only after a lot of pain. Yet I found that by the third time I was involved in recording an album, by then I could trust the experience and not really get too despondent while songs where in a dismantled, sloppy state. That said, while trying to jam out and work out The Long And Winding Road, Paul looked a little lost. It was the only time in these sessions where Paul looked as worn out as George and John were.
That said, John was on heroin a lot of this time and George was visibly tired of being told he wasn't really a songwriter.
Part 3 on Day 18 is the only time I've seen or heard Ringo sound like he's dragging and not keeping up the beat. Everybody looks pooped. Normally Ringo was the happy one who kept the group together with his energy. Thank God they had Billy Preston in there to pinch hit.
Even George's lyrics on "Something" which ended up so beautiful and iconic, they were completely other lyrics at first and just throwaway stuff. The lack of ideas what any of these songs were about when they were first being created was astonishing. They were primarily all musical, and on almost every song, hopefully the lyrics would eventually come together and mean something.
Watching John rave about Allen Klein as being the businessman to lead them forward is sad. Also, it's the only time you hear Yoko pipe up to say something is to vouch for Klein. He ended up ruining their company and sued and was sued by The Beatles (and more pointedly by The Rolling Stones) for a lot of shadiness. It's crazy to watch John Lennon still be brilliant creatively and still a great songwriting collaborator, yet when it comes to business decisions, he sounds like a dude doing too much heroin.
One thing that nobody seems to consider is that if the worst fears come true and the rooftop concert sucked because the songs weren't ready ï¿½". they don't HAVE to release it. Why in the world couldn't The Beatles and their record company afford to just do a replacement live performance a few weeks later. They're just filming this thing on a rooftop, it's not on live television.
Their last "Two Of Us" rehearsal where John and Paul sing while never opening their jaws made me realize that they are ALWAYS fucking around, in a good way. It's called "playing music". They're always "playing". It's just not in their DNA to keep playing the same song the same way, they never get stale - they discovered so many things by farting around and keeping whatever seemed to work, it's a key to their process. Similarly, Ringo famously never repeated drum fills; they're pretty much always by the seat of his pants.
By the way, George Martin was really pretty much the only sane, productive "adult in the room" in their whole career.
I'm not actually sure what, if anything, they ever did to test that the rooftop would hold all of them and their equipment.
The cops come to break them up about 40 minutes into their performance. So, you're telling me that The Beatles don't have the fucking clout to tell the police to let them make a film on the top of their own building in the middle of a day. Of course. when they interview people in the street, there's some 1969 proto-hipster saying he only liked the early Beatles. My on-the-street MVP is the septuagenarian who described The Beatles as "cracking" (in a good way) and "a lovely crowd". Again, my message to the cops is who exactly was so disturbed in the neighborhood except for the cranky woman who complained that the music woke her up (around Noon?!).
Looks cold up there. I've since read that it was 45 degrees up there and plenty windy. Have you ever played guitar with a pick in 45-degree weather? Let me tell you, the quality of their playing in those conditions is one of the most amazing things in this whole documentary.
There's something to be said for playing live vs. the mindfuck of recording in a studio. When you're playing live, you HAVE to just jump in and play, no second guessing. The idea of having to play songs live before recording them is a good one.
Why did some songs get finished and played on the rooftop, some songs were clearly great like "Oh Darling", "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", etc. didn't bother getting finished or really recorded here then turned up on Abbey Road sessions later that year? Additionally, how to the 30 or so people on the roof look so fucking calm. They're playing their asses off with "I've Got A Feeling" and the suits in the background look like they're waiting for toast & marmalade. I will never understand how blase everybody is about this music in the moment.
I'll tell you what - if you're having a party that gets too loud, Mal Evans (the Beatles road manager) is the guy you want talking to the cops. For my money, of all the people hanging with The Beatles at this point in time, keep George Martin and Mal Evans and ditch the rest of them.
I was not prepared for how happy it would make me to see them insist on playing that one last song "Get Back" in defiance of the dopey cops trying to shut it down. It was exuberant and it got a little dusty in here. (OK, my dog died recently so I'm a little hyper-emotional this week.) Look at Paul’s cheeky face on the left here right after he saw the cops were trying to shut it down and he kept George and John going.
Just makes me wonder what we would have ended up with if The Beatles had managed to keep themselves together for even just another 5 or 10 years. Yes, the mystery of what-could-have-been is usually better than the real thing. But I really don't think so in this case. Sure, we got what each of them did separately in the 70s on their solo albums and they really were all wonderful. But this what-if is tantalizing. This whole documentary shows us a band that was not at each other's throats and still creating at the highest level. These songs are even more complex than I remember.
Perhaps that's the most amazing thing about this documentary. When we heard this was coming out, I think most of us thought to ourselves "What could be possibly be so new and important about ANOTHER Beatles documentary?" But there really was a ton here and I'm very happy I spend these 8 hours with them.