Far from being a fractious foursome, The Beatles share private jokes and camaraderie. Image: Disney+
In January 1969, filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg was asked to film The Beatles getting back to their roots. The plan was to film them writing, recording and then performing new songs in front of an audience for a live album, to air as a TV special. All of this in just three weeks.
The pressure was on. And the received wisdom is that it caused relations between The Beatles to implode. This was, we have been told for the last 50 years, the beginning of the end of The Beatles.
And because the original film of Let It Be was shelved for a year, during which The Beatles recorded and released Abbey Road, and was eventually released in May 1970, just months after The Beatles had disbanded, that idea was reinforced. It became the truth. For 50 years, we’ve been told that The Beatles were a fractious foursome in these recording sessions, constantly at loggerheads, and that this was the catalyst for them breaking up.
Paul McCartney disagrees. And he was there. He sees this as a period in which The Beatles stretched and pushed their songwriting skills like never before.
“As I watched it, I was thinking, boy, that was a really fertile period, a very fruitful period for me,” is McCartney’s take on Get Back, Peter Jackson’s new film, plundered from more than 60 hours of Lindsay-Hogg’s video and 150 hours of audio recordings – tapes that have been gathering dust for half a century.
“There’s me knocking out tunes, just for the fun of it. I was definitely going through a good musical period there.”
Get Back comprehensively rewrites the history of The Beatles. Interspersed with the writing and recording, there is the horseplay, the camaraderie, the codes and private jokes and references. McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison sitting around one mic, Ringo Starr perched on a drum riser, keyboard magician Billy Preston, watching each other’s hands and faces.
Paul: “E, G, E, stop…”
George: “Is that one called I’ve Got a Feeling?”
John: “It’s called I’ve Got a Hard On!”
Paul: “Everybody’s got a hard on except me and my monkey.”
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With the new Todd Haynes film about The Velvet Underground and Questlove’s Summer of Soul examining the impact and influence of the Harlem Cultural Festival, 1969 is having quite a year.
It feels important that we are reflecting and revisiting that year of great change and rupture, the time of Stonewall, of the moon landings, of The Beatles’ last concert, of the Tate murders by the Manson family and the killing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter at the Altamont free concert. Hope and despair fighting for control of the upcoming decade. Are we revisiting as we try to reclaim hope during a time of political and pandemic-related despair?
There is so much hope in these new Beatles films. There is graft and struggle – over lyrics, structure and sound. And there are constant reminders that the band’s central writing duo of McCartney and Lennon are still clearly in thrall to each other’s talents.
Children dash about. Yoko Ono is a constant presence at Lennon’s side. Linda Eastman is taking photographs (she and McCartney will marry a few months later). At times The Beatles are, not for the first time, caught in the middle of a heck of a hullabaloo. The four of them focused on the music as family members, their backroom team, filmmakers, producers and engineers busy around them.
At the eye of the storm, McCartney talks his bandmates through the odd time signature changes at on the outro of Two Of Us. Lennon ad libs new lyrics: “Two Of Us Henry Cooper / Henry Cooper…”
Harrison brings in Old Brown Shoe, a song he’s been working on, bashing it out inexpertly on the piano as Starr, McCartney and Preston dance along encouragingly. “Pianos are very difficult, aren’t they?” he deadpans.
The new series is packed with these archive treasures. Songs that would end up on Let It Be, Abbey Road and future solo LPs – including Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
“Daylight is good, at arriving at the right time.” Amen to that.
For Jackson, this film became a labour of love. It is easy to balk at the final, seven hours and 48 minutes version of what was originally intended as a two-hour movie and think it is a lockdown project that got way out of control.
But without the long, lingering shots of the band’s everyday conversation and interactions, without the hijinks, without witnessing the honing of musical ideas into classic songs, this could look like a sanitised version. But the more we see, the more we can be sure just how close The Beatles were, both as people and musicians, at the start of 1969.
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“There’s only one moment in the entire thing – and I’m talking about 150 hours of material – where Paul McCartney turns and says: ‘I think we should stop filming now’,” Jackson said ahead of the premiere, as he spoke to The Big Issue and assembled press.
“But what happens is the cameras turn off, he doesn’t know the sound recorders are just keeping recording. We still have the conversation that follows on.”
Harrison and Lennon – perhaps the most streetwise Beatles – turned up their guitars when talking to try to defy the filmmakers at times. But modern sound techniques, and the restoration skills Jackson and his team brought to original film from World War 1 for They Shall Not Grow Old, has been honed further. We hear everything.
One question Get Back does leave – at least, it did in the mind of this lifelong Beatles fan – is who was supposed to be in charge here? Who is helping and supporting The Beatles?
When they went into the recording studio for these sessions – to write, rehearse, record a groundbreaking live LP with so little time or advance planning – Harrison was just 25. And McCartney was only 26, Starr and Lennon 28 – these are still very young men, and, boy, do they have to carry some serious weight.
“If I had a criticism of The Beatles looking at the footage, it does strike me as being very strange how little organisation there seems to be,” says Jackson.
“The last time that they performed live, they had Brian Epstein organising everything. Everything was done for them.
“So they go into this without the usual support team. And even to this day, looking at the footage, I don’t know who was supposed to be organising anything for them.”
It is striking. Their ability to be creative under this extreme pressure and with distraction all around them jumps out from Jackson’s films. Their focus is so impressive. But the lack of direction, the lack of care, is startling – if only someone had been able to take care of the business, the organisation, the details with as much competency as The Beatles brought to their job.
There is a reason so many of us jump at any opportunity to look at The Beatles story through a new lens. The Beatles changed the world. They changed our lives. Even those of us who weren’t born when Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr stopped making music together.
The way they evolved musically, from the lovestruck young guitar pop of Love Me Do and I Want to Hold Your Hand to the spiritual, psychedelic explorations of A Day In The Life and Within You Without You in a few short years, pushing the vanguard of studio technologies when the band outgrew the limitations of live performance, is one of the great cultural stories of the last century.
And the way The Beatles sparked a pop culture explosion and changed teenage life in the UK and around the world, forever — forging a new form of pop superstardom as they made their way from Liverpool to Hamburg to global musical dominance, just as their audience invented a new form of fandom — is one of the most compelling stories of the last century.
In the film, we see the chaotic build-up to the legendary final live performance on the roof of the Apple building.
The decision to play close to home was a compromise after Starr rejected one idea of a concert in a Libyan amphitheatre, with George also reluctant to perform on stage. “Ringo said no, so us and Jimmie Nicol might go abroad,” quips Lennon, referring to the drummer who sat in for Starr for 12 days of concerts in 1964.
Instead, The Beatles play on the roof of the Apple building in Central London. This entire performance – including the setting up – can be seen for the first time. And it is magic.
“It’s terrifyingly entertaining – I was like a kid at the circus. It’s pretty special. It is like finding treasure.” That’s the verdict of actor and Beatles fanatic Martin Freeman, who was at the London premiere of the series.
It is little wonder that so many documentaries have been made about The Beatles. But more than any previous film or series, Peter Jackson’s Get Back – available in the UK on Disney+ – takes us inside the extraordinarily productive, vital, energetic creativity at the heart of the group. And in doing so, it comprehensively rewrites everything we thought we knew about the way things ended and the relationships at the heart of the band.
“If anything I came away respecting them more,” says Jackson. After watching Get Back, most Beatles fans might just love them even more as well. Imagine that…
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