Published on November 29th, 2021 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
The Beatles: Get Back
Peter Jackson’s documentary about the Beatles during the Let it Be sessions, The Beatles: Get Back, is an ode to music and the creative process.
Back in February of this year, I wrote a long piece in anticipation of Peter Jackson’s meticulous and exhaustive documentary of the original Let It Be (1969) film. Now that the final product is streaming on Disney+ I wanted to revisit my original writings and see if any of my predictions came to fruition. I had postulated the following in my original article:
- The Let It Be sessions were not a brutally sad affair.
- History was going to be re-written properly and accurately.
- Yoko was not the main villain or cause of the band’s break up.
- Phil Spector as producer was a mistake.
- All members of the band would be vindicated and absolved of total blame.
I laughed a lot as I watched each of the three episodes. I laughed because the lads were laughing. They were clever and loved a sharp joke. John was especially quick with his wit. We’ve seen all that as bits and clips starting in 1963 or so, but this is different because now we see it not as sound bites or quick, isolated zingers but woven into the very fabric of their casual banter. They goofed around more while working than any four people in the history of work. Clearly they loved and appreciated each other. So what of all the arguing then? Well, more than arguments they had debates, concerns, ideas and perspectives that they championed, all aimed at making the best product (music) that they possibly could. I think that type of accountability and pressure to live up to potential is commonplace in every work environment. Do you think that movies get made or sports championships won without tension between cast or teammates? Same goes for the kitchen in the world’s most prestigious restaurants where tension can run so think there isn’t a knife around that could cut it. Sounds kinda silly when I put it that way, right? Of course people argue, push and make demands when striving to make an Oscar worthy picture, win a Stanley Cup or launch a company into the Fortune 500. Hell, go find three more people and try to order a pizza that everyone agrees on. I guarantee friction, compromise and possibly even silent rage. Reports of The Beatles’ divide, vitriol and cruelty were greatly exaggerated.
For as long as there has been Beatlemania there has been a wish amongst fans that they could be a “fly on the wall” in the studio. Get Back finally provides that experience. The audience literally gets up in the morning each calendar day from January 2-31 (1969) and enters the studio with the band until they call it a day, lower the lights and grab their coats to leave. Every day. We see them jam, write, practice, talk, eat, smoke (like a zillion cigarettes), drink, talk some more, goof off, make perfect pop songs and then act like it’s no big deal. The documentary is nearly 8 hours of this and it is, at times, dull. Not because it should have been edited or trimmed, but because – oh my god, I can’t believe I’m writing this – sometimes it was boring to be in the Beatles. Fixing equipment, waiting, being stalled or tired, running in circles as they discuss what they are doing and where they are going. Just like real life. We have been fed only the most delicious morsels of Beatles for so long, we often fail to consider that they made a mess in the kitchen from time to time. And with no Brian Epstein around, it was sometimes like a kitchen without a head chef or owner in site to guide the proceedings. If you prefer sports analogies, imagine a playoff game without a coach. Someone on the team has to take charge, even if his name is Paul.
My third prediction back in February was that we would finally see enough detail in the recording sessions and life of The Beatles to properly conclude that Yoko Ono was not the cause of the break-up. That now checks out. You may be wondering, if I watch 8 hours of this, how much Yoko do I have to endure? The answer to that, statistically, is zero. I’m not sure we hear her say more than a couple dozen words in 8 hours. She’s no more a distraction than a coffee mug on the top of the piano. In fact, Mal Evans, Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Linda Eastman were also in the mix, but no one ever pointed a finger of blame in their direction.
Hearing the songs come together from idea and riff to jam to practice to finish was exhilarating. The original idea was to make a “live” album, as in musicians in the studio all playing at once and recording that result. This was very unlike Sgt. Pepper’s or Magical Mystery Tour, and the finished product produced a year later by Phil Spector was a giant waste of time. Spector took so long with his mix that The Beatles wrote, recorded and released Abbey Road (1969) in the meantime. And although Spector would also produce George’s first solo album at the same time, I have no issue with those results. It totally suits the nature of that album. However, his contribution to Let It Be was disappointing. Egotistical, lazy and probably coked out of his head, the result was pancakes with way too much maple syrup on them. Waaaaay too much. And the greatest offender of them all, The Long and Winding Road, is the soggiest of the lot. In 2003, Let It Be…Naked was released as an optional perspective. This remaster was overseen by Paul and Ringo (at that point, the only two surviving members of the group) and it comes across to me as a much more accurate representation of the original vision before it became too frustrating to keep reworking. While I like much of Spector’s catalog over the years, I don’t much care for him as a person. He looked like an exotic bird covered in jewelry. And cocaine. I was thankful that I didn’t have to hear about him in Get Back, as I find his contributions a non-factor.
Before I reach my last point regarding vindication of each individual member and their responsibility in the final break-up, I want to address some of my criticism of the series and a point that I missed in my original article. My criticism is minor, as in I had to really think and nit-pick, but there was some overdub of crowd screams and talking during the music that I found distracting. This is especially true during the rooftop performance. Fans have been waiting for decades to hear that concert without interruption but, yet again, it’s rife with conversation over the final mix. People talking when they should be busy shutting up. It reminds me of the scene in Slap Shot (1977) when the ref goes to reprimand and scold the Hanson brothers during the national anthem and Steve screams, “I’m listening to the fucking song!” That’s how I felt while The Beatles were performing on the roof and I was simultaneously listening to people being interviewed, or the two daft bobbies bemoaning the street noise. Shut. Up. We’ll discuss this later. You don’t talk in church! I also missed mentioning the importance and influence of Billy Preston as an added member to the band and how his presence during the recordings really helped everyone to be on their best (and most productive) behaviour. If anything, there could have been more background on Preston – who he was, how he got there, why he was agreeably welcomed by all four Beatles. But once the music starts, the answer is obvious: he’s a tremendous musician who innately and intimately understands the grove of what’s going on. He’s stunningly quick and effective on the keyboards, so good that it looks easy. It wasn’t. Watch how the atmosphere changes upon his arrival. To see Preston connect with the band and their music with such genuine wonder and enthusiasm only spikes my interest in the suggestions that the lads also considered calling Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton into the sessions as well. That’s rather greedy on my part, but it’s nevertheless an exciting thought.
The intimacy of The Beatles was like a marriage. It’s difficult to explain if you haven’t read piles of books on the band or been married, but I’ve done both and I assure you it’s accurate. And when my own marriage faded away, I couldn’t help but think that my sorrow, frustrations and sadness were far more pronounced than my anger, and that says a lot to me about how the final break-up of the Fab Four must have hurt them all so much, despite the relief of release. I struggled so much with melancholy and madness, unanswered questions and frustration, that I didn’t feel any exoneration until recently when a friend, also coming out of a long marriage, consoled me with the idea that, sometimes, relationships simply expire. So, maybe George was right when he said that all things must pass.
In the end, we are spared the mess of watching them actually call it quits. First, well before the Let It Be sessions, Ringo quit the band. Then George. John threatened to do the same on several occasions but, in the end, Paul made the final announcement that he was leaving in April of 1970. And now I wonder if he didn’t do that to take one final bullet for his friends. The blame fell square to him, for right or wrong (of which there was really neither). Maybe he took that on so the others wouldn’t have to. Maybe. But I don’t want to end this article on that thought. I want to re-cap just a couple of things that you will get to see watching Get Back that make the 8 hours feel like 2 hours, and the intensely intimate reward of these recordings.
Ringo, unconventional as his style may be, sometimes spanks those drums with the authority of a Michael Jordan dunk. His confidence and assurance on the kit is unreal. He seems to know, immediately and instinctively, exactly what to play. Every single time. Historically, Ringo has been the butt end of many jokes, the pinnacle of which came from John himself. When asked in an interview if he thought Ringo was the best drummer in the world, Lennon responded with “Ringo’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles.” He was kidding of course. But some people still don’t think Ringo was a good drummer. If you are amongst that group, I suggest that you have your hearing checked by an audiologist immediately. Ringo’s beats are genius, and his meter has an almost computer-like accuracy.
George struggled. At times it looked very painful, but he was growing, and the result of this was All Things Must Pass (1970). It’s a masterpiece that saw him step from the shadows and into the history books of the greatest rock musicians of all time on his own terms. It’s debatable that Lennon and McCartney had already peaked, but George was just gathering steam and would go on to improve steadily – as both a musician and a human being – until his death in 2001.
Paul, for all his genius and hard work, seemed to be running out of ideas to lead the group. He seemed at times more vulnerable and insecure at times than I had ever thought. John, their first and best leader, had a waning enthusiasm despite no decline in his creativity. It was time to move on. Yes, I believe that they could have continued to eat their cake and have it too, making solo records and Beatle records for years to come, but that’s asking a lot, isn’t it? Thirteen albums and 23 singles (A side and B side) in LESS THAN 8 YEARS is unlikely to be matched by any musician again, considering that none of what they put out could be classified in any manner as average or pedestrian. It was full-on unbelievable top-of-the-pops from start to finish. We literally couldn’t ask for any more until the rumours of this project were confirmed. And as skeptics, fans begged: Don’t let me down. Well, just like the Fab Four themselves, Peter Jackson did not let us down. He took us into their world like we’ve never seen before and I am ever grateful that these hours of footage and story are there for us to revisit again and again, just like the records.
So don’t wait any longer. Get your cup of tea or glass of wine, unplug the phone, and sit amazed as you are pulled into the exclusive and intimate world of the greatest band to ever be put on tape. Don’t just let it be, it’s a magical mystery tour of how the greatest musicians of all time created the songs we will never forget.