Impressions and Observations on the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ documentary

This is not intended to be a review so much as observations on a band I’ve known, loved and read about almost literally my entire life. This documentary greatly changed my perception of them in a way none of the other stuff I’ve seen or read ever has.

Minor review bits – too damn long, too much repetition. It could have been a couple hours shorter and not suffered for it in the least. But that said, I did enjoy it quite a bit. I don’t think I ever realized the time pressure they were under and Peter Jackson showing the calendar days rolling by amplified that. (Ringo was going to be filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers in a few weeks.)

My son watched it with me and his observations as a (sometimes) working musician and as someone who was born 23 years after they broke up were interesting. Like me, he put them somewhat on a pedestal.

His comment that they were really just a bunch of nerds was telling. He also said that the group dynamic during rehearsal (learning tunes, jamming, goofing off, arguing, drinking beer, etc.) was pretty much like every band he’s ever been in .

So step right up, roll up for the Magical Mystery Comments:

  • In terms of Beatles’ history, this documentary is a game-changer. Up till now, anyone who saw the original Let It Be movie came away thinking the recording of the album was a real clusterfuck, a downer man. But as Peter Jackson said, it is anything but. Sure these guys are on their way to a train wreck of a breakup but apart from some sarcastic comments, George quitting and coming back, they’re working hard AND having a good time.
  • This documentary humanized The Beatles as nothing I’ve ever seen before, not even the previous Let It Be movie has done. It turns out – spoiler alert – that they are four human beings, not four gods who came from another planet. They came across very much as just a bunch of regular guys-Β  a gang if you will – who happen to be very talented, very bright, and very funny.
  • Director Peter Jackson was right – overall the guys are having a lot of fun while at the same time vaguely sensing this train is grinding to a halt in the not-too-distant future. They argue but don’t appear to hate each other. The friendship is still very much there. The acrimony comes later.
  • The director of the original movie kept pushing this idea of having a live concert in some coliseum in Libya. Can you imagine? That’s the kind of shit that got knocked around in the Sixties.
  • It was a kick to see the famous young producer Glyn Johns who worked with everybody. Lennon insists on calling him Glynis after the actress.
  • After a while, I would have told John to shut the fuck up and stop clowning around. Not every word that comes out of your mouth, Mr. Lennon, is funny.
  • If you had landed here from Mars and knew nothing about this band, you would think this bearded guy, this McCartney bloke was the leader and not a very effective one at that.
  • You might also think he’s sometimes a bit of a twit, alternately cajoling the other guys for not contributing and then trying to get them to do exactly what he wants.
  • Through much of Part One, I felt terrible for George. Part of the dynamic of the band is that George was not only not part of the “A-Team” of writers but also the youngest. I think John always thought of him that way.
  • The scene where Paul and George argue over what George is playing or not playing is still as painful as ever and incorrectly (as it turns out) set the tone for the entire first movie. They kept arguing and I”m yelling at the screen and saying, “For fuck’s sake, take a tea break.”
  • When George introduces “I, Me, Mine,” Paul or John dismisses it by saying “Do you even know what we do around here George?” They don’t much like “All Things Must Pass” and by the time they are indifferent towards “For You Blue,” George has clearly checked out. I mentioned this to my son who said, “Yeah I think he quits,” and about two minutes later, George quit the band without so much as a “by your leave.” (Quitting the Beatles like that mid-recording is a time-honored move to get attention. Ringo did it during the recording of The White Album.)
  • Speaking of Ringo – who they sometimes call Rich or Richie-Β  much as I like the guy and his terrific drumming, he very much comes across here as “just the drummer,” having little or nothing to say about anything musical at all. No input whatsoever that I could see.
  • It’s fascinating to listen to a discussion between John and Paul – who didn’t know they were being recorded- about George quitting. They are well aware not only of the dynamic but also that they are culpable. But their egos just won’t allow George into the club. (It took “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” to change that. Why “Gently Weeps” didn’t do that is a mystery. Just about the best fucking thing on the White Album.)
  • The good news is that, of course, George rejoins the band after a private meeting and he’s in a much better mood after he comes back and they move over to Apple. It turns out that the call to replace him with Eric Clapton was premature. (Why not just record this thing at Abbey Road and be done with it?)
  • George Martin floats in and out but like her majesty, doesn’t have a lot to say. I’m sure he’s thinking “Have at it boys,” like they were the band on the Titanic.
  • It’s fun to watch the guys pick up a magazine or newspaper article about themselves and read it as if they were reading about someone else. And in a sense they are. They’re reading about their public images, not them as real flesh and blood men. This is part of what humanizes them. They’re well aware of their status but they don’t take themselves very seriously.
  • John seems strangely passive during this whole thing. One reviewer says he’s stoned. Maybe he is.
  • It’s funny to hear them throw the word ‘fuck’ around, smoke tons of cigarettes, and drink. This is the real Beatles before Brian Epstein cleaned up their public image. By the time the original movie came out, nobody gave a shit about that phony image anymore.
  • Yoko clings to John during this like a life vest. I personally have nothing against her and never did. But she just doesn’t belong there.
  • That said it was fascinating to see her and Linda chatting away like old friends. Could have lived without her screaming songs though. I’m thinking of recording it and playing it loudly for the next telemarketer who calls me. Take that you son of a bitch.
  • Paul can be passive-aggressive. Or something. At the end of one of the days – as John and Yoko are headed out the door – he yells out that they should go “get in their bag” and calls them the ‘couple of the year.” Jesus. Then next day – possibly realizing this is all being filmed – he says he has no problem with Yoko being there.
  • I had always thought the song ‘Get Back’ was a reference to the Beatles getting back to their roots. Actually, this song is born during the filming from a riff McCartney played on bass. Interestingly, they initially started singing lyrics about Enoch Powell, a racist prat who was making anti-immigrant noise back then. Director Peter Jackson gives it that context. Good job he did because it sounds like they’re celebrating him. Anyway, fascinating to see this song being born.
  • I knew the scene was coming where – when they moved back to Apple – the studio wouldn’t work. This guy Magic Alex who built the studio was another one of those charlatans surrounding the Beatles at that time. They lost three or four days getting it up to speed.
  • Billy Preston wanders in well into the second part. The guys have known him since he played with Little Richard back in Hamburg in the early Sixties. As soon as he added his keyboard to the tunes, my son was like, Fuck yeah. I mean, it made their sound so much better. His association with the Beatles made him a name. He was not on the radar before that much as The Band didn’t exist (for all intents and purposes) prior to their association with Dylan.
  • It’s interesting to me that George is almost apologetic for not being as fluid and improvisatory as Eric Clapton. We already knew that George, Nobody cares. It’s not that kind of band. You are not a blues band and never will be. The only person that comes close to being a bluesman in this band is John.
  • But interestingly, George starts working out “Something” which starts with lyrics about ‘making the show’ then (more or less) turns into the song we know. John suggests using random words like ‘cauliflower’ till the right word comes. So, ‘attracts me like a cauliflower’ winds up in the rubbish bin. John also starts working out “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
  • Peter Sellers drops in for a bit, contributes, well, not much. As it happens, George Martin produced much of the Sellers’ early comedy albums which was part of what attracted the Beatles to him.
  • In hindsight, John’s raving about having met Allen Klein is prophetic. Much of the later acrimony grew out of John’s insistence that Klein be their new manager and Paul’s that it be Linda’s father and brother. Absolute beginning of the end.
  • Amazingly, the rooftop concert was just a last-minute decision when all other options had been exhausted. You see the moment in the film when it’s suggested to him and his smile tells the story. Go up on the roof and play without a permit? Sure. We’re the fookin’ Beatles. That’s what we do.

The payoff of this whole fucking thing is, of course, the rooftop concert on January 30, 1969. It’s just this great feeling of joy that they’re playing and some level of relief that it all came together. The police show up within about 5 minutes but the Apple crew stalls them (“Can’t find the manager”) for another 37 minutes while the Beatles and Preston – blissfully unaware – kick some serious ass. The cops threaten to arrest everybody but seem to calm down after a while.

On-street interviews during this are hilarious from young girls (“They get around, don’t they?”) to the older guy who says he likes them and would let his daughter go out with one (“Because they have money), to the typical British woman (“They interrupted my sleep”) who I swear is actually Eric Idle in drag. The Brits’ nonchalance about it being the Beatles is astounding. Americans would have been running up the steps.

And here’s the interesting thing – after all this slogging, the Beatles started recording Abbey Road roughly three weeks later.

This was a sometimes tedious film but overall just a blast to enjoy the creative process at work. And that rooftop concert – their last public concert ever – is just plain fun.

But at the end of the day as I mentioned earlier they were not gods, not saviors or messiahs. They were musicians first and foremost. And their legacy lives on down the generations and will continue to provide pleasure to listeners for a long, long time.

39 thoughts on “Impressions and Observations on the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ documentary

  1. I am about 10 minutes into the second one. I never cared for McCartney, and this film reminds me why. A world-class narcissist with a passive-aggressive personality. I think George got the shaft from day one, so I am happy he had such a great solo career. Yoko should not have been in the studio, but Lennon appears to be a titty baby and needs her soothing whatever. I agree with you, too long and repetitious, but still a great film.

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    1. Yeah, I long ago gave up on thinking of any artists as being role models of any sort. They are what they are, right? As to Yoko, yeah. If her presence kept him from getting drunk and beating somebody up I’m all for it. Wait till you get to Part III. Again, too long but the rooftop thing is – as I mentioned – the payoff. I was singing along quite badly to the whole thing and loving it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post, Jim, with many great observations.

    I think you’re absolutely right the film humanized The Beatles. That’s perhaps one of the most important take-aways. Yes, they were great songwriters and pretty good musicians, but at the end of the day, they were pretty regular guys, not some gods.

    The other big take-away for me was that despite the tensions among them, they still had a lot of fun playing music together. I kind of wish I had watched the original “Let It Be” documentary more recently. It’s actually been more than 40 years, so what I knew about it mainly was what I had read subsequently.

    Musically speaking, Billy Preston really made a big difference – something I had not really appreciated until I watched the Jackson film.

    Also, since you mentioned smoking, jeez, they really did smoke like chimneys. The air in that studio must have been terrible. It’s amazing to me it didn’t seem to impact their vocals at all!

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    1. I tried to watch ‘Let it Be’ a while back. Just seemed like a bummer. Thank God they made this. So insightful. After I finished watching it I told my friend Bill (he’s every bit the Beatlemaniac we are) that he’s coming over to watch it with me, non-negotiable.

      Billy Preston was like that ingredient you add to the recipe that makes all the difference.

      And yeah, they loved their ciggies. George especially. Smoked ’em all the way down, never without one. Died of throat cancer. Anniversary of that, BTW, 20 years ago yesterday.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Crazy George has been gone for 20 years. Mike of Ticket 2 Ride had a post today.

        And John was murdered nearly 41 years ago! I was still living in Germany at the time. I was supposed to take a guitar lesson in the early evening the day after. My guitar teacher, who was a huge Beatles fan, was pretty devastated when he came to my house. Instead of doing the lesson, we switched on the early evening news where they reported on John’s murder.

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        1. Interestingly, I worked for a guy who was only a year or two older than me. Massive Beatles fan, especially Lennon. We drove in together that day and then went to a memorial in Boston. A truly sad, truly unnecessary day. John loved New York but he’d have stayed in London he might still be alive. America is a nation of gun nuts.

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  3. Both you and Christian are really whetting my appetite for this – as we don’t give thanks for anything here (ever) it’s gonna have to wait until Christmas before I can indulge but from what I’ve seen and read it seems the issues I have with Macca (more than a tad patronising) were already at play here.
    The idea of seeing them in a setting I’m familiar with (in terms of the ‘goofing off’ during practice) seems practically alien though perhaps not as alien as seeing Pink Floyd do it and, yeah, seeing Yoko sitting there like John’s second shadow in so many clips seems very strange.
    I’ve read a lot of reviews where people have said this shows her presence was pretty benign (as opposed, I guess, to creating the band costumes based on their star signs) but I’ve been in sessions where a member’s other half is there and it can be off-putting let alone if they’re there as much as Yoko seems to be, she wouldn’t have to interfere deliberately to interfere with the dynamic and relationship… the wait to see this is gonna drive me mad.

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    1. Sure, well then, Sir Paul will drive you to drink in this one. By the same token, if I were in a band that spent as much time fucking around as this one does, I would be acting like Paul does in this. They’re up against an extremely tight deadline (14 new songs in a couple of weeks) and Paul gets exasperated with these guys. The guy that drove me nuts was Lennon. Absolutely never stopped fucking around.. So take those things in consideration when you watch it.

      As to Yoko, recall she’s been hanging around since The White Album. So by now I’d say they’re pretty used to it. Apart from a few screaming sessions when nothing much else was happening, she’s pretty much just sitting there. And my feeling is if she’s a leavening presence on John, so be it.

      But yes, this is must-watch. I mentioned to Christian that I’ve been regaling my fellow Beatlemaniac and ex-band member Bill with stories from it. He does not have Disney so told him he was coming over and we were watching it together, no other possible option. In fact, I am literally now reading a book called ‘Lennon’ that he loaned me. We are not just fans -we are mini Beatles scholars.

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        1. Yeah… that’d go down a storm. I’ve opened my proverbial present early though and gotten into it – well and truly and hooked.

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        2. Hey now. When last heard from you were slagging Macca off. Paul might have a big ego but he was never cruel to my knowledge, never beat the crap out of anybody. John was all that unfortunately. But in watching it I thought of something which is that nobody ever described the Beatles as nice guys. Ringo maybe.

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        3. Oh I’ve never been a fan of John, he’s a nasty p.o.s in more ways than one (wife beating, cheating etc).. but aside from the constant smart arse comments, the fact that he came in with close to fuck all by way of songs then pissed all over George as he was showing him I, Me, Mine then proceeded to fuck around with Yoko while the others worked on it.. and I’m only one volume in.
          Yeah, I used to think Ringo was a nice guy but his Brexit support puts him firmly on the naughty step for me. Seems ironic that someone who signs off messages with ‘peace and love’ can support a campaign fronted by such hateful elements of the world

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        4. Yeah, the whole ‘dismissal of George’ thing spoke volumes. He plays ‘I Me Mine’ and as I noted in the piece, one of them says, “Do you even know the kind of music we play around here?” After three of these incidents, i would have had a lot more to say to the two egomaniacs than “See you round the clubs.” True enough about Ringo. I only just read about his Boris/Brexit love the other day. You’d think somebody who grew up in the poorest section of a major port town would know better about trade if nothing else. Blimey! I told you not to trust those Northerners!

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        5. Nobody trusts those northern monkeys…. How much of his behaviour can be put down to his drug use or just being a twat is debatable.
          Still, it’s a kick to see songs emerge from just scratching around, as it were and I’m looking forward to the rest

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        6. John was a wanker long before he started on drugs. He was a terrible angry drunk. He got drunk once in the early days and damn near beat a compere to death with a stick. The pills and stuff didn’t start in earnest till they got to Hamburg. But is he not remarkably placid in this movie. Smack? Yoko? Who knows.

          As to the birth of the songs, yeah, especially ‘Get Back.’ The real joy and payoff is when they hit the rooftop

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        7. By the point of the Get Back sessions he and Yoko were deep into heroine. It’s been covered in a few bios and docs but the others were both surprised – I think there’s a Macca quote about how they thought they were far out but they’d never go that far out – and had no idea how to handle it because his moods were so violently volatile.
          It’s still a shame the Beatles Cruise to Libya didn’t happen

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  4. Love the commentary on this. I haven’t seen it yet, but now I can’t wait to see it with all these great insights I know I will enjoy it more now. I am probably not as a big a fan as you (no question), but I will appreciate this for what it is and I can’t wait to watch it.

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    1. Heh. Dude, I’m a fucking Beatles scholar, man. I mentioned to Tony that I happen to be reading a book called ‘Lennon’ by my fellow Beatlemaniac Bill. He’s going to come over and we’re going to watch it together to decipher more tea leaves. (BTW, I didn’t mention it but these guys drink a TON of tea. At one point, their tea guy comes out with a tray just filled with tea cups. And of course, beer. This is closer to the real Beatles than that phony suited-up Beatle image that Epstein gave them so long ago. Of course, he had to. But by 1970, if the Beatles wore anything resembling a suit they’d be laughed at.

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  5. Big Earl just watched this and really liked it. He has a very eclectic and open mind to music and is pretty in tune to what was going on here with the Fab fellas. Plus he always has a sense of humor and had a few quips about the goings on. Thought Id p0ass that on. Ill get him to come over and have a peek at your take.

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    1. The boy and I watched it together. The Beatles were long broken up by the time he came along, John gone and George died before he really knew who they were. So an eye-opener for him and really, for both of us in some ways. As I mentioned in the piece, not gods of any sort, just way-better-than-average working musicians. Enough musical talent in there for a couple of bands.

      I made Bill come over and watch Part One with me. Loved it. Part II awaits whenever we both feel like the Black Plague has died down enough for that.

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        1. The only one who didn’t seem to want to accept it was McCartney.

          Hey, I was reading something Elvis Costello posted on Facebook. He mentioned something about his “porch in West Vancouver.” I seem to recall you guys are practically neighbors.

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