Peter Jackson’s “Get Back”

Kudos to Jackson for brilliant filmmaking, putting the pieces together to tell a coherent story. In spite of all the advance hype that it was going to be all about how much fun the Beatles were having together, from my perspective, the film vividly documents how the group was fracturing against Paul’s strenuous and very poignant attempts to keep it together. Sure, they could still have fun. John was such an amazingly hilarious wit that he could liven up any gathering. But, not all that different, from the original “Let It Be” film, this is finally a sad song. Beautiful, but sad.

What Parts 1 and 3 especially both show is that Paul and John and George were all on different pages and consequently, even under the pressures to get the project done in three weeks, spent an inordinate amount of time just goofing off and spinning their wheels, getting nowhere, man. The rooftop concert was an absolute last resort that was absurdly unpretentious compared to the grandiose idea that Paul had tried to initiate–some kind of huge, mega, worldwide Beatles show. Still, I love what they did, and they made surprisingly fine music up there in the cold January air, but there remains something very pitiful about it–that that was all the greatest group in the world could bring themselves to do at that point.

Here’s how I would summarize the narrative:

Backstory–After the fractured recording of the White Album in the summer of 1968, where essentially John, Paul, and George worked as solo artists and used their compatriots, when they used them at all, as little more than a backing group for their own individual songs, and John meanwhile was thoroughly absorbed in his new relationship with Yoko Ono, Paul recognized his partnership with Lennon was in great danger of ending. Spurred by this crisis, in the fall of 1968, McCartney kicked into creative high gear and wrote some of the greatest songs of his career, which, whether he could bring himself to admit it or not, were directly inspired by his love for John, not in a homo-erotic sense, but in a creative marriage that he valued more than anything else in his life.

The crisis resulted in the glorious “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Two of Us,” all finished and ready to go by the beginning of January, 1969. Not content to stop there, he also had a bunch more great songs in progress, beginning with “Get Back,” plus “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Teddy Boy,” “Oh, Darling,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” “Carry That Weight,” and “Backseat of My Car,” all of which appear in unfinished form in Jackson’s film– more than enough for a great solo album if he wished–but what he really wanted was to bring the Beatles back together as a performing group and prevent John Lennon from asking him for a divorce.

The Jackson film, Part One

And so McCartney proposed a project that he felt sure would force them all to work together again as they’d done in the old days. To have a film crew show them writing and rehearsing new songs that they would debut in a culminating grandiose live concert for the world. The catch was they would have to do this in no more than one month, the end of January 1969, because Ringo was already contractually obligated to act in a film called The Magic Christian at the beginning of February. It was a fairly insane idea that was totally Paul’s, born out of his desperation to keep the Beatles together. But it was bound to be enormously stressful and difficult to get it accomplished in so little time, even if they were all on board with the idea. But besides the time pressure, there were two major problems that Paul could not have anticipated (or maybe should have, if he’d been more sensitive to what was going on with John and George). 

One, John was not in any great inspirational period of his own writing. His creative projects in the fall of 1968 were all with Yoko, making albums of silly noise and found sounds, all coming from Yoko’s own oddball brand of art. In the grand scheme of things, pretty inconsequential stuff. But John was madly in love with this woman and basically letting her take him wherever she wanted to go. The only true finished song John had by January 1, 1969, was his song of desperate love to Yoko, “Don’t Let Me Down.” So he could hardly be expected to be enthusiastic about entering a project that was entirely Paul’s idea, to rejuvenate the Beatles as a group, one that would feature Paul’s tremendous new songs with little to show from John. Probably Paul hoped that John’s creative competitiveness would crank back up once he was faced with Paul’s new work, but it didn’t really happen. By the end of Part One, John still doesn’t seem to have anything other that “Don’t Let Me Down” going on. 

For George, it was a very different matter. He had a tremendous backlog of songs building up because he hadn’t been allowed more than one song on a side on any Beatles album. So his frustration was mounting, and he was already looking for creative outlets elsewhere. He had spent several weeks in the fall of 1968 in Woodstock, hanging out with Bob Dylan and the Band and becoming great friends with them. In the process, he learned about the way they had worked to create music that became the Basement Tapes in 1967, so he returned to the UK enthusiastic about that process of collaboration and probably would have been on board if Paul’s new project would be a true collaborative effort among the four of them and they could do their own kind of basement music.

But when the project began in a gigantic barren and cold movie set at Twickenham Studio, there was no way for any of them to feel the kind of basement intimacy Dylan and the Band must have had. Plus, he could see that Paul wanted only to restore the group to being the Beatles again, with the old dynamic, of Paul and John as the leaders and George as the quiet one in the background. Paul was being very condescending and tutorial to George, who bristled at it. Part One ends with George getting fed up and announcing that he’s leaving the group. The whole project seems to be crashing and burning.

Part Two

The middle section of the film begins in this state of crisis. Without George, it could hardly be billed as a return of the Beatles as a performing band. John’s idea of getting Eric Clapton to replace George tells us that he’s not really interested in that any way. Paul, however, recognizes the disaster that looms. Off camera, there are two group meetings to attempt to get George back on board. The first one, we’re told, doesn’t go well. Then apparently someone proposes that they abandon Twickenham studio and set up a recording studio in the basement of the Savile Row building where the Beatles have their Apple offices. This, along with, I can imagine, some McCartney assurances that he would treat George more respectfully, brings George back into the fold.

And the atmosphere does dramatically change for the better in the new environment. George and John both feel more at home there, and things get even better when Billy Preston joins them. The film doesn’t make this clear, but all that I’ve read suggests that it was George who invited Billy in. Preston is clearly a fun guy to be around and a great musician, who quickly adds tasty electric piano flourishes to “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” I don’t think Paul was very thrilled about adding a new person to the group, but Preston is so good and such a positive influence, that he can’t protest.

In addition, John brings in a new song, “I Dig a Pony,” which he apparently came up with over the long weekend after George’s departure. Paul also debuts “Oh Darling” in these first days at Savile Row, another song to John, I believe. It includes the line “I’ll never let you down,” a naked response to John’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” Even the normally taciturn Paul points out at one point in the film that the two songs are linked thematically.

So things go far better in the next week, and the Beatles pretty quickly get five or six songs in good enough shape for public presentation. The recording machine is running constantly. But that’s somewhat a problem, because there are so many takes of the songs that it gets hard to distinguish the ones that are best to use for an album. A big difference in this entire section is that Paul is no longer trying to push anything on the group. He makes a visible effort to sit back and let the sessions go where the others want them to go, so a lot of time is spent on George’s songs, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” partly composed by John, and “I Did a Pony,” plus a lot of silly jamming, like “Dig It.”

Part Three

Then things start to bog down again as they have to come to terms with how this project is going to culminate. Paul makes it clear he does not just want another album to be the end of their work. He wants more, a live show, somewhere, somehow, but George is clearly unenthusiastic about any live performance, although John, it seems, sees it as a fun thing to do and will go along, but without providing any sort of leadership on it. And so for days, they kind of sit around and doodle and spin their wheels again. It looks like Ringo, who will happily do anything with the group, is totally bored out of his gourd for hours of this.

The film director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, knows that his own project needs something big to cap things off or all of his effort will have pretty much gone for nought. I suspect he is the one who comes up with the idea of the rooftop concert. George is still opposed, but John wants to do it. I get the feeling that Paul is majorly disappointed that this will have to suffice for his big Beatles concert, but he has no other alternative at this point. And so, they go up on the roof, and lo and behold, John and Paul have great chemistry up there, while George and Ringo also play very well, and we have the last Beatles public performance. It’s fun to watch the young London bobbies flummoxed at trying to get the most famous musicians in the world to stop playing or at least turn it down, because a few very stuffy businessmen (and a little old lady who was awakened from her nap) have complained. Most people on the street seem to really love what they are hearing.

Ironically, there were still those three poignant McCartney songs that he began the project with—“Let It Be,” “Long and Winding Road,” and “Two of Us,” that still needed to be performed for the film project, but their acoustic nature meant they were unsuitable for the rooftop, so they recorded and filmed them the next day in the basement. My only disappointment with the Jackson film is that he chose not to present these three beautiful performances in their entirety to finish the film. Instead he shows only partial clips of them during the closing credits. I can only assume he felt that the relatively joyful rooftop concert was the most appropriate way to end the film, with the Beatles’ last live performance.

I disagree. I think those three McCartney songs provide a very poignant and proper coda to the whole project. Of course, they emphasize the sadness of it all and frankly, the failure of it, at least according to Paul’s original conception, but for me that’s the full story. The film makes it clear that the Beatles by February 1969 were a fragile ship, leaking badly, and it could not be kept afloat for very much longer. I think Abbey Road, the making of which began almost immediately after the Get Back project ended, was recorded with the total awareness that it would be the last act of the Beatles.

November 28, 2021

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