Review: The New Beatles 3-Part Documentary, ‘Get Back,’ Directed By Peter Jackson

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Well, I finally finished the three part Beatles’ documentary Get Back. I was pretty excited when I heard that Peter Jackson, famed director of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, was going to revisit the footage shot for the Beatles’ 1970 film Let It Be. The Beatles shot over 60 hours of footage for what turned out to be an 80 minute film. Everybody knew there was more to the story. It was announced early on that Peter Jackson was going to make this a 3-part mini-series, if you will, as there was just too much footage for a traditional 2 hour movie. And lets face it, Peter Jackson is kind of the king of movie trilogies. This thing had “binge-watch” written all over it for me. I figured the Rock Chick and I would bang this out in three nights after the Thanksgiving day release. I thought this would be a great exercise for B&V as I’m a big Beatles fan (albeit, as mentioned I’m more of a Stones guy) and the Rock Chick is more of a… casual fan. It turns out that casual nature of her interest in this project only allowed us to watch one episode per weekend. That’s all she could handle. The last three Friday nights were our date with the Beatles circa 1969. Hence, it took me three weeks to get through this. So much for my binge watch fantasies.

I was going to go back to the original Let It Be so I’d have a baseline to compare to the new project, entitled Get Back. I guess I didn’t realize they’ve pulled the original 1970 film off the market. It hasn’t been available for purchase since the 1980s. I think it was considered kind of a drag. I actually saw Let It Be at the midnight movies at Oak Park Mall when I was in high school. I’m still unclear how my parents allowed me to stay out until 2am on a Saturday night. Proof I was a natural born salesman. The midnight movie was typically just drunken or stoned mayhem. I saw Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, one soft-core porn movie, the cartoon Heavy Metal and yes, Let It Be all at the midnight movies. I’m surprised I went to so many of those things. I think I even saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the midnight movies. Crazy times.

I don’t recall much about Let It Be. That may be because of the aforementioned drunken mayhem. Typically when I went to the midnight movies there was beer or vodka involved. Sometimes both. I do remember thinking, like most folks, that it was a bit of a drag. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be more of a concert thing, with complete songs. It turned out it was film of the Beatles rehearsing and working up new material and usually stopping mid-song to debate arrangements. That was McCartney’s idea, to show the Beatles going from nothing to a complete album over the course of January of 1969. So you’d have snippets of songs as they worked out songs, lyrics and arrangements. It was actually a bigger deal than I’d realized at the time. The Beatles hadn’t played together as a band, live, since they’d retired from the road in 1966. They were going to record the rehearsals at Twickenham Studios, a soundstage where they filmed movies, and then play a big concert where they performed the new album. They had all kinds of wacky ideas for the concert. An ancient amphitheater in Tunisia, a cruise ship and other exotic locations were discussed. Someone told me once they’d considered doing it at Stonehenge but that may be apocryphal. You can never trust stoners at the midnight movies.

Episode 1 of Get Back captures the early days of rehearsals at Twickenham Studios. Those rehearsals were basically a disaster. Because the film crew worked during the days, it required the Beatles to show up in the morning… and they were more, let’s say, afternoon and evening people. It was a huge, cold room. They set up their equipment on one side of the soundstage and huddled together trying to come up with ideas. Everyone hated being there. They were used to being at Abbey Road. a more intimate setting. There were to be no overdubs or studio trickery, so George Martin’s role was reduced. Even I’ll admit Episode 1 was hard to watch. The Rock Chick left and went to bed 2/3 of the way through. The Let It Be project has been described as an old couple who are headed for divorce trying to rekindle the relationship by going out on dates to old familiar spots. Episode 1 captures that awkward ethos. Lennon, with Yoko Ono super-glued to his side, seems particularly checked out. The highlight for me was seeing McCartney conjure “Get Back” out of thin air. Paul seems like he’s bursting with music. Every time there’s a break in Episode 1, he’s at the piano working on something. Harrison keeps suggesting songs and Lennon/McCartney basically ignore him. The episode ends with Harrison announcing he’s leaving the group. He’d recently been up in Woodstock visiting Dylan and the Band and realized by seeing how harmoniously they worked that the Beatles were dysfunctional. He says, as he’s walking out, “See you around the clubs.” Lennon suggests giving him a few days, “and then we’ll just get Clapton to replace him.” I’m not sure how that would have worked out. While it was hard to watch, Episode 1 is the perfect set up for Peter Jackson’s narrative.

By Episode 2, they’ve convinced George to come back. He’d agreed on two conditions: a) no live concert, he was terrified by the idea and b) they move back to Apple HQ on Savile Row to the basement studio they’d just installed. Unfortunately the guy they entrusted to install it had been an idiot and nothing worked. George Martin came to the rescue with a mobile recording unit. Episode 2 is where the songs began to gel. It helped that George invited keyboardist Billy Preston to join the sessions. His keyboard work is phenomenal and the Beatles were on their best behavior with him in the room. McCartney who had been very directive of Harrison in Episode 1, has backed off a bit in Episode 2. Lennon is much more engaged. While there aren’t any complete songs in Episode 2, the jams are fun to watch – I especially dug them doing “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” – and the vibe is much better. The original director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg keeps pushing the concert idea but there isn’t much enthusiasm outside Paul. I do have to say, watching the first two episodes makes you realize what a pro Ringo was. The guy doesn’t say much but he shows up on time and he put in the work. He really was the foundation of the band from which they could launch. Jackson takes us from the near disaster of a break up in Episode 1, to progress in Episode 2, which sets up the final chapter.

Episode 3, which I watched last night, is where the songs have finally come together. In fact, they have more than enough songs for an album. A lot of what became Abbey Road is written and demo’d in these sessions. And frankly, a lot of songs that ended up on the Beatles’ early solo records came out of these sessions. They’re still unsure how to end the movie they’re filming. I think it was Ringo who suggested they go up on the roof and play. McCartney’s stepdaughter Heather shows up and she’s yes, adorable… for a while. I can only take so much of her screaming into a microphone. Although I prefer that to Yoko yelling into a microphone. Contrary to the myth, Get Back shows the other Beatles’ being very cordial to Yoko. Sadly you hear Lennon talking enthusiastically about meeting with and hiring Allen Klein, a conman, as their manager. McCartney hated him and refused to sign. The seeds of the break up were planted on film. The other guys started bringing their wives in too. It was a very convivial vibe. Finally, at the end of Episode 3, for the first time ever we get to see the entire Beatles’ roof top concert and it is glorious. The Rock Chick was disappointed they played the same songs a couple times over but that didn’t bother me. There’s a moment when they start playing up there, blowing minds all over the neighborhood, where Lennon and McCartney look at each other and smile and it’s fucking magic. The chemistry is there… all the arguments are gone. It’s amazing footage. After the cops stop them playing (which is good comedy watching the staff stall them) they show the Beatles huddled together in the control room listening to the playback and they all look so joyful. It’s sad to think they couldn’t hold that together.

In the end, dissatisfied with the recordings they shelved the project. They ended up recording Abbey Road next and to fulfill a contract, gave the tapes to Phil Spector to pull together the Let It Be album as their swansong. I’m alone amongst my friends in loving that album. I love a little sloppiness in the music. It makes it feel more authentic to me, but maybe that’s because I dig the Stones so much and they’re nothing if not sloppy. The film they’d been putting together was finally released in May of 1970 to lukewarm reviews. I think the announcement of their break up overshadowed the thing.

Peter Jackson does a nice job setting up the story arc over the three episodes. I don’t know how they did it but they restored this film to pristine shape. The colors – and in the 60s day-glo was in – are gloriously bright and wonderful. George Harrison’s choice of pants’ colors is particularly vibrant. It’s visually stunning to watch. It helps to be a big Beatles fan, as the Rock Chick’s early departures during Episode 1 &2 showed me but it’s more important to just be a big fan of the musical process. It’s fun to watch these guys create new songs out of the air on camera. It’s not just a film of the roof top concert, it’s literally a film about the creative process. If you’re not into this, I think it’s easy to get bored pretty quick. I certainly enjoyed the pay off in Episode 3 of the full roof top concert – their last public concert. That alone to me is worth the price of admission. Everyone should at least watch that episode. 

Instead of saying Cheers as my sign off, I’m going with a more Ringo sign off… Peace and Love everybody!

George Harrison’s Magnum Opus ‘All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary’ Edition

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“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning, a cloudburst doesn’t last all day. Seems my love is up and left you with no warning, its not always going to be this grey…” – George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass”

Since its been a whole month since this new 50th anniversary version of All Things Must Pass came out on August 6th I’ll have to admit to you, it’s taken me a while to get this piece written. Other things kept popping up from Plant/Krauss to Metallica that prevented me from getting this done. The original LP/vinyl version of George Harrison’s first (official) solo album All Things Must Pass was three albums long – already a magnum opus – the 50th anniversary edition is 5 CDs. That’s a lot to digest. I had been shying away from sharing my thoughts on big editions like this that are focused on one album. Well, I’ve been shying away from anything like this by anybody but Prince. Prince’s “deluxe editions” are always packed with an enormous amount of unreleased material. John Lennon did a 50th anniversary edition of Imagine and I didn’t even check it out. I figured it would be all roughed out demos and “alternate takes.” Only the true collectors could delve into those waters. The box set that changed my opinion on this was CSNY’s Deja Vu – 50th Anniversary. That set blew me away. And admittedly I’ve been in a heavy celebration of all the great music of 1971 all year long…

I remember when the sitcom Seinfeld was on television. Seinfeld was a huge Superman fan. It reignited a debate from when I was a kid. The question always was, are you a Batman fan or a Superman fan? We like to create rivalries on all things it seems. Supposedly, which side you fall on in this debate tells us something about your personality. For the record, I’m a Batman fan. He was darker… his origin story was more violent and horrible. Anyway, there was a similar debate when I started listening to music – are you a Beatles guy or a Stones guy? In the late 70s when I first started listening to music, I was 100% a Stones guy. Not surprisingly, my brother who usually tends to line up on the opposite side from me, was a Beatles fan. Frankly, all these years later I believe it’s possible to be a fan of both… the Stones and the Beatles, not Superman and Batman… you have to make a choice on the latter. For Beatles fans, it wasn’t enough to be a Beatles fan, you had to declare a “favorite Beatle.” Purists, what are you going to do? I think, and I would never dare to speak for him, my brother was a George fan. George was the quiet Beatle. I think George was considered the quiet Beatle because he could never get a word in edgewise with McCartney and Lennon hogging the spotlight. I always thought of him as more the sullen, frustrated Beatle. He wrote songs like “Taxman,” or “You Like Me Too Much.”

When the Beatles finally disintegrated in acrimony, they all went on to solo careers. For years Harrison had been stockpiling songs. Lennon and especially McCartney prevented his songs from making the released Beatles albums. His contributions to the Beatles’ last LP, Abbey Road, couldn’t be ignored however. The songs “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” were the best songs on the album. Sinatra once covered “Something” in concert and announced it as the best song Lennon/McCartney ever wrote… probably too much bourbon for Frank. There was some thought that McCartney was threatened by Harrison’s amazing development as a songwriter and that was another contributing factor in the Beatles break up. McCartney’s penchant for doing dozens and dozens of takes on trifles like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” couldn’t have helped. Lennon used to refer to those types of songs as McCartney’s “granny-style” music.

Harrison really had developed as a songwriter and with Lennon/McCartney keeping his songs off the Beatles records he had this incredible number of great songs he was sitting on. Uber-producer Phil Spector had worked with the Beatles on what would become Let It Be and had worked with John Lennon on his early solo stuff. Harrison decided to bring him in for All Things Must Pass. Spector’s “wall of sound” was considered the perfect background for Harrison’s “reedy” voice. I’ve always liked his voice, I’m not sure where that assessment comes from. The burst of creativity that is All Things Must Pass is nothing short of breathtaking. It was a statement to the world, George Harrison would be silenced no longer. It was a double album with a third LP sub-titled Apple Jams all packaged in a small box. Three LPs was almost unheard of in the 70s. I remember going into my brothers room and marveling at the enormity of it all. He had that box and the Concert For The People of Bangladesh which was also a triple- LP packaged in a large box. Those are probably worth some money these days. I don’t know where my brother got all this bread to buy these giant box sets but clearly his allowance was larger than mine.

To me, All Things Must Pass is the greatest solo LP from any Beatle. Ok, I could probably do without the Apple Jams third album. Like most people who discovered rock n roll in the 70s I started off as a big McCartney fan. Then by college I’d shifted to being a Lennon guy. I love their solo work but nothing compares to All Things Must Pass. The sheer volume of top shelf material here is astounding. Harrison has spent the end of ’69 up at Woodstock with Dylan and the Band and his obsession with the sitar ended and he rediscovered playing guitar. That experience supposedly inspired “Run of the Mill,” a track that ends the first album. He also covers Dylan’s “If Not For You.” “My Sweet Lord” was the first single, one of Harrison’s signature songs. So many great tracks: “Wah Wah” about the guitar, a farewell to his former bandmates in the title track, “Let It Down,” “Beware of Darkness,” and so many more. Every track on the first two albums could have been a hit. Maybe if Harrison had held back some of these tracks he could have solidified his solo career in the early days. There’s rock and roll, folk influences, gospel chords and of course, Eastern religion plays heavily here. It was an explosion of creativity that signified everything Harrison was into and everything he was about. It’s enormous yet a very personal statement. “Awaiting On You All” has been running through my brain non-stop all month. I’m a non believer and I’m singing, “the lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see.” I’m not sure that’s true but what a great song and sentiment. 

The band backing him on this album is also quite extraordinary. Clapton brought all the guys he’d met while on tour with Blind Faith from the opening band, Delaney and Bonnie inlcuding Jim Gordon (drums) and Carl Radle (bass). Those guys went on to form Derek and the Dominos. Ringo shows up as well as John and Yoko on a track. Tellingly, only McCartney is absent. If you dig deep enough it’s a who’s who of British rock. Ginger Baker from Cream plays drums on a track. Klaus Voorman, bassist friend of the Beatles is here. Peter Frampton is on acoustic guitar. Billy Preston and Bobby Whitlock show up on keyboards. Dave Mason, guitarist of Traffic is on the LP. Alan White, later of Yes shows up on drums. Spector’s “wall of sound” approach usually included multiple drummers, guitars and backing singers on all songs. One could imagine him saying, “More guitars and drums and you two in the back, pick up those tubas and play something… horns, more horns.” The sound is all encompassing and powerful. It’s really incredible.

All of that said, I really dig the bonus material here and believe me, with three discs of it, there is plenty. Disc 3 on the CD version of the box is probably my favorite. It’s Harrison laying down demos of the tracks for Spector. It’s just Harrison, typically on acoustic guitar with Ringo on drums and Klaus Voorman on bass. That’s a similar line up of who recorded Lennon’s Plastic Ono album. Just Lennon and that same rhythm section. I think Spector’s decision to add all the backing musicians and turn it up to 11 was the right decision but I like these quiet, stripped down versions. They’re all (for the most part) fully realized songs. It makes for a much more personal statement from Harrison. The focus is more clearly on the lyrics. It feels like you’re sitting around the campfire jamming. They aren’t all acoustic tracks, “What Is LIfe” is still a rollicking rocker in this stripped down form. These early takes are so different from the released LP I found them fascinating. There are a few unreleased tracks here too. “Going Down to Golders Green” is a track he gave to another artist. There are two Eastern themed songs, “Om Hare Om” and one I really dug, “Dehra Dun.” Considering the unreleased stuff, he could have done three LPs without the jam LP. “Sour Milk Sea” was another acoustic track that would have translated well to an electric, full-band version. “Awaiting On You All” has different lyrics which include a swipe at the Pope which I thought was funny.

Disc 4 continues the demos theme. It’s mostly acoustic but this time just George alone with an acoustic guitar. I like “Everybody/Nobody” which was not included on the LP. “Beautiful Girl” is a track that eventually saw the light of day on the album Thirty Three & 1/3. “Tell Me What Happened To You” was an interesting outtake as is “Nowhere to Go,” which finds George alone on electric. “Cosmic Empire” is a track that I thought could have been a hit with a band. It’s a great little ditty. “Mother Divine” is another track I wish he’d pursued. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the acoustic versions of these songs presented here but it does hint at the fact there was so much more here.

The final disc, disc 5, has outtakes featuring the whole band backing him up. “Hear Me Lord” sounds like a jam that could have been a Derek and the Dominos outtake. What a great, big rock n roll tune that one is. George and the band do a funny rendition of “Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Gang of Mine.” The lyrics of this version of “Isn’t It A Pity” start off with “Isn’t it so shitty, we do so many takes, now we’re doing it again.” I wonder if that is a swipe at McCartney or Spector? They even include a version of the Beatles’ “Get Back” that is a sloppy delight. I like the bluesy “Down to the River (Rocking Chair Blues).” The bluesy, acoustic “Woman Don’t Your Cry For Me” is completely different than the version released on Extra Texture. The musicians he has in the studio with him really were extraordinary.

There is so much to like in these unreleased demos and outtakes. It does remind me of the recent 50th anniversary edition of CSNY’s Deja Vu. The quality of the unreleased stuff is on par with what was finally released. It just underscores what a huge, freeing, creative burst this album was for Harrison. I’ve come to appreciate a lot of George’s solo work over the years but this box really reconnected me to his masterwork. It’s well worth the investment of time.

Cheers!