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!