I wanted to share some thoughts on Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back. The boy and I watched all three episodes (each on the day of their release) last week and the quick review is: we both loved it.
If you’re a fan already, it’s made for you with love and respect. It’s a massive film, clocking in at about 7 and a half hours. Aside from a few lulls in the first episode, it’s so compelling that it feels like it moves fast. I can honestly say it left me wanting more.
Jackson doesn’t just re-edit the story of the boys in January 1969 from an archive of some 60 hours of unseen footage. He also re-edits the story we “know” of The Beatles in this period, what we now know as the last year of their time together as a band.
I want to offer just a few quick thoughts only because I feel like so many of the reviews I’ve read, watched, and listened to in the last few days are so different than what I felt/thought after watching. So here it goes…
The elephant in the proverbial room of this film is the hindsight that comes with us knowing The Beatles were about to end as a group. The original cut of this footage by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (released in 1970 as Let It Be) made this it’s story. 50 years later, we’re still fascinated by this running debate of who (or what) broke up The Beatles.
Jackson answers this question by diffusing it as a question, and that’s part of the beauty of this film.
There are surface ways his film engages the question. I walk away from it thinking the most direct answer to that question is Paul. Paul is asserting a greater leadership and his leadership isn’t really a collaborative one. Paul has a vision and he’s not really patient or skilled enough to bring the others aboard on that vision. When he can, it seems to satisfy him but where he can’t, it frustrates him further.
If Paul is to blame, then it’s for all the right creative reasons. He was growing into an artist with his own vision apart from the rest. The other beauty of this film is that we see the same thing happening for each of the other three.
George is on fire as a songwriter during these sessions. He’s going home three nights in a row and coming back with songs that will be among his most enduring. John is playing with his own vision, one that includes Yoko. For him, the film seems to present the roots of the story we know of the next (and last) decade of his life. Even Ringo is branching out. In one of the most memorable scenes, we see him sharing the start of what will become “Octopus’s Garden” on the piano (!!) with George, who offers him some song writing theory.
The point is each of the young men are developing into their own artist and for each of them that growth meant each moving away from what was.
Jackson’s recut makes the question of their break-up seem like a narrow and simple question, like the thinking of a child. It assumes The Beatles were supposed to not break-up. What we see in this almost eight-hour glimpse into the band is a story of positive growth. That growth (growing up?) will end the band, but it also births the rest of their creative careers.
Some pressures are pulling the band apart. The classic pressure the original film suggested was Yoko Ono. This cut diffuses that story. Yes, Yoko is hanging around (almost attached to John) for the recording sessions. But so are other partners and any number of other people (including a Hare Kirshna disciple). The experiment of filming their making of an album (which is also part of the story of this new film) created anything but a hermetically sealed environment for these sessions.
The film should make one question why we’d focus on Yoko above or before any of the others who are there. In some subtle ways, Jackson’s cut suggests the entire “Yoko is to blame” argument comes from the racism inherent in a larger society weighing in on John’s choice of partners. Their relationship was more news than Paul’s or Ringo’s (or even the crazy one we know of George), and the film suggests some reasons why.
Jackson also includes footage that frames the real “break-up issue” for the band, namely, the lack of a manager and the about to emerge disagreement over who the replacement one should be. Episode 1 frames its narrative partially around the death of Brian Epstein. We hear George say they are now without a “father.” The boys are mourning, and not doing so in any healthy way. You can hear that in their inability to really talk with each other but you can see it, too. John and Ringo are 28, Paul is 26, and George is 25 but they all look like shit! Drugs, drinking, and smoking (so much smoking!) are taking their toll in visible ways at this time.
The lack of Brian Epstein shows its presence in a host of negative ways, including the chaos of a project being re-written as it’s playing out. Jackson also lets us glimpse into John’s enthusiasm after meeting with Stones manager Alan Klein. The whole band even breaks to meet with Klein, unfortunately off-camera. Fans know there would soon be a split over who to make their new manager, and Jackson shows that story progressing over these days.
What we see a lot of in the film is how each of the “boys” are becoming “men.” This isn’t a simple story, not at all. Like the destructive things they’re doing to their bodies, and their inability to each speak like grown-ups with feelings, it’s a growing up while also tripping over their own malformed adulting skills. Here’s where we should be sympathetic to them. After all, they went from pubescent boys to global stars, never getting a chance to develop in a “normal” way. The kind of masculinity each carries is one most of us can recognize, but few of us would really know.
But each is growing nonetheless. They’re starting to make lives with new lovers and kids. They’re becoming less reliant on each other and more on themselves and these new families. And all that is natural and expected. And it leads to the end of the band as they built it.
This film is fun. If you love The Beatles you get to see some amazing stuff. As a glimpse into the creative process of the most influential writing team in popular music, it is more than amazing, it’s precious. (And we get to see Billy Preston and the formidable role he plays in this creative process.) But it’s also a really gripping (and, at times, sad) study in fame, growing up, and masculinity.
And I can’t wait to watch it again.