Forget Omicron, booster jabs and illicit Christmas parties, the conversation starter of the moment, said in excited knowing tones has to be, ’have you seen Get Back, the Beatles documentary?’
I have never thought of myself as a serious Beatles fan, but as I have gotten older, I have come to realise just how pivotal they were to my development. They split up in 1970, the year I was born and there is something about their later period that resonates profoundly with me. The music of course is always there, with its blending of genres and expanding of stylistic frontiers, but I am also interested in the Beatles as men: their evolving complexity, and their exploration of self, each individually affected by personal privation and abandonment at a time of great social change, which of course they came to play a part in.
Peter Jackson’s 3-part, 8 hour re-edit of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1969 film, is made up of 57 hours of footage, from the original Get Back sessions, which has been locked in a vault for more than half a century, unseen. It is the gift that keeps on giving, but in the best possible way. Here we have something joyous; it really is special, and not just for music purists. When documentary making is this good, the question has to be, who needs a Silmarillion blockbuster!
Big bucks have been lavished on the film restoration to transport us beyond the nostalgia of the swinging sixties. Colour footage of this period is often grainy and saturated, but in Get Back, this has been toned down and cleaned up giving everything a slightly shabby feel, which captures the post-war reality of London, in the late 60s. People interviewed outside the Apple Corps offices on this bleak January morning have a distinctly D. H. Lawrence vibe; flat caps, pinnies and bowlers are ubiquitous. And then, John Lennon turns up in a pristine white Rolls Royce Phantom V.
The Beatles were always real and touchable, but the downside was that they were pawed and grabbed at like objects. The film has given them humanity.
Inside the Apple Corps offices, you can almost smell the warm, airless atmosphere of the basement studio. The place is crammed with Carnaby Street-clad sound engineers, cigar-chomping record execs with clipped public school accents, and roadies who keep the whole bandwagon going with mugs of tea and toast, as the band attempts the umpteenth take of Don’t Let Me Down, whilst Paul McCartney flicks cigarette ash on the carpet and someone orders Ringo macaroni cheese. Special guests drop in, and one of George’s Hare Krishna buddies drops out. And the result? It was meant to be an album, documentary and live TV spectacular put together in less than three weeks but as Michael Lindsay-Hogg nervously points out, ‘we have a film about smokers, nose pickers and nail biters.’
Paul is on fire. His shoulder length hair, Samson-like, is the perfect metaphor for the music which keeps on coming whilst everyone else flags.
Meanwhile John Lennon, cross-legged on the floor, dressed in a granddad shirt and plimsolls muses, ‘we are no longer students of philosophy on a gap year in India’. What is it about John that is so compelling? Much has been written about his personal struggles during this period. He is just 29-years-old. He comes across with a glamour, intelligence and complexity that is never starry. He seems so contemporary; timeless. We cannot underestimate just how radical everything about him was in 1969.
By his side, Yoko Ono; spectral and always there. It is a curious dynamic, at times suffocating to witness, but any more symbiotic than Paul and Linda? Well, at least Linda knew when to give Paul space. And then in the next moment, they are all jamming together, Yoko primal screaming to Freakout Jam, Paul on Ringo’s drums driving it forward, clearly loving every minute of it. ‘We should put it on the finished album,’ says John. ‘I think you’re nuts, the both of you,’ says Paul affectionately.
Despite the horse-wrangling behind the scenes, there is little evidence in the documentary of clashing egos or eye-rolling histrionics. That was yet to come. Money talks, George walks, and then they convince him to come back. ‘Fuck that, I’m going to do me for a bit …’ he says. Did it have to end this way? Could they not have taken some time off, gotten rid of Allen Klein and reconvened when the direction of the 70s had become more clear? The wounds of abandonment and loss were always there. Sometimes we need to break down to break through.
And so we are left with the guerrilla performance from a chilly Thursday lunchtime in January, on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building. Despite the connection between them, the running gag of Debbie on reception stalling PC Plod, and the musicianship, it is not enough to keep them together. ‘I hope we pass the audition’, Lennon’s final words as the music peters out.
With thanks to:
The Beatles: Get Back - Disney+
Who Killed John Lennon?: The lives, loves and deaths of the greatest rock star - Lesley Ann Jones