Since a lot of people are doing it, I wanted to get down my own thoughts on Peter Jackson’s masterpiece THE BEATLES: GET BACK, which I had the wonderful privilege of watching with friends this weekend. I wanted to start by noting that I was born in November of 1970*, a few months after Paul McCartney announced that The Beatles had broken up, after the subsequent release of LET IT BE, to a pair of parents who were not really fans of The Beatles— my dad and The Beatles shared a passion for the earliest rock and roll of the 1950’s and both my dad and mom sat out the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s, and especially the music it produced. I don’t know when I first heard The Beatles, but it was certainly as a little boy; I do remember hearing GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE for sure— probably in 1976 when the ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC compilation was released (I likely heard it on the radio)– but my first recollection is not even The Beatles, it is Wings’ BAND ON THE RUN album which, again, I probably heard on the radio in the summer of 1974 when I was three years old. The only copy of an album by The Beatles in my mom’s house was and remains MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, which I listened to sometimes.
I also came of age at a time- the early 1980’s- when the music of my parents generation (old time rock and roll on my dad’s side, adult contemporary on my mom’s side) was not something I cared very much about. I can remember all of it, mostly fondly, but my personal musical exploration began, as it always should, when I began making my own choices— metal, then jazz (and prog), then college rock, and then outward from there. As part of that outward expansion, I came back around to The Beatles, who remained ubiquitous on radio throughout the 70’s and 80’s, especially in Michigan, influenced by Detroit’s radio, which was heavily marketing “classic rock” and Motown/ soul to different audiences. In Flint, where I grew up, you had the contemporary rock station WWCK 105.5, the contemporary R&B station WDZZ 92.7, the adult contemporary station CARS 108 (107.9), and then you maybe could pull in WLLZ or WRIF from Detroit. In the early 1980’s, Flint’s local independent station WFBE 95.1 began airing Ben Hamper’s TAKE NO PRISONERS show on Saturday nights, which focused on punk and local bands, and that became the definitive show of the 1980’s for me— I would hide under my blankets and put the radio next to my ear so my parents wouldn’t hear me staying up super late, listening to the radio. On a clear night, you could grab BRAVE NEW WAVES drifting over the border on CBC radio in Canada, another big touchstone for me.
So, I never had a childhood steeped in The Beatles and their songs were, for me, from another time. I also have never had a sort of Road To Damascus moment with The Beatles music where I became an obsessive convert or did a deep dive into every single aspect of their music and production history (which gauge of strings did George use on his guitar for AND YOUR BIRD CAN SING? I literally could not care less).
All of that said, I completely get it. Having been a listener to pop since 1970, the dominance of The Beatles’ songs in shaping contemporary music is beyond staggering to even consider— people who love and make music look at that unfathomably great body of work as sacred, a sort of contemporary Sistine Chapel which is to be poured over, examined, a set of problems to solve to figure out how it was done because, in the end, as music, it is breathtaking. Anyone who can’t appreciate what The Beatles created is likely either resentful of their ubiquity or annoyed by the giant shadow they cast over the work of so many others, and I also understand that. But I don’t blame The Beatles for that— they have come to mean so many things to so many people, but what we are left to grapple with are the songs and records which stand both as a towering achievement in contemporary pop music, but also, a narrative, a story, an artistic path from LOVE ME DO to THE END in just eight years, almost impossible to comprehend. Yet there it is, that body of work, and it remains an object of deep fascination and scrutiny because, as music, it means so much and only a very few people have ever achieved anything that comes close**.
The collaborative, interpersonal creative process that allowed The Beatles to happen is essentially the subject of THE BEATLES: GET BACK, which captures just a single month in the life of the band as they record the LET IT BE album, first as a concept for a TV show/documentary/ live concert event which is eventually abandoned, then as the documentation of the recording of the album itself, culminating in the band’s justifiably (and more on this in a minute) legendary final performance on the rooftop of Apple Studios.
There are some very big choices made here by Peter Jackson, and they were all fine by me: The voluminous footage, which was used to create the sour documentary LET IT BE (which sensationalized the sessions as rife with turmoil, a clear sign of the end, of the band’s impending demise), has been not only restored but “contemporized”, creating images and audio that were impossible with the film technology of the time. This has the effect of creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy for modern audiences that is unlike anything I have ever experienced with footage from this era. Look at Pennebaker’s work on films like DON’T LOOK BACK and ZIGGY STARDUST (both amazing) to see the typical visual and audio limitations of most shoots of the era. While those films achieve intimacy with smaller cameras and crews, THE BEATLES: GET BACK uses the scale of its production to an unprecedented advantage. Say what you want about the film’s cigar-smoking, Libya-obsessed director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, but the man made some massively important choices that allowed this film to happen, and at the top of the list is his decision to go all in on coverage; there were cameras and invasive microphones everywhere, and while that may have been a huge pain the ass for everyone involved, THE BEATLES: GET BACK would not have been remotely possible without the hours and hours and hours of coverage Lindsay-Hogg’s footage provided to Jackson and his superstar editor Jabez Olssen.
Olssen’s work here is by far the most crucial in reframing this footage and, frankly, re-writing the history of The Beatles. First, by taking footage out of its original linear, temporal context and cutting it into scenes where the audio was from another moment, THE BEATLES: GET BACK leans into the emotional content and heavy interpersonal subtext of the band’s decisive, creative moments. A glance, a smile, the image of a restless hand— these images supply meaning that has been historically unavailable. What this allows, more than anything else, is for Jackson to find the real story here, which is about the love between these artists who, at the apex of their fame and creative flowering, reached an understanding they could not yet articulate that their time together was coming to an end. This is the moment when, just over the horizon, The Beatles will become an impossibility for them, with three incredible songwriters, all of them bursting out in different creative directions that were only made available to them by the fact of their collaboration, unable to articulate the full meaning of what they understood about what was next.
The deep humanity of this specific choice by Jackson puts the film in a class by itself for me— it is a movie that at once shows the jaw-dropping brilliance of what The Beatles were able to create together and makes their dissolution as a band both heartbreaking and comprehensible. One of the most interesting things about experiencing the film for me was orienting myself in the narrative— while I have seen many people reporting that they were deeply moved by watching unbelievable moments in the film’s early episodes, especially intimate moments of creation of songs that are now part of the contemporary music canon (Paul working out LET IT BE in the background while the group chats around him, Paul strumming his bass and just pulling GET BACK seemingly out of thin air, George sharing amazing songs from his masterpiece ALL THINGS MUST PASS to general indifference)— for me it was the interpersonal moments that kept me deeply engaged; the band navigating Paul’s notes to George and Ringo about their playing, John and Paul on secret microphone (hello again, coverage!) discussing how to piece them all back together again, Paul constantly chewing his nails and going slack jawed when things aren’t going his way, John’s use of humor and his emotional intelligence in seeing multiple perspectives, Ringo’s easygoing professionalism, George’s kindness and diligence covering up his wounds.
For me, all of these moments culminate in the rooftop performance sequence, when the band, unshackled, free from the studio after years of not playing live, finally get to cut loose and everything we’ve seen boiling beneath the surface is cast aside for an all too brief moment of joyous connection between four artists, young men, lifelong friends, who put away the all of the choices that lead them there— the film, the business plans, the recording process — and just let it all go, together. This is the moment that brought tears to my eyes— the storytelling that got us all to that rooftop, knowing what had come before, what it meant to them, the love between them, and the knowledge that, as a simple title note tell us, it would never, ever happen again. A final experience of joyous connection when you see and hear everything, all at once. Like a great, fleeting romantic moment that will never exist again, you look back on it and you understand, you forgive. And then? The end.
*I know some people say Altamont was the official end of the 1960’s, but I always like to outline this chronology of 1970 as a way to frame my birth year:
April 1970- The Beatles announce their break up
May 1970- The Kent State shooting
September 1970- Jimi Hendrix dies
October 1970- Janis Joplin dies
November 1970- I was born
**For me personally, the nine year run Prince had from PRINCE in 1979 to SIGN O’ THE TIMES in 1987 is as close as anyone has ever come.