Get Back – the Beatles documentary. WHAT a riveting 8 hours of film!
There are some people for whom this would be the worst thing you could make them sit through. However I thought I’d outline why for me it was the diametric opposite.
First & foremost, ever since I learned that there was a difference between people being themselves, and being “on” or “in persona” I’ve been fascinated to see the former wherever possible. The source material for this documentary was over 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio, so while inevitably you DO get the public face of the Beatles at various points, as they’re mainly interacting with each other and close associates you get to see them genuinely being themselves.
I guess I only really discovered The Beatles properly in around 1992 – so by the time I’d discovered them they were The Most Influential Band In History, etc. So it was an absolute joy to see them in this film just being a band! They jam with each other, they play songs they know, they play other bands’ songs… songs from their past… noodling on new songs… fucking about on their songs… One highlight for me was Lennon & McCartney singing at each other with their teeth locked in a grimace: teeth bared, no lips moving. Why? Who knows! It was probably just funny at the time.
Maybe it’s naivite on my part, and I’ve read enough biographies and the like to know the band members’ birthdates, but another sweeping revelation which seeing footage captured in-the-moment brought to me was that this concert/album – among the band’s final – was recorded when they were all in their late 20s! Maybe it didn’t register because when I was in my Beatles phase I hadn’t hit my own late 20s… but to see these… KIDS! The most famous band ever, and they were all done by the time they hit their 30s. You can read about it… but in this documentary, you SEE it!
The Yoko Ono thing – again, the headline folklore was “Yoko broke up the band”. However watching this, all you see is – admittedly, odd – a woman sitting quietly near her boyfriend, because that’s what he must need to get by. For the most part she’s not really paying any attention to anything other than John – and certainly not interfering! There’s a couple of recordings of – ahem – “freakout jams” which, though not really to my taste, seem to indicate she was at least happy creating and interacting with the band.
One of the biggest moments people have written about is the sequence where you’re watching McCartney write Get Back as it’s occurring to him and developing as an idea in his creative consciousness. Taking a chord shape, working it over, playing with it – then eventually hanging some words off of it. It reminded me a bit of 2001 when one group of hominids touch the monolith and learn how to use tools & weapons: this was evolution happening RIGHT in front of your eyes! The cynic might say that the band were trying to get an album together in 2 weeks for a live performance, so any new shape was fair game… but in this case Get Back has gone on to become a mainstay of the catalogue and a cornerstone of musical culture, so it’s gripping to see it be born & grow up.
The Beatles by this point were the most famous band in the world, having left touring for years because they were unable to perform publicly in any kind of sensible way due to fan mania. So how in the hell did they surround themselves with such a bunch of useless farts as business contacts?! It was only Ringo’s refusal to play outside the UK that stopped a couple of the hangers-on bullshitting them into pursuing mounting the final gig at the Sabratha site in Libya, which was obviously a choice because those guys fancied going there. And of course Lennon’s useless “electronics guru” Magic Alex. I did love George Martin’s attitude to Magic Alex.
The fashions of late 60s London – wow. It’s true that these people were far from normal, but by god. What threads. I don’t even know where to start. The pink shirts… the floral prints… green suits… the shoes… and GLYN JOHNS’ FUR COAT! It looked like he’d skun a Muppet.
Having worked in central London I can tell you for a fact that if one of the world’s most famous bands started playing a gig on a rooftop you wouldn’t see people in the street calmly looking up and politely answering interview questions. They’d be totally losing their shit. Part of this is that “moment in time” thing, where the amplification won’t have been anywhere near what we can get together today (although clearly it was loud enough to get the rozzers involved – you don’t just bring business to a standstill in Mayfair matey boy, oh no…) – and of course if such a thing happened today the blessing of social media would get word around instantly.
Seeing Billy Preston bowl in partway through the sessions, and then just BRING IT with those amazing skills of his to the point where they were basically offering him to be in the band. Wow. The information’s all there and it’s been right in front of me for years, but this really brought it to life.
But as I didn’t want to make this a word-for-word remake of the whole series, I’ll say that the last thing that blew my tiny dome was just seeing what a top-calibre bunch of musicians they were. Say whatever else you like – they stood up an album after only a couple of weeks from a standing start, and when they stepped out onto that roof top they were PERFORMING. These were lads who grew up working for it in Hamburg nightclubs, and spent the better part of the decade paving the way for rock/pop bands in their genre-defining way. Yes there was all the goings on in the weeks leading up, but when that gig started they knew what they had to do and they had the chops to do it. And I, for one, found it awe-inspiring to watch.
And I might watch it all again.