Thursday, 25 November, 2021 in Art, Culture, Films, Music

Get Back Part 1 Review – Grant McPhee

As a simple example of their huge longevity, it’s likely there are today now more Beatles fans who were born after their 1970 split than there were during the band’s own existence. Like me, most of those new fans have not been able to experience the thrill of a new Beatles album in realtime. The closest I had to this joy was the mid 90s Anthology project – but now there’s this, the hugely hyped Get Back film.

Much like with the Anthology project this is another huge archive work. But unlike the now near-annual remix releases of their classics (Sgt Pepper, White Album, etc) this distinctly has the feel of another major new Beatles release.

What makes this a serious Beatles event is threefold:
1) the overall project incorporates one of the those same remixed/out-takes box-sets with book, but 2) it’s also a film being managed by a multi-Oscar winning Hollywood film director through the world’s largest media organisation – Disney, and 3) more importantly it is a near 8-hour retelling of the bands final gloomy public moments – the Let it Be movie.

While Let it Be, the album, sits in the awkward place of being both simultaneously the last and second last LP the band would release during their existence, the accompanying movie is mostly seen as their last offering to the public during that lifetime. It’s not an entirely flattering last message either and for those who have seen it, other than for a few brief moments of genius it mostly became known until today for the cliché of being the witnessing a break-up of a musical marriage. And unlike every other Beatles official product, other than a VERY brief and limited early 80s release it has not been available to the public since 1970.

They hype surrounding this film has been extraordinary. For me, the biggest concern was its huge running length. Peter Jackson is a director known for adding unwieldy padding to his films, which I think has always been to the detriment of them. This was originally conceived as a single film, much like his extremely disappointing Hobbit trilogy was and like that film it then expanded to 3x120m+ films.

Regardless, as being a huge Beatles fan nothing was going to stop me watching it despite the monumental runtime for a film based around one specific period. Additionally, much of the additional pre-release publicity centred on the three episodes being constructed from over 60 hours of footage. Having made my own documentary films and from working on many features by other filmmakers I was acutely aware that this was actually not a lot of footage for a film that is essentially set in one room and runs for at around 8 hours. As the original film used multiple camera angles this means that it is not 60 hours of unique events and could conceivably mean that nearly every moment shot would be used.

Anyway, this is information you already know so what about the film? The release date had actually caught up with me sooner than I expected. I’d planned – and fully expected – it to be available to stream sometime in the evening so it was a mild surprise that when I went to check what we used to call ‘the start-time’ it was already sitting there, waiting for me. With a slight drop of the expectation that was building up within me I thought I may as well just start watching there and then. I set up my Disney+ account at 9am and finally sat down to watch Get Back.

The film had chiefly been billed as rewriting the Let it Be miserabilism myth. So much has been written about The Beatles that new opportunities to retell such long and wide held beliefs are usually always a concern for truthful accuracy. I was immediately reassured in the first ten minutes though that there would be no modern interviews or present day commentary to help ease alternative narratives into the proceedings. It was also a reassuring surprise to see that the director had allowed the story to tell itself, in its own time – a very brave move I think.

The approach taken is to show the events of each day as they occurred in as near realtime as possible. This had the potential for becoming a real snooze-fest – I’ve heard a lot of the Let it Be sessions (the audio for the entire recordings has been available on bootleg for years) and while moderately interesting they are a struggle to get through more than a couple of hours.

What Jackson has done with Get Back is quite remarkable. The film feels like it is retrospectively attempting to create something close to Direct-Cinema by allowing the Beatles to tell us their story with very little (present day) directorial interference. It’s a truly fascinating insight into the creative process of one of the most inventive bands of all time. What Beatles fan – or anyone who is interested in the creative process really – would not want to sit in front of their heroes and watch McCartney seemingly conjure Get Back from thin air? This was one of the most remarkable and magical moments to feature in the film and makes the entire endeavour worthwhile. While the original Let it Be movie touches upon their writing process this feels as though Paul is giving you a small and personal masterclass into songwriting – playing a riff, slowly adding words and eventually teaching it to the others and then hearing them perform it. All in seemingly a space of a few minutes.

I think many directors would benefit from Jackson’s approach here.  This is about documenting your subject, not demonstrating your own filmmaking skills, and when you are documenting The Beatles, they should not play second fiddle. And this film really takes advantage of this. So much of this film could have easily fallen into traps of falsely building peaks, troughs and simple beats to push the narrative forward in ways modern viewers are now accustomed. There is only one overriding narrative in this film – rehearsing songs for a concert.

Of course, this approach could not work for the entirety without bringing its own fundamental problems too. The two hour plus runtime is still far too long and many of the moments fall far below the highs of hearing Get Back or Let it Be being played for the first time. George Martin appears prominently at the beginning but seems to disappear until the end which is a shame due to his liminal role in its history. Some needed narrative assistance is required in other areas but it is to his credit that Jackson mainly leaves the footage and recordings available to him as-was.

There are a few instances where Jackson appears to interject to offer this assistance with some creative decisions – the Rock n Roll Music juxtapositions of a supremely confident and jubilant looking John playing live in 1966 being intercut with the disinterested and gloomy John of early 1969 tells its own story and is incredibly effective. The lingering cut-aways of Yoko, Linda and friends cut into Beatles performances however certainly have a slight air of artificiality or possible people pleasing and don’t work as well. On the other hand, a Beatles performance featuring Yoko singing is one of the absolute highlights for me. It gives a hugely interesting inkling into the avant-garde experimentation of her later version of the Plastic Ono Band album. While The Beatles had chosen to eschew studio trickery and go back to their roots, I think this type of primitive rock and roll experimenting would have benefited the released album and formed a better link with their immediate past. It felt like a true improvisational moment and the most exciting musical interplay in the film.

The studio banter also has some wonderful insights. The infamous George/Paul argument is now rendered with a context that offers a new air of understanding between both parties. Earlier we hear George opening up about his position within the band – that he admits the earlier albums were a learning experience for him but from his recent writing for The White Album he now feels he can – and wishes to contribute more to the band.

By contrast, John appears to enter each day in an entirely different mood – one day with something approaching enthusiasm and the next barely uttering a word. The dynamics between Paul and John are incredibly interesting here and sensitively rendered throughout– we see signs of now occasional but still clear chemistry between them though it is a distinct change from their earlier partnership. I think this is demonstrated most succinctly during the George and Paul’s argument where Paul, without bravado states ‘I’ve been leading the band for the last two years’.

This argument now feels like a key turning point in the changing dynamics within the band rather than the previous film’s sudden spikiness. It must have been incredibly hurtful for George to feel on the outside of that relationship, even as it was clearly disintegrating, and without being given an entry point that could have very much changed everyone’s history.

I think George’s continuing feeling regarding this relationship and his place within the band is later superbly summarised during Dick James’ appearance. Dick asks George if he wants to see the Lennon/McCartney songbook ‘Do you want to see what you own half a percent of?’ ‘Not really,’ is George’s blunt answer.

The struggles with collaboration within the band is another fantastic revelation – it’s not just George, it’s everyone. Over the two hours we have some interesting moments relating to this– the run through of the infamous Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – is given added context after the George/Paul argument. It’s clearly not one of Paul’s better songs and the only two people who seem to be enjoying the experience are him and the ever loyal, Mal Evans. Mal’s presence is a highlight for me. There’s a fascinating insight into his relationship with Paul during an early version of The Long and Winding Road where we see Paul asking for Mal’s opinion on lyrics and then Mal offering Paul his own lyrics.

It’s by its nature a flawed film, but for Beatles fans, music fans and anyone interesting in watching four of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century offer their creative process for the world to see, it is a fascinating must watch. I was sceptical of a new telling of this story. I had only recently re-watched Anthology and all three surviving Beatles were of the opinion that Let it Be was the miserable experience we had come to know. It is difficult to argue with this new presentation of that same story – it offers very few editorial or directing decisions other than allowing what was recorded tell its own story. Of course, Michael Lyndsey-Hogg, the original director did not film every single moment so there will always be alternative theories of that time.

My theory as to why The Beatles themselves had earlier sanctioned the traditional view of the Let it Be sessions is shown within the film. George, at an early stage is flicking through what looks like ‘Beatles Monthly’ and discussing what the press are writing about them. We also see Paul look through various newspapers of the day and offer comment. The Beatles were seeing their public Beatles image reflected back at them through our eyes and over the years, as they grew apart they presumably avidly still read each other’s press. The April 1970 Record Mirror paper, for example had an interview with Paul regarding the Beatles and the eventual release of Let it Be.

Record Mirror: Did you miss the other Beatles and George Martin? Was there a moment, e.g. when you thought: “Wish Ringo was here for this break”?

Paul: No.

Of course, as is widely known, George eventually temporarily left the band during the sessions. In Anthology it is very quickly covered by them all agreeing that they each, as individuals felt they were outside of the changing group dynamic – “I thought it was you three!’ was the phrase each used to cover their feelings of being left out.

Get Back Part One could easily have fallen into the Eastenders big-ending by abruptly finishing with George’s leaving. To its credit it did not but it did enter one of the few moments of director/editor intervention to create a bigger ending that unfortunately feels slightly mawkish – George’s All Things Must Pass run-through over images of the Beatles hugging. To be fair, and probably due to my heart of stone, those images of the remaining Beatles hugging are fantastic!

It doesn’t seem like a necessary ending because of the previous 2 hours of near rigidity to allowing the footage to speak for itself but also because anyone who watched will almost certainly be watching part two tomorrow!

Grant McPhee

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