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Monday, November 29, 2021

Getting Get Back

I spent a good chunk of Thanksgiving weekend watching Peter Jackson's superb and somewhat overwhelming Get Back, along with--according to my students anyway--most of the white dads in America. Maybe so. I'm a Beatles fan, but not a Beatles fanatic, so I'm not going to pretend that I found every moment of it's nearly 8 hours of running time transcendent; there's an awful lot of pointless noodling around the studio and interminable bickering over the mics in its three episodes. Still, the transcendent moments were there, as we watch these awesomely talented people deal with time's passage and frustrating miscommunications and other people and a general lack of direction, and still nonetheless generate brilliance, sometimes through serendipity and sometimes through plain head-banging hard work. Here's a few reflections:

The Women: I think it was Rob Sheffield in his wonderful Dreaming the Beatles (which I reviewed here) who observed--as I'm sure thousands of other Beatles fans have, but I think it was he who called it to my attention--that John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared, among many other things, a genuinely remarkable and unusual connection to their chosen life partners, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman. What other pop and rock performers of remotely their caliber, and especially male performers of their misogynistic 1960s era (and while neither Paul nor John were apparently the sexist monsters many other rock titans were, between Paul's relationship with Jane Asher and John's relationship with May Pang, neither did either man have any feminist cred to be proud of) might have ever considered forming bands with and recording albums with their wives? Yet they both went on to do just that, multiple times. The almost childlike devotion these two men in their 20s had to these women they'd fallen in love with--or at least the devotion visible on camera in January 1969--was profound, and it's constantly present in Get Back, between John and Yoko in particular. We see her sitting beside John for hours, day after day, knitting or providing a shoulder for him to lean on (or fall asleep upon) as the sessions go on and on, with her watching everyone, sometimes curiously, sometimes disapprovingly. Then in the third episode, the touchy-feely-kissy giddiness of John and Yoko, when they learn her divorce is final, is somewhere between delightful and downright embarrassing. Paul, for his part, becomes much less of half-desperate, half-annoyed songwriting machine and more of a joking, laughing music-maker when Linda, with her daughter Heather, shows up. I wish the mics which the filmmakers had hidden everywhere had managed to pick up Yoko and Linda's conversations, which you see continuing on and off throughout the whole series; their discussions are animated, and sometimes appear either intense or hilarious: what jokes or criticisms or hopes or fears about their partners and children and careers were they sharing? There are other women who intrude upon the Beatles sanctum--we see Pattie Boyd and Maureen Cox, and of course the omnipresent "Apple scruffs," the condescending name for the female groupies who were forever crowding around the studio, mostly hoping for a glimpse of Paul--but these two, on my viewing at least, are the background characters whom much of the action nonetheless revolves around, whether anyone realizes it or not.

The Quiet One: If there is any overall story to Get Back, it is clearly the story of George Harrison, who comes into the studio on day one with the outline of a couple of songs--"I Me Mine" and the future classic "All Things Must Pass"--to share, and who gets essentially no support for them from any of his bandmates. In the beginning he is vocal with his opinions and animated in expressing them, but over the first episode you see him get beat down again and again as the John and Paul show--which mainly consists of Paul insisting that they need a schedule, since John half the time withdraws into Yoko's perpetual silence--and their songs dominate the proceedings. You can't help but root for the man, and I say this as someone who has become less of a George fan over the years; his songwriting chops were strong, his guitar playing superb, and his overall musicianship simply brilliant, and yet for all that, the tendency by some (I having at one time been one of them) to present his contributions to the miracle that was the Beatles as greater than those of the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut is simply silly. But perhaps the fact that he was a mere demigod playing lead guitar for a couple of Olympians only makes it more poignant. Ringo Starr was--and still is--an excellent and instinctive drummer, but he knew the pecking order, and was at peace with it (at one point during Get Back you see him just standing, smiling in delight, as Paul plays the piano; "I could stand and listen to him play for an hour" he confesses to the camera). George was looking for more, and was determined to find it, whether outside the band (which he quits at the end of the first episode, only the rejoin by the second) or inside it. Batting away the talk of extravagant productions in Tripoli or unseemly charity shows in hospitals, he focuses on changing the band; at different times, he encourages his bandmates to invite Eric Clapton to join them, or even Bob Dylan. When the keyboardist Billy Preston, who was just visiting the studio, is dragooned into the recording session, George is his greatest champion, insisting that he's providing exactly what they need, trading riffs with Preston as they hammer Paul's composition "Get Back"--which Paul had knocked around ad nauseam over the previous two weeks--into its gorgeous, final shape. And George is doing that constantly, always looking to jump in and add something--perhaps for self-interested reasons, but perhaps not? His walking over to Ringo as he was happily plunking out a silly ditty he'd come up with about an "Octopus Garden," and proceeding to try out chords to build up Ringo's tune into a song, is pure George: quietly serving the music, by insisting upon his contribution to it.

The Duo: In the end though, it all comes back to the two friends who bonded over Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and all the liberation which early American rock and roll provided to a couple of teen-agers from Liverpool in the mid-1950s. Paul admits (though only privately to John) that he'd ignored George, and is sorry about it, and he regularly tosses Ringo compliments as he does his solid drummer-for-the-Beatles job. But ultimately, it is John that Paul is most clearly focused on trying to get engaged and inspired. And rightly so, because when John does occasionally emerge from Yoko's shadow or his own weariness and get fired up by the music, the man is brilliant, wickedly funny, and a fierce guitar player. As Alan Jacobs observed, when John emerges from his shell, it's like a musical flood: suddenly he and Paul are back in their bedrooms, trading riffs, singing snatches of show tunes and dance hall music, the sort of songs which Paul's family delighted in and loved to sing (and curiously enough, the same sort of songs which, at a different time, John--who was always changeable and rarely dependable--once dismissed as "Paul's granny shit"). The album which ultimately emerged from the Get Back sessions, Let it Be, is characteristically filled with top-flight pop music, but none of those songs, I think, captured what the Beatles were, and by January 1969 could still sometimes manage to become, than "One After 909," a blusey number that John and Paul had written a decade or more before, back when railroad cars and America and stardom were all delightful fantasies of the future for them. Seeing them cut loose with this number during the rooftop concert at the end of Get Back, rocking back and forth on their feet, their heads bopping and hair flying, and I, at least, couldn't help but think to myself: oh yeah, that--that energy, that rhythm, that joy--is what Beatlemania was really all about. It probably couldn't have lasted in that form for long anyway, and Macca himself has carried one version or another of it forward for more than a half-century beyond the tortured efforts to hold it together revealed in this wonderful documentary. But I appreciate the deep dive this series provided, into both the technical work and the revealed motivations which attended two titanic figures in the history of popular music. If nothing else, Jackson has made Lennon's final lines--"I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition"--less of a snark, and more of a meaningful coda, than I'd ever heard them to before.

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