Sunday, November 28, 2021

Stubs: The Beatles: Get Back

The Beatles: Get Back
(2021) Starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. Directed by Peter Jackson. Produced by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono Lennon, Olivia Harrison, Peter Jackson, Clare Olssen, Jonathan Clyde United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States Color Run time: 360 minutes Documentary.

On January 2, 1969, with loose plans to do a live concert, The Beatles, at Paul McCartney’s guidance, gathered together in Twickenham Studios to rehearse, write songs and record for what was planned to be a TV Special. An ambitious project to write, rehearse and perform new songs, The Beatles gave themselves less than a month to pull it together. While the Deluxe Edition of the album Let It Be will attest to, they not only came up with enough material for an album, they also worked on songs that would appear on their last album Abbey Road and also on solo records from McCartney, Lennon and Harrison. The live concert finally found a home, the rooftop at Apple Corps, and took place on January 30, 1969.

In between starting the project and the concert, the recordings moved from a film studio to their own company, George Harrison would briefly leave the group, and keyboardist Billy Preston would join the sessions.

The TV Special would become the film Let It Be, and was seen by many to be documenting the disintegration of the greatest rock and roll group of all time. It didn’t help matters that the film was released after the group’s official breakup and that no member of the band went to the premiere.

After its initial release, the film fell out of circulation and out of favor with The Beatles. With its fiftieth anniversary approaching, hopes rose that the film would finally see the light of day again. While that re-release is still TBD, the footage originally shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 50+ hours, was turned over to filmmaker Peter Jackson, best known for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What was supposed to be a re-examination and a new film showing the good times left out of the film turned into a much bigger project. Blame it on COVID, but Jackson had more time to work on the project and what had once been planned as a film turned into a nearly 8-hour three-day event on Disney+, beginning on November 25, 2021, Thanksgiving.

The Beatles in Twickenham Studios to rehearse and film.

Part One: Days 1-7 Released on November 25, 2021. Run time: 157 minutes.

The film starts with a quick run-through of The Beatles' history, for those watching who may not know anything or much about them. Surprisingly, considering two of the former band members are producers on the film, they get stuff wrong. I don’t think I’m being a Beatles-geek to point out that, contrary to the film, Ringo Starr was not a member of the band before Brian Epstein took an interest in them, as is suggested. Ringo was known to the other members and had played with them on occasion, but he was not made a member until they were about to record their first single at Parlophone in the fall of 1962.

The other misleading item is the use of footage of the film Yellow Submarine to illustrate the song of the same name, which is part of a 1966 montage. The film would not come out until 1968, mere months before this endeavor.

The film covers the first seven days of filming. Buoyed by playing in front of an audience for the promo film for the single "Hey Jude", the Beatles decided it would be fun to do a live concert. The idea was to play a concert on January 19 and/or 20, 1970, including 14 new songs, starting on Thursday, January 2. The time crunch is due to Ringo's schedule to begin filming on The Magic Christian on the 24th.

For almost everyone, starting with nothing with 17 days to put it together would be a gargantuan task. But the Beatles seem to feel it’s doable. The idea is to rehearse at Twickenham and film the rehearsals for a TV Special. Part of the story is to figure out where to have the show as well as what to play.

Given that the group has two of the greatest songwriters of their generation, Lennon and McCartney, as well as the emerging writer in Harrison, you get the idea they could do it. However, as with the first version of this Let It Be (1970), all is not well with the group.

For what has been billed as a happier version of the previous film, the George Harrison exchange with Paul McCartney, “Yeah, okay, well, I don't mind. I'll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that'll please you, I'll do it,” happens very early in the process.

McCartney, however, comes off as a real musical dynamo. He seems to be the driving force of the band, trying to keep things moving forward, even if the destination isn’t certain. We get to watch as the song “Get Back” takes shape from nothing more than McCartney with a bass guitar. He definitely has ideas on how he wants things to go.

Lennon arrives late most days, with Yoko usually in tow, but seems to be a willing participant and seems to be having a good time. Yoko, for the most part, sits at his side, reading the paper. Her boredom seems to be catching, as we get a lot of shots of Ringo looking anxious to be doing something.

Each day is presented roughly from start to finish, with more time spent on the beginning of the session than the end. We watch them run through a variety of songs, including some that would appear on solo records, including “All Things Must Pass”, “Gimme Some Truth” and “Another Day”, besides songs that would appear on the finished record, “Get Back”, “I Me Mine”, “For You Blue” and the B-side “Don’t Let Me Down”.

Given the story of the Beatles to come, it may not come as a surprise that Part One ends with someone quitting the group. Harrison plays the morning of the 10th and when lunch comes announces he’s leaving the band. Sort of surprisingly, the Beatles carry on as a trio and even jam with Yoko taking lead.

John and Paul continue to work with Yoko and Mal Evans, both ever-present.

And we’re told the first attempt to regroup that weekend doesn’t go well. Talk about a cliffhanger, especially if you’re new to the group’s history.

Part Two: Days 8-16 Released on November 26, 2021. Run time: 174 minutes.

Things start off slowly, as without George in the group, the project seems to have stalled. They all want to talk to him, but he’s gone to Liverpool. Without George, a lot of momentum is lost and the boys don’t really know what to do.

One of the more interesting sequences is a supposed private conversation between John and Paul that was secretly recorded by the film crew. The two discuss, amongst other topics, working with George and leadership of the group.

A lot of action takes place off-camera, or without a camera present. Once George arrives back in London, we’re told they have discussions and George agrees to return. Without really knowing what he was precisely upset about, it’s hard to know if the compromise reached addressed all of his issues or enough to get him to return. He rejoins the group, but the live TV Special concert is off.

That doesn’t mean the filming will stop, as the project is switched to a feature film and some sort of performance is going to be the conclusion. The issue is where? There is some thought of using Primrose Hill, but that will fall away before too long.

Part of the agreement with George is to break the set at Twickenham and move the recording to Apple, but that is not without problems. Magic Alex, a hanger-on of sorts, who presents himself as an electronic wiz has supposedly built a studio in the basement at Apple; only it doesn’t work, as is the case with most of his “inventions.”

George Martin is called in and equipment is shipped from EMI to Apple to allow them to record, but that takes several days and nothing is happening with the project. Those days are passed off with little fanfare, as is the first day of recording at Apple, as no cameras are allowed. No doubt there was still mending to do with Harrison that they didn’t want to document.

From then on, the sessions are recorded and we are treated to several days of the group recording, which includes a lot of goofing around, running through old songs, and talking with only one song recorded that we know makes it to the final album from the session.

As they are arranging the songs, they realize they could use a keyboard player, and just as soon as that is decided, in walks Billy Preston, an old friend from their Hamburg days when Preston was touring with their idol, Little Richard. Though he stops by for a visit because he’s in town for some television appearances, they invite him to play along and he agrees.

Things start to really cook with Preston in on the sessions. On a day when he’s unavailable, there is even discussions about actually paying him for his work. The idea even gets floated to add him to the group, but Paul puts an end to it, thinking it’s hard enough with four.

When Primrose Hill is no longer available, there is a real sense that there might not be an ending to the project. But producer Glyn John and filmmaker Lindsay-Hogg come up with a proposal, which you can see light up McCartney’s face: the rooftop of Apple.

While the project may be saved, the die seems to be cast that will lead to the end of the group, as we see Lennon scheduling his first meeting with Allen Klein, which will eventually doom the band.

But for the time being that doesn’t seem to matter and the band carries on “recording” and having a good time drinking, eating, and smoking as they run through familiar songs, like “Let It Be” and “For You Blue”, and obscure. While this is sometimes interesting, it is also very long. Even die-hard Beatle fans might get their fill before this section of the project is through.

Part Two proves, and it pains me to write this, that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, about half an hour’s worth. It might be too much for the casual viewer.

The Beatles finally seem to get down to work at Apple.

Part Three: Days 17-22 Released on November 27, 2021. Run time: 138 minutes.

More of The Beatles messing around in the studio with the deadline for the rooftop concert coming up fast. All we have to go by is the footage that Lindsay-Hogg’s team shot, but it’s hard to imagine how they got anything accomplished when they were goofing around so much.

The concert, originally set for January 29th, gets postponed for a day to the 30th due to weather concerns. (This is England, mind you, and it seems to rain there almost every day this time of year.) But the weather outside has nothing to do with the cold feet the group is getting about performing.

Paul leaves one of the sessions for a meeting, and when it’s just the three of them, George talks with John about possibly doing a record of his own songs, the first mention of All Things Must Pass so to speak, but it’s not about going solo, just the desire to get his growing catalog recorded. Coincidentally, while Paul is away, John starts to tell the other three more about Allen Klein and how much he thinks of him. They seem to realize he’s a conman, but the three present seem to like the idea of having one on their side for a change. (It is interesting that while Paul’s future representatives, the Eastman’s, get a mention in the credits, Klein’s name is nowhere to be found.)

The four of them, prior to the rooftop appearance, do meet with Klein, but it is off-camera, so we’re not privy to how Paul reacts, though we know that will factor into the demise of the band.

It takes a while for all of the equipment to be brought up to the roof, which has been reinforced to handle the weight. Still, we are told, the band isn’t sure about the performance and we don’t know for sure it will happen until Paul, followed by Ringo and the others, makes their way outside.

Lindsay-Hogg has set up about 10 cameras, five on the roof, one across the street, three down on the street, and a hidden camera down in the lobby. This version of the film utilizes more of those camera shots than the original. While the group is playing, there is the inevitable disturbing the peace call to the police that brings several bobbies to Apple.

Upstairs, the band runs through more than a half dozen songs, some more than once, with about three making it to the final album. Their performances are somewhat undermined by showing the police and some on-the-street interviews with fans and others, but you get the gist that the group could pull it together, when, as Paul says, their backs are up against the wall. They seem to be really enjoying themselves and they get brought together by defying the police, who want them to shut down the concert.

The Beatles, augmented by Billy Preston, play the rooftop gig.

The rooftop concert is sort of the jewel in the crown of the documentary and the entire event is shown and this would be the first time for many to actually see and hear it. The inclusion on the recently released Let It Be boxed set was somehow tied up in Disney’s involvement with this documentary. But hopefully, someday, the documentary will get a physical release and more people will be able to hear the final performance for themselves.

While no one knew it at the time, this was the last time the four Beatles would appear live together and the fact that it is so well-documented is really a great thing. Given its legendary status, it would also be nice to have an option someday not to see/hear the interstitials and just the performance/music itself.

Let It Be ended with the rooftop, but Get Back continues as the band has one more day of recordings, where they complete a couple more songs for the album. The shooting must have also been shutting down as well, as there appear to only be clips that we watch over the closing credits.

Finally, our nearly eight hours with The Beatles is over. There were many really cool things about the documentary, the least of which is being a fly on the wall for so much of them in the studio. You get to see how they react to each other, how they work together on a song, and how they goof around and have fun.

That last part is also why the documentary is so long and why there are times you just want them to get on with it. As a viewer, you are well aware of the deadlines, but the group seems to be acting oblivious to them that it almost gets frustrating. You forget that they do pull it off, but you’re left wondering how they did it.

While this is a documentary, there are many things that are never explained, such as exactly what drove George to quit that day; or the discussion that had to have gone on the day of the concert. Those parts weren’t apparently filmed, so they get covered with a title card or two rather than any real explanation. You’d think after eight hours you might come away with knowledge you didn’t already have going in. That’s not to say I didn’t learn a bit here or there, but the bigger questions are not dealt with. Maybe that would have been contrary to the happier tone this film was supposed to be taking.

While Peter Jackson gets credit for pulling the documentary together, the real work was done in 1969 by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and his crew. Jackson basically just reassembled the footage in a linear fashion. He doesn’t add much and doesn’t explain what isn’t in the film. Where Lindsay-Hogg didn’t really utilize much from the Apple studio sessions in his final film, Jackson uses a lot of it, almost too much. Perhaps he was a little too in awe of what he had or of his own work to make cuts, but some that were probably warranted weren’t made.

What would be cool now for The Beatles to do would be to re-release the original Let It Be, which has issues of its own, for those die-hard fans to see again. The fact that they’ve held back on it for so long makes you think they have something to hide. But it’s really what people wanted to see in the first place.

The film does make you miss not only the band, but those in it who have passed, John Lennon and George Harrison. The world is a little darker without them and seeing them again as real people was fun for the most part.

While I enjoyed the documentary overall, I’m not sure a casual or new fan of the band would. If you’re a die-hard you will probably love Get Back, but even you may find yourself wanting them to get on with it from time to time. I don’t know how someone new to the band would feel about it, but there will be times when they might get bored and stop watching.

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