Saturday, November 27, 2021

Documentary Review: "The Beatles: Get Back" (Walt Disney Pictures, Apple Corps, WingNut Films) by Tony Sokol

The Beatles: Get Back
Directed by Peter Jackson
Featuring: John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Billy Preston, George Martin
Presented by Walt Disney Pictures in association with Apple Corps and WingNut Films, 2021
Deadlines and breakup talk make for a gleefully stressed opening to “The Beatles: Get Back.” With no songs written and an undertone of fatigue, the Beatles documentary mini-series is filled with the excitement of new beginnings and possible catastrophe. Director Peter Jackson starts with a sad song and makes it better. After having fun performing “Hey Jude” in front of a much-too-close audience, the biggest band in the world decides to make a night of it, from scratch.
The Beatles hadn’t toured since Brian Epstein managed them. The band’s first project after his was the film “Magical Mystery Tour.” They did everything themselves and broke cinematic rules to do it. The film failed, at least to critics, but the accompanying music was among their most intricately produced. The “Get Back” project aimed to reverse this. After years off the road, they would perform all-new material live, no overdubs, for a TV project, and the music would go out, unadorned by overdubs, as an album.
Jackson presents this as a race-against-time. Apple Film’s Denis O’Dell has space in Twickenham film studio, where Ringo will film “The Magic Christian” with Peter Sellers, and everything’s got to be wrapped up quickly, so he can get his production started. The band comes into the project with a blank slate and a quick wit. Jackson’s aim is to capture everything. The writing, arranging, rehearsals, rearranging, re-rehearsing, rewriting, of an entire album. Excited? Jackson wouldn’t have it any other way. He is loving this, and it comes out in every frame.

The history segment captures the humor, excitement, and distress of touring. Beatlemania has never truly been generated by any other artist, and Jackson gleefully captures how unique it is without calling attention to it. His preamble is also very cognizant of how the band was growing as people and artists. He picks clips that show their eyes being opened on the road, and the world shutting them in. Fans or Ku Klux Klansmen, the band brought people out. Lines stretched a mile for tickets, and any glib remark at a press conference could trigger a record burning. Jackson finds a way to viscerally capture the divergent forces of being the biggest musical act on the planet while retaining individuality at all costs.
Each episode is broken down into chapters, which represent the working days to the live shows. As Day 1 opens, Lennon is alone in the huge space. The opening establishes the character of group unity and how it informs the Beatles’ process. When Day 2 opens, the mood is up, and we know things are going to happen. Paul is on piano and Ringo is dancing. George hates an ensemble he’s wearing in a fan magazine but likes the way Paul’s beard looks. Jackson’s pristine print captures both the consistent one-liners the band is known for, and their impeccable rockstar style. In Day 3, Jackson captures both the democratic all-or-nothing code of the quartet and the hard musical lesson of slicing something the band puts so much work into.
Day 4 is most notable for the introduction of the title song. “Get Back” begins with Paul playing the chords on the bass almost to himself. Day 5 is interesting because it lets us know George likes science fiction stories. He got the idea for “I Me Mine” when he heard a Viennese Waltz on a TV show called Out of the Unknown. Jackson makes the progression of the song fun, punctuating performance with exuberant flamenco dancing from John. He also includes a snippet of the waltz Lennon enjoys with Yoko Ono, which is featured in “Let It Be.” Jackson takes great pains to use footage not seen in that film.

Breakup is in the air throughout. Jackson uses it as a condiment, flavoring scenes, but never overdoing it. It is in the corner, a shadow that is only seen in a certain light. Early on, the band makes jokes about Jimmy Nichols, who replaced Ringo on a leg of their 1964 Tour. Later, we hear McCartney say they “talked about a divorce in the last meeting.” Lennon asks “but who’ll get the children?” During Day 7, George quits. We know this is going to happen from the history of the band, and all the clues Jackson lays out. What comes as a surprise is this does not conclude the episode. Jackson is too cunning a filmmaker to end on such an easy cliffhanger.
We could have been left with the big question mark: Is this the end of the Beatles? Tune in tomorrow while we break for tea. But he shows the remaining trio playing, letting the news sink in. We know this is a big thing, and we are emotionally engaged in what happens next. It actually comes as a surprise when it doesn’t end, because the audience needs to know right now what’s going to happen. Just run the end credits and start the next episode.
Lennon comes across as unconcerned, saying “If he leaves, he leaves, if he doesn’t come back, we get Clapton.” At one point it appears Lindsay-Hogg is going to have a go at the band, He even mentions he was an actor when he was young. Episode 1,” closes on a delicate version of “Isn’t It a Pity.” The band’s rendition is perfect, warts and all. The same can be said for Jackson’s opening installment. It hits all the right notes, occasionally flubs the timing, and leaves us wanting more.

Beginning in the aftermath of George Harrison’s departure, Episode 2 begins with a pensive tension and not much music. But once they plug in, the documentary takes off. Episode 1 presents a wild ride through the first stages of a major event and ends on a cliffhanger which is dropped so subtly it takes a while to hear the feedback. The day after learning the most songs the band has achieved in one day, George Harrison quits. Peter Jackson lets the note hang. Episode 2 opens by turning down the sound.
Visually, we see John, Paul, and Ringo as a trio for the first time, and envision them as a musical trio. It's Day 8 on the project calendar, and the film crew captures the band talking about what to do next. An off-camera “meeting went well, and then fell apart,” Ringo tells Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who is looking at the possibilities of real cinema verité. “If we’re hiding, we won’t get as good a documentary,” he says.
They don’t make an appearance, but the Rolling Stones are all over Episode 2. John is holding “Beggars Banquet” during a sequence or two but the film is happening at the same time Lindsay-Hogg is editing “The Rock and Roll Circus,” and he records Lennon’s introduction to the Stones’ performance section in the Apple studio. This becomes a running gag, as does a news report about George leaving a Paris nightclub with Ringo one night, and punching someone. It gets funnier as it goes along. Jackson makes a point of showing how stories about the Beatles have a life of their own. Not only does Harrison make that observation during the episode, but McCartney also uses it as a prose piece over a jam the other three are enjoying.
But that comes later. The documentary ends Day 8 with John leaving his favorite guitar as collateral to promise he will be back the next day. Paul does the same with his Hofner bass, which still has the song list of the last date he played taped to it.
Jackson finds slapstick in some of the most awkward of situations. The Hare Krishna devotees deliver flowers to George, who is not there to accept them because he’s left the band. Later, the props and set for “The Magic Christian” are wheeled onto the sound-stage, a caustically witty reminder that time is running out, along with a visit from its star, the comic genius Peter Sellars, who finds himself at a rare loss for words. But the set gives Jackson an excuse to show Ringo and Paul have a little nonmusical fun. They’ve been crawling the walls waiting, and decide to do it properly. Ringo hoists Paul up on a chain on the set and proclaims they should make a silent movie, which would be an interesting concept for a musical group to do.
George doesn’t return for quite a while, and when he does, he’s not pleased. Magic Alex, a madman inventor who looms in the band’s mythology, conjures an unusable recording console, forcing Glyn Johns to send an SOS to George Martin for EMI to send equipment to Apple’s studio on Savile Road.
This is the last time Jackson gives us a break, because, from this moment, the episode plugs in and turns up the knobs. Not only is George back, and facilities upgraded to the best-sounding room the band has played in, but they get a visit from Billy Preston, a friend from the Hamburg days who’d backed up Little Richard. This impromptu visit, which has always been told as being instigated by George, changes the mood to exhilarating. The Beatles, as individuals, have all said the first time Ringo sat in for Pete Best on drums, they could feel the magic. It doesn’t take but a few bars for Lennon to say Preston feels like “the fifth Beatle.”

The arc of “Get Back,” the song, comes to its conclusion like the guitar lead Lennon works out for it. It is recorded and set as the premiere single for the upcoming album, and the documentary being made about that album and the show which will bring the whole thing home, wherever that will be. Jackson captures the exact moment Lindsay-Hogg and Johns tell Paul the perfect venue. He goes through the roof. We know what’s coming. The full concert, the last time the band played together live in front of an audience. Before he gives us that, however, Jackson makes sure to remind the viewer, a lot of people thought the rooftop might collapse under all the weight of live equipment and a film crew. Cliffhanger? No, just a reminder.

The final installment shows group unity. Harrison fills in chord patterns for Ringo’s newest, “Octopus’ Garden,” John pushes George to finish “Something,” and McCartney wants to push them all off the roof. He and George aren’t really sold on the idea, and Billy Preston is just thrilled enough to be there to risk collapsing under the weight of his electric piano.

When the story kicks in, we are fully engaged, and nothing matters but hearing them make that music. The rest is just fun. Each episode changes the rhythm from the last installment, but you can still dance to it. We get more answers to what broke up the Beatles than 100 “Rolling Stone” magazine cover interviews. The importance of the death of Epstein is explained with a simple newspaper headline. Beatles fans know the history, and newer viewers will understand the impact, because it is told with sound, a very distinctive note. The Beatles are all about sound, and Jackson’s vision is to make even the audio visible. Jackson finds a clear story buried in the mix. He slows down the pace for necessary character study, and answers the question: How many Beatles does it take to keep the lights on? They didn’t actually break up after this. They went on to make “Abbey Road,” as a fitting goodbye. –Tony Sokol

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