Saturday, December 4, 2021

Music Doc Watch: The Beatles - Get Back (2021)

Watched:  12/3/2021
Format:  Disney+
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2020's
Director:  uhhhh...

I have what I'd describe as a non-relationship with The Beatles.   

I can't remember a time I wasn't aware of the existence of The Beatles, and since middle-school, I could pick out one of their tunes playing on the radio or over Muzak - but at some point when I was getting into music, I think I found the enormity of The Beatles as cultural force daunting, and their discography too big for me to get my head around.  I also think I had a hard time - as a high schooler - reconciling the Ed Sullivan Beatles with the late-years Beatles.  It was just so much.

I do know that in 1984 my parents took me to the movie theater to see Give My Regards to Broad Street. (That was when I first heard Eleanor Rigby and my wee brain was blown).  But they, themselves, weren't huge Beatles fans.

By college I developed a respect for the band, getting what they'd done, but somehow never turned that into fandom.  And I didn't buy their stuff.  For one, Jamie came into our relationship with Beatles CDs.  And, arguably, there was no shortage of Beatles material, whether you were watching TV on a commercial (I think Nike got them first in the early 90's) or on the radio or trying on pants at Ross Dress For Less on the PA.  Why pay for something you can't escape?  

The only Beatles record I've ever spent my own money on is Revolver.  Because:  Revolver.  Since then I've enjoyed them via streaming services, but I'm the last guy you should ask about Beatles biographical information or timelines.  I can't say what songs are on what albums.  

But, mostly, I think of The Beatles in sort of abstract terms.  Though Paul and Ringo are alive and well, somehow they still feel more like icons than humans.  George Harrison I appreciated as a solo artist and Travelling Wilbury, but knew next to nothing about him.  And John is a series of static images and manic film clips that never get to reach middle-age.

A lot of ink is getting spilled about The Beatles: Get Back (2021), and rightfully so.  Even for an armchair enthusiast like myself - it's absolutely fascinating material.  This is the first real look I've had at the band as people.  And, at that, young men aware of their power and who seem vaguely aware that they may be experiencing a wave of enormous change.  

The doc rightfully contextualizes the trajectory of the band from John and Paul in The Quarrymen - really just some talented teens - and the eventual and massive rise of the band from its working class roots to global superstars.  To superstars with an industry built around them, and the requisite ex-wives, paparazzi, and players in the industry who want to ride their coattails to make a buck.  

When we see them enter the first recording space - and understand the complexity of what they're trying to do - write an album, record an album, put on a concert of the new album and allow cameras everywhere while they do it - it's insane.  No one should have approved the schedule.  But part of what's happened is that their manager has passed, suddenly.  And The Beatles are trying to manage it themselves - and clearly can't.  And those hangers-on who look like they might help... are making it worse, and mostly to satisfy their own ends.

Example: a hungry, young director in their ear coming up with expensive and logistically impossible ideas for the "live" concert that's planned (that seems impossibly far away for the band).   Everywhere from Iran to Brighton gets floated.

I think every musician you know who ever played in a band, any person who ever worked collaboratively to make something, knows what the film is showing.  And it's kind of re-assuring to see them all struggle just like anyone else (only you aren't producing Get Back out of your noodling, but otherwise, samesies).    

I guess some folks have found the doc has too much slack time between familiar Beatles jams and meaningful discussion.  But that's... kind of missing the point.  The doc tracks, without ever saying it, how important the process is.  The Beatles go from coming in eyeing one another with suspicion and trying to get to work and find it impossible, to playing favorites and screwing around.  It's the stuff that made them want to play music to begin with, and you can hear it in their selections of classic rock and roll.  It's what loosens them up and let them talk to each other again as a band.  

Of course the magic of the doc is first seeing all of the weight of being The Beatles tearing the band apart as dynamics have shifted.  But then - when they right themselves - the magic becomes what The Beatles were when they were at their best and got to do what they liked to do - hang out and come up with songs.  And, man, seeing Paul noodling on Let It Be as a concept but unfinished song is... crazy.  If it were in a biopic of The Beatles, it would be ridiculous.  We all know what that marble block will become when he chips away at it, but he's still deciding what it will be and it seems preposterous.  In the meantime you're left shouting in your head "come on!  The lyrics are obvious!  Everyone knows them!"  Except, they don't exist yet.

I don't want to put down one movie to elevate another - but.  Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody with it's toothless, polished version of events, meant to go down like grandpa's version of events to a beloved grandchild, captures nothing of the band's actual development of music, and it refuses to have any rough edges that might make anyone look bad.  But documentary captures what it captures, and the million human bits of the considerable runtime doesn't try to point out what a goof John is with some exemplary scenes - he just is.  In ways I really didn't anticipate, seeing him as the self-serious face of anti-war love-ins, which now read *very* differently after I've seen - the guy was hilarious.  It was the fawning media who put that aura on him.

The dynamics of the band as young adults who know each other and have been on this journey together is something I don't know if we've ever seen the like before .  For me, it strips away the idea of Beatles-as-Icons and replaces it with Beatles-as-People.  The dynamics are that of family as much as friends or co-workers.  They deeply know each other's nonsense, but aren't there to fight - they all seem to want for *something* good to happen.  But those dynamics on display are the lightning in a bottle that's on film.  

And while the 3 part, 8 hour run time seems like a lot - this is a singular experience (also, it came out of Peter Jackson's factory, so you're lucky it isn't 24 hours).  Those hangers-on and idea-people inadvertently led to filming for dozens of hours, and capturing the audio of far more (note: Alan Parsons seems to be the guy running audio tape.  Go figure.).  With no real time constraints in the Disney+ release, I'll buy that this cut of the footage shows much of who the band members were and what it was like - and you can still be in awe as you get to see songs that will last another 50 years or more created, and the painful act of creation within a group.

My understanding is that the original use of the footage, packaged as the 1971 film Let It Be - which is now very hard to find - was put out by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who can be heard complaining that he has no story to tell with the footage he has.  And as a young director who couldn't possibly have imagined releasing this as an 8-hour experience.  But I also have no doubt, the newer crew assembling this doc were pointedly a bit aghast at Lindsay-Hogg's insertion of himself against the film.  

This doc is also a reminder that Paul does deserve those accolades for his creation.  And I can't entirely fault him for wanting to control the world - he's got an idea of how he wants his songs, and he may have compositionally moved ahead of the band.  John's still great, but he's distracted and seems to just be relishing the time with his pals (and is maybe a little high a lot). If an album comes out of it - fine.  Ringo is the workhorse who is just there - dependable and reliable.  And George... is starting to realize he might be good, too.  And maybe the way The Beatles have worked and looked at each other won't ever give him a place to spread his wings.  

Look, I'm in full agreement with the folks online who are taking the moment to re-assess the assumed story that Yoko was a wedge and a problem between the four.  There's simply no reason to believe it from this footage.  John's terrible at confrontation, but she's not even talking - she's kind of hanging around and making her own art.  So.  Sorry, Yoko?  I guess that myth is debunked.  

And... man.  I remember seeing that Give My Regards to Broad Street movie and understanding that Paul played with Linda and tagged her as "cool as hell".  This doc does nothing to dismiss the notion.  

And, of course, realizing Billy Preston's contributions to Let It Be and how he's a surprising bit of glue for the band (you need a deciding vote) and it all leaves you wondering "what could have been?" had this album not been the final chapter.  Personally, I've had three separate people say to me about the doc when I acknowledged I'd started it, "wait til Billy Preston shows up."  And, indeed.  One wonders what might have happened had they played a series of shows with Preston as a deciding fifth vote in their squabbles.

Much is made of the finale rooftop footage, and it really is a delight.  And while you could certainly just watch that - it has so much more impact when it's the culmination of the prior 7 hours of film.  Throw in the shenanigans at the studio keeping the police at bay, and it's absolute gold.

Anyway - I didn't really know what to expect going in, but in the end, it was a deeply satisfying experience, even for someone who doesn't rate as a Beatles fanatic.  There's plenty more to discuss, but I'm sure you and your pals are doing so.  Or you're reading reviews online.  It's my hope that this doc does what seems impossible and that's get the attention of the younger audience who are happy to wear a t-shirt of a band they've never heard just because they liked the design at Target.  Some kid is going to see this and pick up a guitar, or drum stick or electric piano or put pen to paper hearing Beatles lyrics (and knowing they need to work, and work hard, to get them into the shape they imagine they could sound like).

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