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The Beatles get back their groove

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 06, 2021 5:00 am

It’s odd seeing the Fab Four again, young but adult, bearded and sometimes bleary-eyed, yet still capable of spontaneous laughter with one another. That’s the initial feeling when settling into Peter Jackson’s three-part, nearly eight-hour series, The Beatles: Get Back, on Disney+.

Then, the bad memories come flooding back: this was the public unraveling of a band first shown in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary Let It Be. We know how this ends.

Most recall the joyous rooftop concert at the end of that film, but have buried memories of the band, reluctant and uninspired, stuck inside Twickenham Studios to rehearse what was to be a live performance in two weeks.

The hardest bits of Get Back are watching the actual fibers of the band fraying, finally ripping apart when George walks out for lunch during one session and doesn’t come back.

The Beatles set up a crazy-stupid task for themselves: go into lockdown, whip up 14 new songs, and play them before an audience, even though they hadn’t done a concert performance in three years. (For those uninterested in endless footage of how the songwriting sausage gets made, Get Back may not be the film for you.)

No wonder they unraveled before the cameras. No wonder they broke up a year later.

The hardest bits of Get Back are watching the actual fibers of the band fraying, finally ripping apart when George walks out for lunch during one session and doesn’t come back.

The spark was likely Paul, who had assumed the “leadership” role of the band when Brian Epstein died in 1967, while John found himself more interested in his relationship with Yoko Ono.

These days, Macca has a tendency to revise history in his favor (as with the recent McCartney 3,2,1 documentary). Jackson’s film uncovers new layers.

There are unpleasant bits of Paul razzing Yoko (“Get in your bloody bag!”—a reference to her performance art piece “Bagism”).

Then there are moments when Paul seems determined to ”instruct” George how to play guitar, and George—being an adult with options—is no longer having it. It’s a little traumatizing, like overhearing your parents arguing from a front-row seat.

Then there are moments when Paul seems determined to ”instruct” George how to play guitar, and George—being an adult with options—is no longer having it. It’s a little traumatizing, like overhearing your parents arguing from a front-row seat

But it’s also… uplifting. Jackson has sifted through over 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio to reconstruct the story. (He vowed not to use any material previously shown in Let It Be.)

Over three segments, the long-lost footage offers unexpected joys—whether it’s Ringo breaking into tap dance as Paul plays some ragtime piano, or John and Yoko waltzing in the studio as George rehearses I, Me, Mine.

Jackson’s version reminds us that there was still a spark of zany, creative energy between the Beatles, when they weren’t aware of cameras or deadlines, when it was just them, goofing together.

They jam on countless oldies and oddities (Midnight Special, Blue Suede Shoes, the theme from The Third Man) as well as new numbers that would eventually turn up on “Abbey Road” and later solo albums.

With its cliffhanger structure, Get Back can’t help but resemble that other modern TV storytelling device: the reality series. The arc of Let It Be’s original 90 minutes is here spread across nearly eight hours, and it’s like watching an unfolding autopsy.

The level of intimacy is sometimes eerie, and it’s aided by technology: Jackson tells us that Lindsay-Hogg had his crew stash microphones and cameras around the studio in 1969 to capture “candid” conversations.

Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back resurrects what was once a sour chapter in the band's history and turns it into a hard-fought triumph.

Jackson went even further: using computers to isolate audio, even when the Beatles had tried to whisper or “cover up” private discussions by strumming electric guitars to create a wall of noise, Jackson’s computer algorithms slice through that noise, and we hear shockingly candid talk—say, of John and Paul discussing how to lure George back into the band.

This moment—when the Beatles, despite all their internal troubles, the bad blood, the bad times, begin to find a reason to play another day—well, it can’t help feeling like a metaphor for us as well.

In one harrowing scene, after George has left and John decides to take a day off himself, it’s just Ringo left in the studio, sitting with Paul, who murmurs, while a hidden camera lingers on his close-up: “And then there were two...”

Just a haunting shot of Paul, staring into the abyss of a Beatle-less future for a full 40 seconds, holding back a well of emotion. (It kind of foreshadows where we are now, with only these two Beatles left standing.)

The Beatles write and record songs that will appear on their final albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be.

After the George crisis is averted, another chapter opens with the move to Apple Studios and the arrival of Billy Preston: the cheery gospel keyboardist seems to reanimate the Beatles.

Suddenly, their new songs—Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, Dig a Pony, Let It Be, Two of Us—don’t sound so half-arsed; they sound like gems in progress. We see the Beatles start to believe in themselves again.

Part 3 puts us on that famous rooftop, where the Beatles realize they only have six songs ready to perform. (They compensate by repeating a couple numbers twice.)

Even if you’ve seen this concert footage already, Jackson turns it into a split-screen extravaganza, showing as many camera angles as possible, and laying out the whole spectacle in real time.

It can’t be denied: up there, with just a few people watching and the world listening, the Beatles are joyous, in the moment. #RockStars. It’s a triumph, after the movie’s earlier ennui.

In their plastic macs, fur coats and blazers against the biting cold of a Savile Row roof, they save the movie. Even as the local coppers prepare to shut the whole thing down.

This moment—when the Beatles, despite all their internal troubles, the bad blood, the bad times, begin to find a reason to play another day—well, it can’t help feeling like a metaphor for us as well.

They, too, were in lockdown, trapped inside a room (throughout, we see an actual calendar onscreen, ticking off the days until rehearsals are done) and it’s weirdly appropriate that Jackson’s documentary, which he labored over during the 2020 pandemic, comes out as the world’s COVID coma starts to lift and people are tentatively stumbling out into the sunlight again.

Of course, the kicker is that the rooftop concert was not the end of the story; it was actually the penultimate day of their lockdown. The Beatles had one more studio session left, the following day, to lay down three more songs for the planned album.

So the film shows them, as the credits roll, still in lockdown, still struggling to get it right, but wryly playing to the camera, their spirits now transformed.

What is it that makes us seek the tonic of the Beatles, so many decades later? It’s said their arrival in 1964 in America lifted the spirits of a nation after the assassination of JFK—as though the whole world could release a collective “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” against the gloom.

Look at a film like Yesterday, which posited the existential question: what if the Beatles had never existed? Well, some half-arsed British busker would probably have to reinvent them from scratch and take the credit, is the answer.

Perhaps the Beatles are different from every other medicine out there. They exist in a perpetual timeline of reevaluation that somehow only adds to their mythical status; it’s never been depleted or deconstructed.

Their half-life appeal outlasts any radioactive isotope, every second dose of vaccination; it outlasts tragedy and change; it outlasts their lives, and ours.

The Beatles: Get Back streams on Disney+.