‘The Beatles: Get Back’ gently dissolves myths, strengthens new ones

In keeping with their status as a Western institution as vital as the International Monetary Fund, The Beatles that emerge in The Beatles: Get Back function as alternately soothing and obtrusive background noise, best played when packing corn casserole to take to a cousin’s for Thanksgiving. Rare was the moment when the almost eight hours of film produced a moment that enticed me to poke my head around the kitchen. But it did happen. Listening to the quartet stop and start and stop and start and stop and start songs that would transform into “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” and — heavens above — “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the non-musicians in the audience will marvel at the process by which musicians, first- and fifth-rate, tug and squeeze and pound chords and instrumental filigrees and melodic fragments into songs.

Fifty years and many hours of footage later, The Beatles: Get Back emerges as a document whose time has come and for which time will not relent. It is not like a Beatles song; that is, it is not a film edited with a discipline that borders on the sociopathic. But shapeless it isn’t. Its object hasn’t changed since a grotty-looking, bowdlerized cut emerged in 1970. Attempting to revitalize the quartet as a live presence, The Beatles and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg decamp to Twickenham Film Studios to create and rehearse songs for the sake of playing them live for a TV special. The rub: Ringo’s commitment to starring in The Magic Christian leaves them three weeks to remember why The White Album sessions were so grueling.

It’s a grim state of affairs. John, an obvious zombie at first thanks to heroin, with Yoko beside him as if to keep him from nodding off, has to be coaxed into participating. A bearded and dark-suited Paul, looking like the ancestor of a Silicon Valley tech bro, takes command. He must. The only challenger is George, emitting clouds of lanky dour impatience. He has not forgotten how Paul dismissed his suggestion to echo every verse in “Hey, Jude” with an answering guitar lick. Paul was of course right; it doesn’t matter. Chilled and angered by his partner’s somnolence, Paul finds himself in the unfamiliar position of having to take George’s musical ideas seriously. Melodies pour out of him and his mates don’t care. Meanwhile George endures perfunctory run-throughs of “All Things Must Pass” and “I Me Mine.” Ringo, those huge beautiful-sad eyes glimmering through unkempt bangs, remains as steady a presence as his drums. Rarely is he asked to change a part (one of Get Back‘s positive qualities is to reaffirm his greatness: once he locked in with the others, his parts were always right).

The Beatles: Get Back does scrap a few shibboleths. First, John and Paul did not hate each other. If anything, their rapport, as I argued in the last paragraph, freezes out Harrison; as Rob Sheffield points out, the infamous Paul-George hot war over a guitar part happened over “Two of Us,” a song that even then gained its resonance for limning the John-Paul relationship; anyone else without Ringo’s X-Men-level composure would’ve cramped with jealousy. Secondly, the Beatles played well, damn well, until the end. Third, Yoko Ono does not interfere, not once, except when, delighted to claim George’s chair after his temporary departure, she unleashes a series of paint-scraping screams that would get a full airing on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band in a couple years, to which the other three respond with an instrumental savagery that makes “Helter Skelter” sound like “Michelle.” Finally, the horrifying levels of cigarette smoking shown seemed to have had no effect on Paul and Ringo’s lifespans (George’s on the other hand).

The director is Peter Jackson, known best for staging J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth in a New Zealand of the mind. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Get Back share a few characteristics, the most obvious of which is that both films co-star a Gollum, and one of those Gollums is Paul. The other is an obsession with reaching a place of mortal danger. To reach Mount Doom for the purpose of destroying the Ring of Power means risking one’s own destruction. For the Beatles to finish the film means the real possibility of disbanding; the idea of disbandment hovers, like a MRI appointment, as a constant threat. Also, like Frodo and Mr. Sam eating moldy bread and the charred remains of bacon on the road to Mordor chuckling nervously and chit-chatting as if their ends weren’t foreordained, John and Paul run through their bottomless repertoire of Goon Show imitations: bad brogues, worse approximations of snooty West End businessmen, Southern accents, Black accents, they don’t stop. However well they accept The Beatles must end, their Mount Doom is a shifting destination, often a mirage. Are they rehearsing for a TV show and live performance? Are they rehearsing for a live performance? Are they recording an album?

The supporting cast is as rich as in an Altman picture, the most memorable of which is roadie and all-round minder Mal Evans. Thick, jovial, beaming at his boys through thick glasses, Evans is the guy for whom the word “avuncular” was created. He brings the toast and tea, has the lyric sheets typed, placates the cops during the rooftop concert, and proves terrific with the kids. Linda Eastman shows a charm and steel that even in 1969 showed why Paul would love her until her untimely death, perhaps forever; it’s nice how the other Beatles seem to genuinely like her too. Her daughter Heather’s adventures with kittens brings out John’s heretofore unknown rapport with kids. “Gonna make a kitten pie?” he teases (I thought of poor ignored Julian). Grinning ear to ear because he can’t keep rubbing his eyes at his good fortune, Billy Preston carves himself a place as their most essential sideman; his understated parts in “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Get Back” add color, texture. And he was, after all, a George suggestion: he remembered him from Ray Charles’ band (George was the band’s resident R&B expert; at one point he bring a stack of newly bought LP’s, the most prominent of which is a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles comp).

Glyn Johns emerges as the hands-on producer insofar as the Beatles weren’t already producing themselves: flexible not pliant, disciplined but no martinet. He rather has to be, for George Martin is a spectral presence, gone for most of the first of this three-part doc, as if he has checked out too (Abbey Road brought him back). He has a good bit late in the picture illustrating why his humor and the Beatles’ meshed. Interrupting a serious discussion, Ringo announces, “I just farted. I wanted everyone to know.” Martin, with the practice of an uncle addressing an infuriating and beloved nephew, says, “Thank you.”

Immersion in this documentary ensures a mind-meld between the audience and the foursome when it comes to Lindsay-Hogg. Although he would go on to direct a decent little known picture called The Object of Beauty (1991), I can’t think of one idea the others don’t find daft. Sample: “What about an orphanage? How does that grab you guys?” A rare moment of Paul-George hilarity happens early on when they share an eyeroll after a pompous Hoggism. If all I’d been doing was packing the corn casserole I’d have missed it.

Reading a tome like Black Lamb and Grey Falcon creates the sensation that these richly textured portraits of Zagreb and Sarajevo exist as occasions for Rebecca West to proffer observations on Tolstoy, Catholicism, and plum wine. Acts like New Order, James Brown, and Parquet Courts offer similar rides whose digressions are the point. The Beatles weren’t like that. They believed the pop song, forged from Tin Pan Alley and juke joints and R&B, had the economy to address a sliver of existence. They believed in it more than they believed in each other, or, rather, they stuck together through bad drugs and worse hair for a decade because their capacity to write and record pop songs had to outpace their tolerance for each other. It didn’t. How could it?

So, settle for those isolated pleasures. Of all the tunes George has written, the only one that inspires Paul to drop his sixtieth pass through “Get Back” or whatever is….”Old Brown Shoe.” I get it — I love “Old Brown Shoe.” Watching George play amateur piano while Paul sits on the drums is an unmitigated joy (I relish when guitarists switch instruments). Or during the okay-I-admit wonderful rooftop show when John forgets the words to the third verse of “Don’t Let Me Down” and Paul saves his ass by joining in the gobbledygook filler; John flashes his partner such a relieved, euphoric grin that I hope it warmed his frozen fingers. Or Ringo figuring out the melody to what will become “Octopus’ Garden.” Or George’s air strafe of a solo in the live version off “I’ve Got a Feeling.”

Inessential but never ponderous, The Beatles: Get Back gently dissolves some myths for the purpose of strengthening new ones: the quartet as mates until the end, the love they took equal to the love they made. It’s there when Paul realizes George’s departure isn’t a bluff. He looks close to tears. To observe that his anxiety has as much to with preserving The Beatles as an idea than a regret at how he’d pissed off, perhaps fatally, the schoolyard chum he’d introduced to John a lifetime ago sounds cynical. So be it. Cynicism and great pop art intersect in ways John, Paul, George, and Ringo could not — would not — acknowledge. It’s why Mick Jagger and Keith Richards don’t need the Beatles myth like millions of the rest of us.

GRADE: Seriously?

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