Updated: Nov 29, 2021
“Come on now, back to the drudgery.”
—Paul McCartney, Get Back, Part 2
1. This is a lot.
People who aren’t that into the Beatles, whoever they might be, may venture into the almost eight hours of Peter Jackson’s three-part Disney+ series, Get Back, only to decide: It’s all too much.
Maybe they reach this point while the Beatles are trying, amid much joking and repetition, to nail down such songs as “Get Back,” “Two of Us” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” Maybe they get antsy while Paul and Ringo are sitting around with the filmmakers and sound people waiting for George to rejoin the band and for John to show up. Maybe they hit their limit when it dawns of them that studio work, even when recording songs that will stand up as classics a half century later, involves much tedium.
I understand this reaction.
But if you’re into the Beatles or interested in the creative process in general? Holy cow.
What we’re witnessing in Get Back is something we don’t get to witness: up-close views of artists creating timeless work. A lot of material is out there to give Beatles nerds such as myself the impression that we know how these sessions went. But it’s one thing to read accounts and to listen to official releases and bootlegs. It’s quite another to be in the room with them in what feels like real time.
If you actually could hang out in the studio with your favorite band, would you begrudge the repetitive parts? I think not.
Plus, we have the advantage of knowing things that people in the room do not. I know I wasn’t alone in watching Paul wrestle with a lyric from “Get Back” and willing him to land on “For some California grass.” We know he’ll get there. Yet he doesn’t know.
Likewise, when Paul is teaching the others “Let It Be,” they’re learning a song. They have no idea they’re learning “LET IT BE.”
2. I’d read about how Billy Preston gave the Beatles a lift when he joined the Get Back sessions, and we catch a glimpse of this in the movie Let It Be. But we really experience Preston’s impact here.
The band has boxed itself into a corner with its self-imposed no-overdubs rule. They’ve grown so used to fleshing out their songs with so many instruments and sounds that they’re struggling to cover all bases among the four of them. If Paul plays piano or acoustic guitar, who plays bass?
When Preston, who knew the Beatles back in their Hamburg days, pops into the studio to say hi, they enlist him to sit at the electric piano. Suddenly not only is the sound fuller, but Preston’s improvisations are injecting creative juice into the proceedings. The other four can’t be dour around him. They feed off his energy, and the sessions are transformed.
3. When John says he thinks Preston should become “the fifth Beatle,” he’s not joking. While Paul cherishes the notion of the Beatles as an us-against-the-world band of four, John rebels against any limitations he associates with the label Beatles. When Yoko caterwauls over John’s guitar playing and Paul’s frenzied drumming, John suggests putting the jam on the new album, just as he did with his and Yoko’s 8-minute sound collage, “Revolution 9,” on the “White Album.”
Adding Preston would have expanded the Beatles’ sound and diminished the iconography. It wasn’t going to happen any more than was George’s follow-up suggestion that they ask Bob Dylan to join as well. But the exchange reveals much about John’s mindset regarding the Beatles before the eventual divorce.
4. Despite their reputation for growing apart and not getting along by this point, Paul and John sure are civil with each other. The way they discuss their issues and conflicts is so delicate, each trying hard not to offend the other. The conversation captured by the microphone hidden in the flower pot (!) is really something, with John and Paul considering how to convince George to return, reflecting on their own troublesome egos, discussing who’s the Beatles’ true leader (each thinks it’s the other guy) and weighing the dynamic of Paul imposing his arrangement ideas on everyone else.
This band may be on the road to separation, but these are not the kind of blowups we typically associate with feuding bands. The real nastiness won’t come until the split becomes official.
5. Speaking of polite, Paul shows much self-awareness and sympathy as he discusses John’s relationship with Yoko. He’s determined not to get sidetracked by or resentful of John, his longtime creative partner, having Yoko at his side at all times.
John always goes overboard, Paul says. So it is with Yoko. Paul’s strategy is to ride this out as charmingly as possible, trying to engage Yoko even when she doesn’t respond.
After the breakup, John will accuse Paul and the others of hostility toward Yoko, but from what is shown here (which obviously isn't everything), Paul et al are remarkably patient and understanding of John bringing his girlfriend into their inner sanctum.
The climactic Part 3, here we come...
For my "Five takeaways from 'Get Back' Pt. 1," click here.