Nashville Sees Familiar Inspiration In The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’
“It’s happening, isn’t it?”
Record producer George Martin says this to The Beatles almost two thirds of the way through Get Back, the eight-hour Peter Jackson documentary that arrived around Thanksgiving like a gigantic gift for the holiday down time. Martin, the man they called “the fifth Beatle,” brings a pleading uncertainty to his rhetorical question. He’s hoping in his soul, just as we viewers are by that point, that the Beatles are cohering, that tensions and slackening and that magic’s being made at last.
While Get Back does spend a lot of time patiently sitting through almost real-time band rehearsal, it’s actually a suspense movie. You’ll feel the momentum - and the questions - build during the second of its three parts. Even though we know that the album Let It Be gets written and recorded eventually, and that the famous London rooftop concert does happen, for most of our screen time with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, we’re hard pressed to understand how these young men, wildly famous and yearning to find out who they are as individuals, will come together, to coin a phrase. The answer, which unfolds before our eyes and ears, is a mixture of tenacity, hard work, relentless interpersonal negotiation, boyish goofing off and uncanny inspiration. Popping off the screen with shocking clarity and intimacy, Get Back offers us entrée to a sanctum we never thought we’d visit and a breathtaking, riveting experience.
Why do we root so hard for The Beatles, especially here in Nashville, the beating heart of country and bluegrass music? They’re widely regarded as the greatest rock/pop band of all time, yet among practitioners and devotees of roots and Americana, they’re also universal favorites, transcending time, space and genre. Nearly every conversation I had during the holiday break included a Get Back update. How far along are you? How far am I? What do you think? It was a beautiful obsession to close out a challenging year. And of course, one reason it resonates so deeply and widely in Music City is that Get Back is fundamentally about songwriting. I’m unaware of any other documentary where the conception and birth of legendary songs is depicted as thoroughly and sympathetically as it is here.
Star songwriter Matraca Berg recognized her own experience in the group creative process. “Some days are going to be really bad and really tedious and really exhausting,” she told me on Monday. “And some days, you get a little gift for doing all of that. And it gets easy for a minute, and then it gets hard again. Just the dynamic between band members. And they were just human. They were so human. And I think one reason people loved (Get Back) so much was that it kind of brought (The Beatles) down to earth a little bit.”
The title song of the documentary takes up much of part one, beginning as a simple, chugging chord played on the bass by McCartney. As he fumbles in the dark toward a melody, looping the idea over and over, little bits of the song we know stick to its bones. He incants nonsense words and syllables while trying to figure out what this thing’s about. George and Ringo just sit there listening, waiting even yawning. We’re reminded that there was a time when “Get Back” didn’t exist, and then it did, not through divine intervention but through a peculiar fusion of work and play, of freedom and discipline.
While the most screen time is dedicated to the shaping of “Get Back,” ultimately the last song on Let It Be, I was transfixed by the emergence of “Two Of Us,” which would be the album’s opening cut when it came out in 1970. It morphs from a proto electric rock idea to an acoustic Everly Brothers vibe. It’s Paul’s song, but John is right there, up close and zeroed in on its harmonic possibilities, while also sparking the rehearsals with surreal humor and funny voices. The bridge of “Two Of Us” is tricky and unusual, giving us a glimpse into the musical vocabulary these guys could tap into when in a flow state.
Berg is married to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band anchor Jeff Hannah, so she put him on the phone as well, and he talked about that band dynamic in Get Back, which he knows well from 50 years’ experience. “They all seemed to want to keep the ball rolling, in their different ways,” he said. “Sometimes it would be that sort of kinetic back and forth between Lennon and McCartney. They clearly had that brotherly bond. That was pretty remarkable. They're sort of finishing each other's sentences, whether they were telling a joke or working on a song. And Harrison’s patience and Ringo's patience by the way, knowing after years and years that this is this process. Don't interrupt it.”
Therein lies the tension and subtext of the film, which is the beginning of the end for the iconic band. Some of this footage was released in theaters in 1970 featuring the rooftop concert and a rather conflict-ridden edit of the rehearsals. It fueled a narrative that the Beatles hated one another and that Yoko Ono was a toxic force that contributed to the band’s breakup. Hanna, who saw that movie at the time, shared a common reaction that Get Back offers a more balanced, realistic picture of artists who loved each other and were capable of working together. But we can see that their group muscles have atrophied. Their prior release was Yellow Submarine, a relatively minor and spotty offering, while before that, 1968’s wildly eclectic White Album, had been produced without much group harmony. In Get Back, we can hear how each member’s esthetic is heading in a different, personal direction, Paul’s toward pop, Lennon’s toward the avant-garde, Harrison’s toward the spiritual rock that would soon inform All Things Must Pass. A centrifugal force works against them, but McCartney especially rallies this final chapter of collaborative brilliance.
Webb Wilder, the artist, rock and roll historian and WMOT host, says he saw a band that was slightly deflated but trying hard. “George Harrison's not angry, really, but he's kind of not wanting to do a lot of this stuff, and McCartney's still the cheerleader - always an entertainer he wants to go play live,” Wilder says. After a run of high concept albums and compositional extravagance, The Beatles seem to believe that a return to their rock and roll roots can be their glue, so they try to get the energy flowing by playing dozens of old covers and their own standards. Says Wilder, “I've experienced being in bands where you just kind of waste a lot of time, blowing off steam by just lurching into songs and playing them too fast and singing them in funny voices. You know, taking songs you've already recorded and making them into waltzes or jazz or something. They did that with some of their old songs.”
Their plan is sound enough to light a fire under the song “One After 909,” which had been sitting around in their repertoire unrecorded. It becomes the most ecstatically youthful song from the rooftop performance, one so good that it made the Let It Be album. Also kinetic is when the band invites their pal Billy Preston in to play keyboards. It bolsters the songwriting process as well as some great jams, and John talks ruminatively about possibly adding Preston as a fifth band member for future live performances - one of the great what-ifs of rock history.
Get Back, in case you’ve not gotten a full briefing, builds a story arc from 60 hours of film footage and more than 150 hours of audio tape recorded in January of 1969. The Beatles had more or less agreed to write an album under the gaze of film cameras for a TV special at the end. They don’t know where that should be or what the performance should look like. Today’s music industry would have dashed off a star-worthy plan in an afternoon, but everyone here is blazing trails in the pop culture wilderness. They start by setting up in a big blank soundstage at Twickenham Studios, and the result is bad sound and awkwardness, even if some songs do get started. Things go much better starting in episode two when the team decamps for their basement studio at Apple Records in downtown London. It’s tight but amenable to music-making and somehow to filmmaking. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg seems too young and smarmy for this major gig, but to his credit, he kept the cameras rolling as the Beatles and their support team discuss their options and their stresses. The 16 mm film was vividly restored by Peter Jackson’s workshop in New Zealand, and the audio is pristine. Jackson’s greatest trick may be the way he edits picture over revealing band dialogue that was captured in audio only. He’s able to suggest the emotional tone of the situations and enhance the illusion that we’re flies on the proverbial wall.
There’s so much to observe besides the band as well. The exteriors of London’s Westminster neighborhood and the interviews on the street with puzzled passers-by during the day of the rooftop concert are like a time machine. The Beatles’ entourage are a fascinating lot, including gentle and burly assistant and road manager Mal Evans, Linda Eastman before she becomes Linda McCartney, and the enigmatic Yoko Ono, who sits immediately next to John, as if she’s in the band, reading the paper or knitting. There’s a passage in which Paul relates having just seen home movies of the band’s 1968 retreat at an ashram in India, complete with the footage itself, in which he analyzes the band’s psychology and authenticity, and it’s jaw-dropping. The ploys to stall the cops who want to shut down the music blasting across London in part three are hilarious. We’ll be seeing new wrinkles and details and storylines in Get Back for years to come. The Beatles, and this interpretation of them, are worthy of eight hours, sixteen, twenty-four whatever you want.
“The Beatles are the gold standard. They're the Rolls Royce. It's really stupid to compare anybody else with them,” Wilder says. “My favorite artists and bands are those who have roots and go somewhere with them. I mean, there's a lot of credit you could give to their predecessors, but (The Beatles) really set us all free, if we choose to emulate their integrity and take the challenge you know? They couldn't be more critically acclaimed, couldn't be more successful, and couldn't be more enduring.”
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