Eight Hours, A Lifetime: The Beatles’ Get Back

It’s long, that’s true. Almost eight hours, seven and forty-eight minutes of documentary to be precise. By comparison, taking their original track listings and run times, and not counting the Past Masters collections, it will take you eight hours, forty-four minutes and nine seconds to listen to The Beatles’ thirteen studio albums, and even that estimation’s on the generous side, counting as it does George Martin’s orchestrations on the second side of Yellow Submarine, or, for another example, the appearance of “All You Need Is Love” on both Submarine and the Magical Mystery Tour LP. With a little entirely reasonable finessing we might stand the documentary and their recorded body of work side by side, perfectly matched in duration.

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Of course, one is a refined and perfected art, the other the mere accumulation of time. One the most durable discography in popular music, the other a few weeks in the studio, plus a short concert. That, however, is Get Back‘s glory, its rarity and power when compared with the precision of finality. In the place of their discography, almost overwhelming in its song by song delights, we have instead astonishing patience, and a willingness to assume audience engagement (and, to be honest, love). They are loved, yes – loved then, loved now. Adored, revered, worshipped, rendered so inhuman and untouchable by multigenerational worship, and with such an incalculable effect upon all music that came after them, that seeing them clearly, and writing about them with a clinician’s balance, is impossible. So these are lover’s words, with a lover’s requisite lack of distance.

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In that mode, the one of gushing fandom, one could review the documentary by simply listing moments of astonishment and humour and tenderness it has uncovered and returned to us: Ringo watching Paul play piano, casually remaking he could listen to him for hours; the look of cheeky delight on Paul’s when the police finally arrive on the roof during the concert; George listening to Ringo’s crude piano sketch of “Octopus’ Garden,” and walking over immediately to help him find a bridge and build the song; John’s inability to let his stupid “And now your host for this evening” joke die, until it clearly delights him and him alone.

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If there’s one such moment that has been rightly celebrated, it’s this: on a charmless soundstage early one morning – Lennon late and Harrison still yawning, already short of time and feeling mounting pressure –McCartney, from the thinnest of air, pulls “Get Back”. It’s akin to a miracle, and is a testament to the documentary’s willingness to let time stand unhurried. One minute he’s bouncing between a few chords, humming something indistinct, until, minute by minute, like a lens being focused with agonizing slowness, something comes into view. The first inkling of melody, the right rhythm, the shape revealed.

Finding the right time to work, waiting for inspiration to strike. How is art created, what are its optimal conditions for birth? Listening to demos of a beloved band, and the faltering steps they make in the early hours and days of creation, it’s often hard to believe they arrived – how belatedly, after however many weeks or years of struggle – at the final object. It almost humbling to hear an artist we revere so lost, before remembering that they carried that fumbling sketch to completion, that its existence has turned us in appreciation to the earlier sketch.

Listening the series of demos of “Strawberry Fields Forever” on Anthology 2, arranged from genesis to completion – first Lennon’s scratchy guitar chords roughly recorded, then a spare piano and drums arrangement, before, endless layers and swirls of mellotron, cello and trumpet later, the magical wisp of a thing revealed – the song remains undimmed, yet some sense of its creation becomes comprehensible. McCartney’s creation of “Get Back” is even more primal and inexplicable, and somehow even grander due to its inauspicious surroundings.

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It’s a testament to the film’s catch-all quality and the duality of McCartney – inarguable genius, massive cornball – that on the same morning he writes “Get Back” he also has the band run through an early version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, almost inarguably the worst song attached to his name in the band’s catalogue. A film that was shorter and more interesting in mainlining hagiography to its audience would cut that, but it’s all here, pettiness and greatness, inertia and activity, beauty and plodding stupidity, like God creating angels and clouds, but also spiders and dysentery, in the same pre-lunch hour of productivity.

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The reconstruction and judicial assembly made by Peter Jackson and his team is extraordinary. With over sixty hours of footage and one hundred and fifty hours of audio, they have given us unhurried, observant time, and almost never cheated or lied. There are the occasional missteps – I could have done without the use of Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” over a montage showing his momentary departure form the band, which feels heavy-handed when so much else is patient observant – but for the most part the footage is allowed to speak without intrusion. So many great bands have so little footage of them that Jackson can luxuriate in his surfeit, where others have to lean on more tired and traditional spakfilla methods. I’m thinking in particular here of the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, which is almost fatally wounded by talking heads filling the space where footage would usually go.

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Every image in the film is so clear, every stolen conversation buried under noodling rehearsal playing so audible. They are so present to us, returned from the past. Fifty plus years of opinion, iconography, fandom, legend, obscurants each and every one of them, and all momentarily discarded. They are now, for eight hours at least, young men again, all under thirty still, just playing music; growing past each other but united for a year or two more before the final dissolution; young children at their feet, on to new partners or second wives.

There’s been some carping from archivists and experts on film restoration that the remaster might be too bright, the original 16mm print scrubbed too clean. It’s true that certain images I’ve seen shared since the film’s release make the band seem almost inhumanly smooth, but this is an era where screencaps and freezeframes betray film’s inherent motion. To put it another way: I didn’t notice it when it was on. Like Jackson’s colourisation of WW1 footage in They Shall Not Grow Old, the ambition to return a burdened and distant past to a present comprehension overwhelms technical carping.

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Throughout the film time moves in all directions. It’s simultaneously a hyperdetailed record of a few weeks of the band’s life in early 1969, and a document that points to both their earliest moments, and their life to come. In down time and lost moments, between official takes of new material, or when seeking inspiration, they’ll play the old rockabilly and RnB numbers from their Hamburg days, Jackson occasionally slipping in a photo to remind us, if we’d somehow forgotten, of how impossibly young they all were. At other times, scratching around for new material, we’ll hear skeletal versions of songs that wouldn’t be recorded until the band had broken up and the next phase of solo records had begun, some middling, others transcendent. Most unforgivably, George’s utterly gorgeous “All Things Must Pass”, sounding close to done, is listened to and immediately passed over by the band. At times the notion of the band is foremost, at others we can see them drift off into future solitude.

And then there’s the new music, the “return to basics” attitude of the project: no overdubs, just four (soon enough five) musicians in a room. Having moved from the isolation of the Twickenham soundstage to the comfortable environs of Apple, they enlist Billy Preston (the best smile in music history) and the songs comes to life. But even then, it’s revanchist rock – punchy, with fewer chords changes and a stronger, simpler backbeat than anything since their earliest records. The music, wanting to move forward, self-consciously gestures to the past.

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They lose track of time in the studio, can’t seem to remember their own triumphs. Thrilled with how “Get Back” has come together, and freshly energised to be back recording in Apple Studios, McCartney suggests releasing the song as soon as possible, as a new single announcing the forthcoming album. For a few seconds they struggle to remember what the last single they released was, before remembering, oh right, it was “Hey Jude”. You know, that song. Easy to forget recording and releasing that, obviously.

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The film’s narrative arc is one of fundamental joy, from the harried breakups and flagging inspiration of Part 1 to the revelatory performance and unity on display by the end of part 3. Early in the film, in that first week of doldrums and fractiousness, it seemed miraculous to me that this was the band that would rally one final time to create Abbey Road, a near-perfect record and arguably the greatest “on your own terms” exit in musical history. By the end it seems entirely possible.

Like a traditional horror movie, you know how it will end, and you’ll be dragged through all the uncertainty and darkness the genre demands. It’s inescapable Get Back will end on that rooftop – footage you’ve seen bits and pieces of your entire life, but never, I assure you, quite like this – but at several points in the film it seems impossible the band will get there in one piece. Even after they’ve been re-energized by Preston’s arrival, it still feels tentative – a day before the performance the setlist is still open to changes, and the rehearsals still sound full of dead spots, loose ends, uncertainty. But nothing can prepare you for how tight and joyous and purposeful the rooftop concert is, how much of a band they sound. As a narrative capper to seven hours of false starts and fear it’s overwhelming.

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I was born with The Beatles a distant memory – the year of my birth, 1979, is the year of The Clash’s “London Calling”: “Phoney Beatlemania / has bitten the dust”. Not so fast Joe. Like millions of other people it was a matter of pop culture inheritance and natural curiosity; an entirely unexceptional story. Throughout my teen years the past was kept on life support via releases like 1994’s Live at the BBC, and, most notably, 1995’s Anthology documentary series and boxset, which gave us “new” Beatles songs for the first time since 1970 and six discs worth or outtakes, demos and rarities. These were freshly sustaining and inspiring – a way for me to experience what I’d missed out in some way, even as Oasis offered their own curious echo of Beatlemania – but the past, naturally, had to deplete at some point. Efforts like 2006’s Love, a gauche if cheaply appealing remix disc based on a Cirque du Soleil show, suggested the well was truly dry.

Unlike Anthology and those other rearview glances, Get Back feels shockingly intimate and present. Not only might there never be a restoration as patient, detailed and artful as this ever again, but, put simply, we are now at a point where there is no fresh archive to discover. The Beatles in the studio were rigorously documented – no microphone test or broken guitar string went unrecorded. The movies, outtakes and home movies have been released, re-released and thoroughly mined. Inevitable, even in a present moment as besotted with nostalgia as ours, that we would run out of the past. But as one final shot to both remind us of their greatness and return them from a safe dusty spot on the shelf, the film serves a crucial purpose. It returns posters and records (or, let’s be honest, Spotify playlists) to human form.

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“If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

The final paragraph of Lester Bangs’ obituary for Elvis, and worth quoting in full, but one from which I dissent in only one crucial regard. I think we (whoever that might be at any given moment) can agree on The Beatles, in a way Bangs thought we might never agree on anything again. It’s as sappy and trite as a Wings ballad to say, but The Beatles remain one of the few things that can comfortably move across generations, and even momentarily unite them; one of the few artists who carry a weight and presence across continents, and seem now, suddenly, to move against time: to be returned to their own more fully than seems possible, while resonating in ours anew.

When I knew I would write something about the documentary, but before I had actually watched it, I scribbled down a glib self-exculpatory first line in readiness, to forgive myself if nothing struck me in later time:

If we accept nothing new can be said about The Beatles, one might proceed.

After Get Back, the records shine a little brighter, and the collective sense of the band seems deeper, stronger, more profound. Somehow, the new can still be said, or at the very least seen and heard.

Adam Rivett

2 thoughts on “Eight Hours, A Lifetime: The Beatles’ Get Back”

  1. Great piece Adam. Despite the vast length of Get Back, by the time it came to its fabulous conclusion, I couldn’t believe it had finished and felt somehow cheated. That’s how good it was. As George Martin says “you can feel the magic happening”.

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    1. That’s very kind howard, cheers for the comment. It’s true that after 8 hours the feeling is somehow of hunger, not fullness. A testament to both the inherent interest in the material and Jackson’s immersive sensibility, which demands – and rewards – patience.

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