Films set in recording studios are a drag, but let's make an exception for the Fab Four
There has been enough written about The Beatles since their split in 1970 to fill an entire floor of the British Library. Weighty tomes by Philip Norman and Hunter Davies, testimonies by the ‘insiders’ and hangers on as well as recent surprises such as Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four have all helped to build on the mythology of this group that refuse to go quietly.
None of these, nor indeed any subsequent documentary film, screenplay, musical or Beatles tribute act, give the fan a true impression of what it’s like to be up close and personal with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Now the wait is over thanks to The Beatles: Get Back, the new mini-series now showing on Disney+. It’s an authentic fly-on-the wall insight into the personalities behind the music, courtesy of Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having already done Hobbits and war heroes, he trains his eagle eyes on another of our national obsessions.
Much like his World War One documentary feature They Shall Not Grow Old, Get Back is another technical marvel and a true labour of love, taking Jackson four years to edit over 57 hours of film footage that never made the cut in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s rather melancholic 1970 release Let It Be. For those of us who discovered the group after they called it a day, the fully restored footage twinned with a revised narrative that implies that things between the band weren’t as bad as we first thought, allows us to observe The Beatles with fresh eyes and ears.
That, along with the intimate setting of Twickenham and Abbey Road recording studios and the amazing high-definition colour images we see on screen, gives us a slight shock at first; a bit like an old school friend turning up unannounced on our doorstep. Soon, however, we are revelling in the banishment of previous Beatles break up clichés – egotistical John, difficult Yoko, grumpy George etc – and simply enjoying the group dynamic as the four Liverpool lads do their best to meet the deadline for the new album and launch concert in the space of just three short weeks.
Films set in recording studios aren’t normally that gripping but let’s make an exception for the Fab Four, shall we? You’ll see a lot of tape reels spinning, lots of appreciative nodding around the mixing desk and the occasional glimpse of George Martin, debonair in Savile Row bespoke tapping his fingers along to the beat.
You also get an insight into the often laborious art of song writing; we witness how songs are crafted organically, not on a computer screen, and accompanied by endless cups of tea, clouds of cigarette smoke, a few laughs, proper shouty arguments and a good deal of creative risk taking.
Their superb musicianship and shared personal and musical empathy is evident too. John turns out not to be the rubbish guitar player that critics say he was, and everyone seems to be reasonably proficient on the drum kit. Cue John’s alleged quip: “Ringo wasn’t the best drummer in the world…he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles.”
For the fan, it seems almost too indulgent to witness at close quarters the uncomplicated can-do spirit of Paul, the affable doziness of Ringo, the sensitivity of George and John’s legendary dry humour. “Say whatever comes into your head…‘attracts me like a cauliflower’ until you get the word,” he tells George when asked for a missing lyric to Something.
The fifth Beatle on this occasion is the keyboard player Billy Preston who plays the funky electric piano solo on Get Back. George is said to have brought the American to the studio after seeing him play a show with Ray Charles. Good thinking George.
The time and place being London in early 1969, you’ll notice the boys’ evolution from mop tops to bearded sages – remember they’re all still in their twenties. The hairstyles and the fashions on show are worth a documentary of their own. The groovy, kaleidoscopic Kings Road clobber modelled by the band and their girlfriends contrasts sharply with the drab post-war class specific uniforms that everybody else seems stuck with. The secretaries and the security staff huddled on that famous Savile Row rooftop look as if ‘the greatest decade in the history of mankind’ has completely passed them by!
It is remarkable also how the revived film stock manages to reimagine the role of Yoko, here a benign, supporting presence, but often cast as the catalyst for the band’s break up, largely by male music writers over the years. Knitwear-loving Paul, whose soon-to-be wife Linda, is also part of the Abbey Road crowd, offers a telling insight on the Japanese artist’s influence: “It’s going to be such a comical thing, like in 50 year’s time: ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp!’.”
We all know the official Beatles story – working-class lads schooled in the hard knocks of Liverpool and Hamburg, polished by Epstein, changed the face of pop culture, burnt themselves out, took drugs, got religion, squabbled about money, split up. Thanks to Get Back, we now have the happy ending we always wanted.
And in the end, we are the lucky ones. The Beatles are us and they are ours. Let it be.
The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+ from 25 November