Let’s begin by shooting down a few stereotypes. Paul isn’t as bossy as he was cracked up to be, John isn’t as cynical and George isn’t the quiet one. Only Ringo is true to form, matter-of-fact and consistently reliable. No one is rude to or about Yoko. More importantly, JPG&R love one another; whatever differences exist do not in any way fragment the unshakeable attachment they have for one another. They, and only they, know what it is like to be a Beatle, and this isn’t something they can easily forget, or take lightly, even if they wanted to. There’s an uncanny bond between the four that goes deeper than the music they create, which at times seems like magicians producing rabbits from a hat.
This is the overriding lesson from Get Back, the three-part Beatles documentary just released, assembled from the 60 hours of film originally edited down to make Let It Be, the group’s final, deeply unsatisfying, film from 1970. Now re-imagined as a seven-and-a-half-hour epic by director/producer Peter Jackson, it’s often spellbinding, occasionally amusing and rarely dull unless, of course, you’re not remotely interested in The Beatles.
Most of the footage, now enhanced in staggeringly wonderful colour and focus, sees JPG&R rehearsing songs that would appear on their Let It Be LP, firstly at Twickenham Sound Studios and later at their own Apple Studios beneath their HQ in Savile Row, where the action brightens up. In between routining these and other songs, some of which appear on Abbey Road, others on future solo records, they discuss the new album, the state of the group and whether or not to perform a concert at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, at an ancient amphitheatre in Libya, or on Primrose Hill in London. The decision to locate it on the roof of Apple is as sudden as it unexpected, and the final hour or so of the footage features this concert filmed in its entirety from many angles, the reaction of those who heard it on the street below and the arrival of the police who shut it down.
Aside from the principals, the films features Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the original director, who talks a lot, rather too much in my opinion; record producers George Martin and Glyn Johns; Beatles roadies Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall; Yoko, Maureen Starkey, and Linda Eastman, accompanied by her daughter Heather; and various cameramen and Beatle aides. Billy Preston arrives late in the day to help out on keyboards and music publisher Dick James, who looks like he’s from another planet, breezes in to announce that Vera Lynn has recorded ‘Yesterday’ and ‘The Fool On The Hill’, which pleases Paul. Peter Sellars, filming elsewhere on the Twickenham lot, makes a brief appearance but is confused by The Beatles’ in-jokes.
Paul gets the most camera time. Bushily bearded, he is smart, well-spoken and appears to be the man in charge, enthusing the others yet sympathetic to their own agendas. His best scene is about an hour into Part 1 when, watched by George and Ringo, he strums his violin bass as if it’s a regular guitar, forming chords with his fingers and setting a fast pace. He sings along to his chords, nonsense words at first, quite high pitched, as the other two watch intently. All three are seated and we’ve already established that John is late. Within a couple of minutes, we can recognise the framework of ‘Get Back’, albeit vaguely. Paul is evidently writing it on the spot and it takes shape remarkably quickly. He shakes his head as he plays, and some words come to him: “Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged.” George plays a bar chord on his Gibson Les Paul, A at the fifth fret, in time with Paul’s playing. He yawns. Paul stops “Musically it’s great,” says George as he picks out a note or two. Paul starts again. The tune is more focused now. Ringo begins to clap his hands in rhythm with Paul’s playing.
The only clue that Paul is not writing this song spontaneously comes when he sings about a man who thought he was a woman, and when he finishes this first verse John arrives, picks up his blonde Epiphone guitar from a chair, sits down and joins in, playing the barred A and adding a seventh. George switches to lead, a touch of funky wah-wah. Later, John will sing: “Sweet Loretta fart, she thought was a cleaner but she was a frying pan.” Paul doesn’t mind a bit.
John is witty and wise throughout, with Yoko an almost constant, though largely mute, presence by his side. John’s hair is long, parted in the centre and he often peers over his granny glasses like some learned professor addressing a student. He enjoys playing old rock’n’roll and random songs from The Beatles’ back catalogue, mostly self-depreciatingly, turning them inside out. The others occasionally join him in a spirit of unity, laughing along. He’s a better guitarist than most people might imagine, not just on rhythm at which he always excelled, but interjecting lead lines and clever fills. He’s less confident on a Fender six-string bass. At one point he extols the virtues of Allen Klein but is never angry, never scornful, never critical. His song ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, once a favourite of mine, is repeated rather too often. His humour always shines through. He’s a good soul, the spiritual heart of the group.
George, his thick Scouse accent undiluted through long exposure to the Home Counties, seems content with his lot, unfazed when ‘All Things Must Pass’ is rejected by the others, and when he briefly quits the group, famously telling the others he’ll “see you around the clubs”, it doesn’t seem like he’s too serious, especially as it’s Friday lunchtime, the day before the weekend when no rehearsals are scheduled anyway. Either way, he’s soon back on board, playing his Gibson Les Paul and Fender guitars, the brown Telecaster and brightly painted Strat. Amusingly, after George walks out Paul tells Maureen: “A7, D7 and G7. Get them off over the weekend and you’re in.”
Ringo, too, seems content with his lot, and doesn’t seem at all distressed when Paul tells him what to play, or how to play it. He’s simply great at picking up the beat on whatever song is being rehearsed, a workmanlike presence who simply does his job superbly without making a fuss. Though he’s featured less than the other three, he’s a calming influence, a beacon of common sense.
There are plenty of lovely moments, too many to list but here’s a sample: Paul at the piano singing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ while John adds bluesy guitar fills, and even singing ‘Gimme Some Truth’; John singing Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’; George introducing the group to ‘Something’ but explaining that he has yet to complete the opening line, “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like a… pomegranate”; Ringo singing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’; Paul, deftly mimicking a radio announcer, hilariously reading out a cheesy article from The Daily Sketch that speculates on The Beatles’ increasing ‘weirdness’; and six-year-old Heather’s screaming into a mike being compared to Yoko, much to everyone’s amusement.
There’s footage from India, and from various other episodes in The Beatles’ career, including a ten-minute opening sequence that rushes like an express train from John first meeting Paul at that fete in Liverpool to 1969 and where we are today. Finally, we arrive at the rooftop concert, presented here in glorious colour, with clever split-screen montages, a far better representation of what happened at lunchtime on January 30 that year than we've ever seen before. It’s a fitting climax to a wonderful seven-and-a-half-hours that raises the bar for all rock documentaries, just as The Beatles did with their music all those years ago.