Hot takes are boring, so forgive me for serving up this sizzling fajita plate of an edict, but the Beatles are overrated. It’s our fault, not theirs. This band made profoundly beautiful music, and as a society and a species, we have a very hard time saying goodbye to the things we love. So to make things easier on everybody, our current pop culture leans toward rejecting the idea of finality altogether. No Hollywood franchise shall go un-rebooted, no vintage Beatles footage shall go unseen. Rich people get richer, our imaginations get poorer and nothing is allowed to end.
Which is why so many people chose to spend nearly eight hours of their wild and precious lives watching “The Beatles: Get Back” over the recent holiday weekend, a three-part documentary series on Disney Plus directed by Peter Jackson in which the Beatles literally come quite close to fulfilling the consensus expectation that they be everything to everyone. “Get Back” is interesting, irritating, sweet, stultifying, illuminating, punishing, satisfying, totally life-sucking, ultimately unnecessary and still pretty cool.
The footage — 60 hours of film originally shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg that Jackson has edited down to eight — was gathered back in January 1969 as the Beatles aimed to write and record a new album in a tight two weeks, then unveil it in a grand televised concert that was eventually downsized to a nontelevised romp on a London rooftop that would famously end up being their last public performance. Throughout the 22-day process, various deadlines get blown, but the songs eventually get written, and with the refreshing presence of guest keyboardist Billy Preston, the Beatles find a way to run out of gas with smiles on their faces. Countless bands have marked their respective declines in tears, fists or worse. It’s nice to have proof that the Beatles didn’t go out like that.
This much proof, though? “Get Back” offers hours upon hours of rehearsal footage and all the rudderless noodling, joking, bickering, dithering and guitar tuning that goes with it — but try not to zone out because, look, they just figured out how to play “Don’t Let Me Down.” Enduring this whole thing is not unlike hearing some of the greatest songs ever written come together on the sales floor of a Guitar Center. “Maybe we’ll go on rehearsing forever,” says George Harrison, 252 minutes into the proceedings. “Back to the drudgery,” says Paul McCartney at the 318-minute mark. John Lennon is prone to yawning, and shouting, and singing in silly voices when he’s bored, while Ringo Starr, as patient and economical in conversation as he is on the drums, is never seen complaining.
Unless Jackson believes that nearly every single thing the Beatles ever did is worth seeing (and he might), the tacit suggestion here is that crisp, beautiful things must emerge from sloppy tedium. Or maybe it’s that serious art can — and should? — be goofballed into existence. Either way, collaborative creation required patience, good humor and a sort of disciplined openness for these Beatles.
Much fuss has already been made online over an early scene in which McCartney appears to stretch his mind open and snatch the song “Get Back” out of thin air, even though he’s long described his songwriting process as an outside frequency he’s suddenly able to tap into. And yes, it’s exciting to see the tune materialize beneath his fingertips so quickly, but are people really that surprised to learn that pop songs aren’t written at big oak desks with quill pens over snifters of cognac? Like life, songs just happen.
It’s a shame Jackson doesn’t trust us to pick up on the potency of that moment. As McCartney begins hashing out “Get Back” on his bass, yellow letters appear on screen: “What is about to emerge will become the Beatles’ next single.” Oooh. There are other tiny drabs of reality television pseudo-drama, too. Harrison quits the band for a few days at the end of Act 1, but returns early in Act 2. Tangentially, a chat between Lennon and McCartney, recorded by a microphone hidden in a flowerpot, captures McCartney envisioning the band’s distant future: “Probably, when we’re all very old, we’ll all agree with each other, and I think we’ll all sing together.”
Which brings us back to those fajitas, now silent and room-temperature. When McCartney foresees his bandmates “very old,” we need not mourn the 21st-century Beatles reunion album that nobody gets to hear. The music these four managed to record between 1962 and 1970 is enough to sustain a lifetime of enjoyment, easy. But there’s also an entire world of new music being made at this very moment, and it’s already passing us by. Yes, we have to make room for the past and the present to coexist in our listening lives — but if we’re more excited about spending eight hours fly-on-the-walling with the Beatles than opening our ears to what this world currently sounds like, imagine what we’ll be grieving another 50 years from now.
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