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Getting Back to The Feeling

The Beatles performing on the rooftop of Apple's HQ
image credit: Disney

Like many of you, I know, I’ve spent more time than I imagined I would watching the new documentary series by Peter Jackson, The Beatles: Get Back. And I know I’m a little late to the party when it comes to offering my thoughts about it. I don’t want to repeat a lot of what’s already been said, but I do feel compelled to document a few observations.

First, how remarkable is it that so many of us are watching an eight-hour documentary made from film shot fifty years ago, about the making of a band’s last album? And would so many of us spend so much time, watching this kind of work, if it were about anyone else?

It’s interesting that, while we so associate The Beatles with the swinging sixties of London, there is really very little of that on display in the film, and none of the film’s appeal comes from giving us any kind of glimpse into the London scene: it’s just The Beatles, making music. That’s it.

And this leads me to my next observation: the pacing, and editing, and length, and composition of the final film goes completely against everything we have been led to believe we want and expect from modern video experiences – and yet so many of us sit down to watch it. It’s a sort of sleight of hand performed by director Peter Jackson: nothing up his sleeve, you see, none of the filmmaking tricks to which the industry and its audiences have become so addicted. Instead he offers us a radical transparency, a stubborn refusal to impose any of his own craft on our view of the artists who are the subject of his work. He simply lets us see The Beatles as they were, as if to say, well, if that’s not enough for you, then feel free to change the channel. And yet we watch.

Which leads me to my next observation: the incredible generosity on display here. First, the original willingness of The Beatles to let the cameras roll while they work, while they play, while they live their lives in front of us. Of course, we’ve all gotten used to reality TV in the years since, but this is nothing like that: there is no contrived drama, no artificial urgency to come up with something to keep the viewers watching, no desperate need to keep the audience entertained: it feels a bit like home movies from the old days, with ordinary people just being themselves, occasionally showing an awareness of the camera, but without any sense that they need to maintain any kind of image. And then there is the generosity of the original filmmakers, to record so much film that had no obvious entertainment value, just because – well, I mean, it’s The Beatles. And then the generosity of current filmmakers, to share so much of this footage with us, and to spend so much time and effort preparing it for our viewing.

And the generosity of The Beatles leads me to my next observation, which is how little their lives resemble anything like that of stars. I mean, we’ve become so used to modern musicians and actors and media figures parading their lives in front of us, acting out what we’ve come to think of as the lifestyles of the rich and famous, that it’s absolutely bracing to see the lack of glamour on display here. I mean, these were The Beatles, at the height of their popularity, being filmed at recording sessions, and there is nothing here resembling catering, for God’s sake: they were all happy to get a bit of tea and toast. And so you eventually realize, as they continue plugging away at their latest songs, that despite the dazzling success of the finished products, the process of making these hits was not in any way elevated above the work that the rest of us do. They got up in the morning, they went to the office, the greeted their teammates, they took off their jackets, and they went to work, and tried to get a bit done that day.

And, of course, it’s fascinating to see how these songs gradually evolved. I imagine that it was a bit different earlier in their careers but, at this point, it was mainly John or Paul coming up with some sort of very basic idea, or fragment, and then just gradually building onto it until they had something – or perhaps didn’t.

In particular, it’s fascinating to see the evolution of the song “Get Back.” It seemed to start with the cries of English nativists telling immigrants from the colonies – people of color, mostly – to get back to the countries of their origin. But this was no protest song. Paul and the others seemed to have little interest in the associated social or political issues. It was just a phrase. And then, as the song evolved, the locale moved from the British landscape around them to the American southwest. And the characters changed to seemingly represent Americans seeking to leave behind their roots to get something they didn’t have but thought they wanted. It was all a bit vague, you know? But then through the usual Beatles alchemy, words and voices and drums and guitars and other instruments were mixed together until they became something timeless, something driving, something urgent, something that, by now, feels like it could only ever have existed in its final, somehow perfect, form.

For me, though, the major revelation concerned the song, “I’ve Got A Feeling.” I had never thought of this before as a major work from The Beatles, but the depth of emotion displayed for the song by Paul in the film, and the newly remixed version, caused me to give it fresh consideration. It’s certainly put together from bits and pieces, but the ways they mesh together really does evoke a feeling that transcends the words and music.

In particular, my attention was drawn to the following lines from Paul, which are screamed more than sung, and appear right in the middle of the song:

All these years I’ve been wandering around,
Wondering how come nobody told me,
All that I was looking for was somebody
Who looked like you.

I mean, what is this? A sort of bridge? But there’s no real rhythm to it, no rhyme, no traditional poetic devices. And the sentence seems intentionally drawn out beyond normal expectations, as if to make us wonder when the singer will actually get to the end.

But then the whole song, and its delivery, seem designed to convey some strong feelings, in almost a gospel-derived rough rhythm & blues style, without ever really giving us any definite idea of what those feelings are, or who they’re for.

And so, especially in this context, it feels like a bit of an epitaph for the band – yes, we were a few lads with feelings, feelings we were driven to express through timeless music; strong and varied feelings, but feelings first and foremost for each other; and even though we all have a shared sense that our time together may be coming to an end, we’re still on our toes, still working together, not yet late for the train, still making music that people will want to listen to; so yes, this song was written in a particular time and place, with things going up and down around us, and it’s all important in some way… but remember that, throughout it all, we had this feeling that kept us going longer than anyone had any right to expect.

And then, of course, hiding in plain sight within the film, are all the elements that would soon pull these four musicians apart. George with his growing vault of Harrisongs that he wants to record. John with this sense that there are more serious, more explicit, sorts of songs waiting to be written – songs like “Imagine” and “Working Class Hero” – that really wouldn’t mix well with the silly love songs and touching but vague concoctions that Paul tends to contrive. And then there’s ever patient Ringo, always available when needed, but clearly bored out of his mind by all of these endless hours and days in the studio, waiting for Paul and John to slowly complete a new composition that would need his drum accompaniment.

And so, before long, they all moved on, and were right to do so, having done everything at least once that they could reasonably do together, and ready to do new things that they could only do with others.

But still, the time they had together, the time they shared so generously with us, will be remembered, I trust, so long as there are humans with hearts and minds and ears.

And this remarkable new glimpse into who they were will serve as a keepsake, ready to call them back to mind whenever we need to look back on those impossible, golden days when there were four lads from Liverpool known to all the world as The Beatles.

February 18, 2022