People are still turning out appreciative, insightful essays about Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” (2021) 8-hour-long documentary of the Beatles’ 1970 composing sessions leading to a rooftop performance.
Ian Leslie’s substack essay is long, excellent, and definitely worth the read.
There’s a truism in sport that what makes a champion is not the level they play at when they’re in top form but how well they play when they’re not in form. When we meet The Beatles in Get Back, they’re clearly in a dip, and that’s what makes their response to it so impressive. Even the best songs they bring in are not necessarily very good to begin with. Don’t Let Me Down is not up to much at Twickenham. George calls it corny, and he isn’t wrong. But John has a vision of a song that eschews irony and sophistication and lunges straight for your heart, and he achieves it, with a little help from his friends. They keep running at the song, shaping it and honing it, and by the time they get to the roof it is majestic.
The already classic scene in which Paul wrenches the song Get Back out of himself shows us, not just a moment of inspiration, but how the group pick up on what is not an obviously promising fragment and begin the process of turning it into a song. In the days to follow, they keep going at it, day after day, run-through after run-through, chipping away, laboriously sculpting the song into something that seems, in its final form, perfectly effortless. As viewers, we get bored of seeing them rehearse it and we see only some of it: on January 23rd alone they ran it through 43 times. The Beatles don’t know, during this long process, what we know – that they’re creating a song that millions of people will sing and move to for decades to come. For all they know, it might be Shit Takes all the way down. But they keep going, changing the lyrics, making small decision after small decision – when the chorus comes in, where to put the guitar solos, when to syncopate the beat, how to play the intro – in the blind faith that somewhere, hundreds of decisions down the line, a Beatles song worthy of the name will emerge.
A good song or album – or novel or painting – seems authoritative and inevitable, as if it just had to be that way, but it rarely feels like that to the people making it. Art involves a kind of conjuring trick in which the artist conceals her false starts, her procrastination, her self-doubts, her confusion, behind the finished article. The Beatles did so well at effacing their efforts that we are suspicious they actually had to make any, which is why the words “magic” and “genius” get used so much around them. A work of genius inspires awe in a lesser artist, but it’s not necessarily inspiring. In Get Back, we are allowed into The Beatles’ process. We see the mess; we live the boredom. We watch them struggle, and somehow it doesn’t diminish the magic at all. In a sense, Paul has finally got his wish: Let It Be is not just an album anymore. Joined up with Get Back, it is an exploration of the artistic journey – that long and winding road. It is about how hard it is to create something from nothing, and why we do it, despite everything.
HT: Karen L. Myers.