THB #37: The Beatles: Get Back

  
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It’s so complicated that it’s not that complicated. The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson and starring The Beatles is the greatest art process documentary I have ever experienced.

I spent 7 hours and 48 minutes watching 22 days of John, Paul, George, and Ringo work it out. The new and the old. The happy and the frustrated. The beginning of so many songs that so many of us remember like the date of our births, evolving from scraps into the so familiar.

It seems absurd to compare Get Back to Shoah, the epic Claude Lanzmann jewish holocaust documentary. But what makes Shoah the greatest of all holocaust docs is the simplicity and depth of people talking to one another. Like Jackson making decisions about Get Out, Lanzmann has the benefit of what anyone who has been taught about the jewish holocaust with any depth at all already has seen. No one is sitting through nearly 8 hours of a documentary without a real interest in the subject.

But The Beatles being The Beatles is only a part of what makes Get Back so wonderful. It’s being in the inner workings of making the music that astonishes. As an audience, we know the end result long before the people we are watching for hour after hour. Like The Lord of the Rings, we know that the hero’s journey will pay off. But like a Hitchcock movie, the filmmaking encourages, subtly, the audience to anticipate what might happen next, over and over and over again.

Maybe it would be less interesting for people who have been in professional bands. Maybe all of these families of musicians work through the process this way. Recalling Berlinger & Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the film was really about who these men were. Very different. This film is about the 15 iterations of Sweet Loretta Martin’s name… that journey…. that we all live in various ways through our lives and work, but don’t see commemorated on the screen.

Would anyone be remotely interested in how I write this column each day? How I process information and finally decide to sit down at the keyboard and compose? Probably not. I ain’t The Beatles. But as a journalist who has done, literally, thousands of long form interviews with filmmakers, that intimacy with the process is what I most desire. I want to offer my audience that insight, none of which is my own.

For instance… I can see and appreciate a performance. My engagement with that performance is filtered through my humanity, good and bad. My opinion may match, in certain ways, a percentage of the audience. That is the thing about being a critic and expressing it to an audience.

But taking a viewer into the process that got there, which most actors keep as hidden as possible, is to experience that performance in a wholly different way. In my work doing interviews, I am always too late to really capture that. I can discuss it with an artist. They can relay stories about it. But it’s kind of like when a close friend is going through something and they aren’t lying to you, but you know that their words don’t exactly match their feelings. You can hear it in their voice. You can see it in their eyes. You need to be there as they are experiencing it. Later, they can look back, with perspective, and tell you how they can now admit they were feeling. But it’s not the same.

My only regret about this film is that it ended up debuting on my TV and not in a movie theater… or at least, having both experiences available. Eight hours is a long time on a television. 75” screen… ATMOS sound… dark room… I still have a family and a bladder and a cell phone that is not silenced, etc. I actually ended up watching the film over the course of 2 days, on 2 different TVs in my home, broken up (basically) into 4 hour, 2 hour, 2 hour chunks.

But what is so engaging about the film is that it isn’t always engaging. It’s often like sitting in the room with the band. When they are engaged and when they disengage. Watching George become so passive as Paul controls the space while he (Paul) also complains about controlling the space, until George makes himself disappear. Ringo, being quiet most of the time… but being there more consistently than anyone else. Paul, the little brother, following the lead of John, the elder, with that kind of familial love in his eyes as John goofs around and Paul wants to be part of that. It’s the guys messing around the with speakers and other equipment. It’s Yoko and Linda, silent and not. It’s the absolute comfort that the band has that things will work out, when it seems impossible… and ultimately, the magical music we have loved for the 50 years since.

The focus of a movie theater would make this a greater experience. The size of the screen would make it life size (sometimes more than). And instead of being directed where to look by Peter Jackson and the existing footage and the edit, the audience could be observers to an even greater level. As the director, it is Jackson’s greatest power here that he chooses not force himself on the footage. He loved the footage into its best place. I would love to see the documentary of his journey with the footage… choices along the way.

Anyway… I pray that Jackson and Disney decide, at some point, to put this 8-hour experience into a movie theater for a few weeks at some point. I would be there in a second. And I think a lot of ticket buyers would, even for a $50 ticket (with soda included). Two meal breaks. An experience like no other.

I will surely dip into The Beatles: Get Back many times over the years to come. But it is the consumption of the whole meal that is really the most nourishing. Some films are about the journey. Some about the outcome. Peter Jackson has proven to be a master of giving us both, even if he is now a billionaire.

Until tomorrow…