NEW YORK (AP) — Peter Jackson's Beatles documentary “Get Back” runs for nearly eight hours and the only real criticism you can make is that it doesn't last longer. For dabblers and other newcomers, it's a prime introduction. For the Beatles fanatic, and we are a vast and obsessive community, every moment offers some kind of revelation or random pleasure, along with glimpses of what was to come and what might have been.
A few notes from one fanatic:
A MOMENT'S NOTICE
“Get Back” closely follows the band in January 1969 as it hurries to record an album and plan a concert for an intended television special, what became the 1970 album and documentary “Let it Be.” It's the most in-depth look we've ever had of the Beatles at a given moment, but should not be mistaken for more than a given moment. The Beatles were in transition in January 1969 as they had been all along. A documentary set six months earlier or six months later likely would have told a very different story. A documentary set two years earlier might have seemed like distant history. A documentary set two years later, when they were no longer together, would have been a retrospective.
THE YOKO FACTOR
Jackson's film sets a far brighter mood than “Let in Be,” which for the Beatles and the public alike has served as a grim finale. But the Beatles were undeniably in the early stages of breaking up. Their founder, John Lennon, had left his wife for Yoko Ono midway in 1968 and was openly losing interest in the group (Did Yoko, who sits silently through much of the recording sessions, break up the Beatles? Directly, no. But indirectly, yes. Beyond their talent, the magic of the Beatles was in their chemistry, in their total commitment to the music and to each other, a rich and intricate balance fatally upended once John's passions turned elsewhere.)
For partisans who like to choose between Lennon and Paul McCartney, this is a prime argument for McCartney, the maturing of "The Cute Beatle" and a master craftsman's surrender to deeper, even unwanted feelings. Shaken he may lose the band, and the songwriting partner, he loved above all else, McCartney responded with the bittersweet 1968 epic “Hey Jude” and with the somber “Let it Be,” “The Long and Winding Road” and other works he brought to the January sessions. While Lennon turns up with little new material, McCartney is so inspired he conjures the riff and title for “Get Back” in a matter of seconds. A song which he sketched out on film and ended up on the “Abbey Road” album may have best defined his thinking: “Carry That Weight.”
If George ("The Quiet Beatle") seems uncommonly grumpy at times, it isn't just out of frustration with getting his songs accepted, or with Paul's controlling manner. He had spent part of 1968 with Bob Dylan and the Band in Woodstock, New York, thriving on the kind of easy camaraderie that George rarely finds anymore with the Beatles. He will summon it during “Get Back” when he steps in to help Ringo Starr write “Octopus's Garden,” adding guitar parts and suggesting lyrics in a casual and understated manner, as if just one of countless favors exchanged over the years.
OUT OF THE PAST
Time is the film's unspoken theme. The Beatles were all 28 and under, but they seem unrecognizable from the fresh, cheerful “Mop Tops” of five years earlier. The whole project was a self-conscious effort to “get back,” and free themselves from their own legend. They chase an unreachable past, telling war stories, jamming on oldies such as “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Rip it Up." They resurrect an early, obscure Lennon-McCartney song, “One After 909,” and shout out an old Liverpool folk number, “Maggie Mae.” (Not to be confused with the Rod Stewart hit). But they are still “The Beatles.” John's wry closing words as they finished their fabled rooftop concert: “I hope we've passed the audition.”
INTO THE FUTURE
Part of the tension in watching “Get Back” is knowing what will come next.
“Get Back” was filmed soon after John had met the notorious music manager, Allen Klein, whose other clients included the Rolling Stones. The Beatles have been leaderless since Brian Epstein died suddenly in 1967, and Lennon is smitten with the profane (and unscrupulous) American, heartened that he seems to know his music better than Lennon himself does. By the spring of 1969, Klein will have signed up the Beatles, over McCartney’s well-founded objections, and help turn what might have been an amicable parting into a legal and verbal war that will blow the band apart in 1970. Watching Lennon rhapsodize over Klein, even as recording engineer Glyn Johns warns him that he found Klein to be strange and self-involved, is like watching a horror movie in which the hero prepares to open a creaky door. “Don't do it, John!”
The presence of keyboardist Billy Preston, who joins the Beatles on “Get Back” and other songs, and a conversation in the Abbey Road studio between John and George suggest another path. George wonders if he shouldn't release a solo record, and John, who already has made an album of experimental music with Yoko, sounds supportive. Neither suggest that the Beatles themselves should stop. For those who wanted the Beatles to stay together forever — or on the far side of ever — this may have been the way, with the Beatles no longer an all-consuming unit of four, but an open-ended community for group and side projects, joined by wives and friends and session players.
IN THE END
One of the film's final scenes finds the Beatles crowded together in the control room at Abbey Road, listening to their new music. They're not alone. Yoko is there, but so is Ringo's first wife, Maureen, head shaking happily in time to the beat, and Linda Eastman, two months away from marrying McCartney and joined by her young daughter from a previous relationship, Heather, whom McCartney banters and plays with as if he had been raising her all along. The Beatles and their lovers smile and laugh and clasp hands. It's a moment of joy before darker times, our heroes caught up in the music — a force stronger than all their differences, as it remains so now.
AP National Writer Hillel Italie has been ranting about the Beatles since childhood. His favorite Beatle is Jimmie Nicol.
Hillel Italie, The Associated Press