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21 December 2021

Review of The New Beatles Documentary

My wife and I finally finished watching The Beatles documentary, Get Back, a couple days ago. It took us seven or so sittings to get through it. (Kids, amirite?!) Here are a few relatively disjointed thoughts.

The Music

I was struck by how much of the footage is just a bunch of blokes dicking around. It seemed unprofessional, especially given their deadline(s). I've played in more than six bands since I was a teenager, and none of them, no matter how unserious, had rehearsals--let alone recording sessions--that were as unstructured this. I reminded myself, though, just how important play is to creativity. All work and no play makes Homer something something. It really does all come together on the rooftop.

I've seen many online making note of how well The Beatles seem to anticipate each other as they jam. Without being condescending, it really just strikes me as what it is to be a musician and how it is to be in a band. It's not particular to The Beatles. When John plays a I chord followed by a IV chord, it's not magic that Paul and George know that the next chord is almost certainly the V. That's just a good guess based on the most basic of applied music theory. I understand that for the uninitiated this can seem remarkable, but if anything, it's surprising that they aren't even better than they are.

I had a preconceived notion about this, which I would have been happy to have been wrong about, but none of The Beatles are great musicians. (They were really lucky to have Preston, who is an amazing musician, sitting in.) I was shocked at George's lack of chops, in particular. He talked at one point about how Clapton and others play virtuosically and laments that he can't do it. To be clear, though, The Beatles weren't bad musicians. They, all four, are undeniably great songwriters with unique voices (metaphorically). 

To me, Paul is better at piano than bass. (Don't get me started on that awful muted Hofner bass tone! Ugh.) It was interesting to see John and George playing the Fender Bass VI. It's somewhat confusing why they wouldn't just play a traditional four-string, though.


At times, I found myself impatient, noting that I wouldn't watch this kind of boring shit for anyone. Why The Beatles? Most of us don't have the patience to watch paint dry--unless it were really interesting paint laid down for the Mona Lisa by da Vinci or something, which I think is what we see here. Peter Jackson is a great filmmaker, but I'm not sure if he did an awesome job with low quality stuff or a lackluster job by not having edited down much further.

The Constabulary

It was remarkable how passive the police were! Especially from the perspective of an American in 2021, the police response was just so subdued. We are so accustomed here today to seeing heavily armed and aggressive responses from law enforcement, this seemed almost comically understated. 

It's also worth noting that the main complaint from the responding constible was the disruption to local businesses, because, you know, capitalism always trumps art.

The Studio

It's incredible to see the advances in audio technology over the past fifty-some years. Most of the microphones were unrecognizable. There was a surprising lack of audio isolation between the instruments, amps, and vocals. Indeed, they were even relying on a PA system, which would be utterly unthinkable today! The norm, even if tracking live, would typically be to have each musician in his own space, either in an isolation booth or surrounded by gobos, and for each person to wear headphones for monitoring.

There is also a humorous moment when the legendary Glyn Johns recounts how he asked EMI for four monitor speakers for the control room, and they said, "Why? You only have two ears." They weren't wrong.

The Interpersonal

A lot is also made of how authoritative Paul is and how passive George and Ringo are. Indeed, George seems increasingly uncomfortable in that passivity to the point of temporarily quitting the group. Again, this is just the way bands work. It is a near-impossibility for bands to be completely egalitarian and equitable. Someone has to have an overarching vision and the boldness to impose it and others have to embrace a supporting role. Most bands, including The Beatles, break up because of disagreements about how to best differentiate creative tasks.

As a side note, Paul essentially admits in front of Linda that he'd choose The Beatles over her when he speculates that John would choose Yoko over them. Much has already been said about Yoko and her supposed role in The Beatles' breakup. Speculatively, it didn't always appear to me that Yoko's presence was voluntary, as if John was forcing her to be there.

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