Is Paul McCartney a genius of stage and screen, a magical mystery manipulator of emotion or merely so vulnerable as to have such raw emotion captured on film?
That is my overriding question, having now watched the first two installments of Peter Jackson’s phenomenal documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” on Disney+. As of this writing, Catherine and I have yet to watch the final installment; we’re taking our time, savoring the scenes like, well, my older brothers pored over the original recordings and album covers.
No spoiler alerts are needed. The end is never in doubt; we know The Beatles went up on the roof of their Apple recording studio and played live for their final time together.
Like most good journeys, the beauty of this story is in its passage, not the destination. Through the marvels of artificial intelligence, judicious editing and mesmerizing footage shot at the time, we are gifted fly-on-the-wall status — we are never implored to bring a pack of ciggys or more pep pills for Ringo — as legendary music is created by legendary songwriters.
Early in the second installment, we are treated to an intimate private discussion between Paul and John, courtesy of a microphone planted in a flower centerpiece at a lunch table. Pass the salt and the dirt!
As a professional “creator,” I am struck in this movie by the scenes that capture the special moments of creation, like Paul McCartney sitting down at a keyboard and noodling out the melody to “Let it Be.”
The music is wholly formed and recognizable, but the words won’t come. At one point, Paul grasps for anything to sing to the melody, even when it’s that day’s local newspaper laying in front of him. “Read the Record Mirror,” he sings, “Let it Be.”
As Paul and John tinker on “Get Back,” there is a crystalline moment of creation as they try to flesh out Jo Jo. Paul mentions Tucson, Arizona — it reminds him of where his wife Linda studied. Lennon then fact-checks him, asking if Tucson is really in Arizona. ““Yeah, it is. Yeah,” McCartney says. “It’s where they make ‘High Chaparral,’” a popular TV western at the time.
It is like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and watching the Colorado River carve gorges beneath your feet.
There are two moments in Part 2 that jump off the TV screen for me. Early in the almost-three-hour-installment, Paul and Ringo are sitting around with several of the staff. George has quit the band and John is MIA and won’t pick up his phone.
Off-camera, someone says, “And then there were two…” The camera zooms in on Paul’s face, which can only be described as a cross between grief and panic as he contemplates the thought that the Beatles could be no more. He stares ahead into the void, absentmindedly chewing his thumb. Has it come to this, his mates ditching?
No, of course not. John eventually shows up, the three make up with George, they move into Apple’s recording studio and the next two hours of video fly by with a magical Billy Preston on keyboards injecting new life into the boys.
But still hanging over the hung-over bandmates is what to do about this live production that’s been promised? No stage, no idea seems grand enough. They’re The Beatles, for God’s sake.
As the studio racket goes on, a staffer leans into Paul, sotto voce, and begins gesturing. Again, the camera zooms in on Paul’s face, which is lighting up as though the melodies of every unwritten song ever come to him at once. If unheard, it’s clear what he’s being told: let’s take it to the roof. Whether managed or genuine, the moment is magical.
It’s like that throughout the whole documentary. The Beatles and their coterie are an odd lot. John is goofy. Yoko is enigmatically enjoined to John. George is all hurt feelings. Ringo is consistently inebriated. The staff are just trying to get a product out by the quirkiest, most brilliant team of creators ever.
“The Beatles: Get Back” is like watching Michelangelo arguing with his paint supplier in between brush strokes. Masterpieces don’t just descend from heaven on gossamer wings. They emerge from hard work, incidental brilliance, too many drinks, laugh-filled bull sessions and a healthy dusting of magic.