There’s a remarkable moment part-way through the first episode of Peter Jackson’s new documentary The Beatles: Get Back. Like much of the footage included in the roughly eight-hour-long series, it is remarkable precisely because of how unremarkable it is. Paul McCartney sits, thrashing at his guitar, mumbling a tune. Within about a minute, that tune becomes “Get Back”, plucked from nothingness like a rabbit from a hat.
There are an abundance of similarly mesmerizing moments throughout the doc, which was assembled from 60 hours of footage originally captured by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the 1970 documentary Let It Be. The series follows the Fab Four during the “Get Back” sessions of January 1969, leading to the Beatles’ famous rooftop performance before the releases of Abbey Road and Let it Be. On one level, the documentary serves as a corrective for popular myths about the sessions, which were thought by many to be fraught and fractious, directly precipitating the band’s break-up. Instead, the picture Get Back paints is of the band as four fallible but convivial professionals. They muck around, crack jokes, play goofy cover versions. There were, of course, certain tensions – laid bare when George Harrison temporarily quits the band part way through – but nothing that suggested a full dissolution was imminent. You get a real sense of their camaraderie and their musicianship here, occasionally – as in the aforementioned “Get Back” sequence – getting to see what can only be described as genuine musical inspiration.
And yet: for some people, this is not enough. In the days after the documentary was released, as Beatles fans were waxing lyrical about the heaven-sent trove of unseen footage, the haters came bounding from the woodwork. The short clips of McCartney strumming away at his guitar proved too much to bear. Hundreds, if not thousands, of sceptics weighed in on social media, loudly insisting that the immaculate conception of “Get Back” was anything but. “This is just how songwriting works,” was a common refrain. “I don’t understand what’s so remarkable about it,” wrote one person. Others even suggested that they could conjure something equally good themselves – it’s just two or three chords, after all. The whole thing is as predictable as it is profoundly wrong-headed. The Beatles have become a lightning rod for the basest form of contrarianism, and it’s quietly, but deeply, infuriating.
It doesn’t matter if you like the Beatles. It doesn’t matter if anyone likes the Beatles anymore. They are like Henry VIII or the First World War: they are part of history, and they happened with such a force and radius of effect that there is no pretending otherwise. This is part of the problem: the band’s undeniable and seminal influence on music and our culture has made them into an easy and enormous target. The current flavour of Beatles-bashing contrarianism would seem, on the surface, like an inevitable kneejerk response to the band who are still often described as the “best ever”. Everyone wants a pop at the champ.
But there’s more to it than that. The Beatles aren’t just part of history. When we listen to “A Day in the Life” or “Here Comes the Sun” in the year 2021, Beatles fans aren’t thinking “Oh, what an interesting piece of musical history.” They’re thinking: “What a banger.” The fact that their music can transcend 50 years and be heard and enjoyed on its own terms is part of its magic – but this disconnect, between The Beatles as history and The Beatles as music is one that clearly confounds people.
It should perhaps be noted that “Get Back” is far from one of the Beatles’ best songs. Had we seen Paul sit down and knit “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude” from the lint in his pockets, maybe there would have been fewer dissenters. But it’s equally wrong to suggest that “Get Back” is some kind of rote ditty. Melodically, harmonically and rhythmically, it’s still got interesting stuff going on. And on the basest, simple level: it sounds pretty good. After 50 years, that’s nothing to scoff at.
As for the claim that “that’s how songwriting works”… Well, maybe that’s true, at the very top end of the talent spectrum. But the point is that this kind of breakthrough is so rarely captured on film. I’m sure it would have been just as awe-inspiring watching Cole Porter pick his way through a new composition, or Townes Van Zandt play “If I Needed You” for the first time after it supposedly came to him in a dream. But there weren’t cameras there. That is what’s so miraculous about the moment in Get Back – not the songwriting itself, but that we are somehow able to witness it.
Ultimately, the nay-sayers have completely missed the point of the documentary. The idea was not to deify McCartney and the others; it was to humanise them. The conception of “Get Back” is so impressive to watch because of its very mundanity. And the doubters ought to know a thing or two about mundanity. When it comes to old, lazy songs, “The Beatles are overrated” is about as old and lazy as it gets.