The Beatles, Get Back

The first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

I just finished watching the new Beatles’ documentary on Disney+, Get Back. It’s in three parts, and the third part ends with almost the whole rooftop concert (some but not all downtime between songs seems to have been cut), which wound up being their last public performance together. So I put together this playlist to reflect all the songs they performed, using rooftop performances where available in the order in which they appear.

https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/the-beatles-rooftop-concert/pl.u-VL2aIBYGkNr

My playlist covers these songs:

  1. “Get Back,” original studio version. This wasn’t part of the rooftop performance, but was captured in the Beatles’ studio on Saville Row some time before. The first rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes.
  2. “Get Back,” 1969 Glyn Johns mix. The second rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted this one. Glyn Johns put together a version of the songs on Let It Be originally intended for an album titled Get Back “that would match the documentary nature of the forthcoming film” (more about the film later; taken from the liner notes to Let It Be… Naked). Johns’s mixes are now available on a deluxe version of Let It Be recently released.
  3. “Don’t Let Me Down” (first rooftop performance).
  4. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  5. “One After 909” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  6. “Dig a Pony” (album version that sounds like the rooftop performance to me, but I’m not sure).
  7. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the second rooftop performance doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted the 1969 Glyn Johns mix).
  8. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969 Glyn Johns mix, same as above).
  9. “Get Back” (third rooftop performance from The Beatles Anthology 3. The anthology doesn’t indicate which rooftop performance, but Paul has a line in here about getting arrested, which he added after seeing the police on the rooftop, so it’s the third performance).

We should keep in mind the whole recording session was intended to be released as a TV special. According to the liner notes on Let It Be… Naked the original concept was a TV performance of songs from the white album, and then it transformed into a documentary recording the creation of a new album from the beginning. The conclusion of the TV special was intended to be live performances of the new songs in front of an impromptu audience, which would be their first live performance since August of 1966. What wound up being a documentary film about the recording of the album was released concurrently with the album in 1970.

A few observations.

It’s a miracle they got anything done. Of course the eight hours of video we see is greatly edited down from the 60 hours of video available, but they seemed to spend most of their time singing their own and other people’s songs in funny voices. Sometimes it seemed like they were just having fun (most of the time, actually), but sometimes it seemed like they were tired of it all and not taking it seriously. Billy Preston showing up changed everything and made everyone feel better. He was great. George Martin’s presence seemed like a good thing as well, even though John told Martin to stay away at first (liner notes for Let It Be… Naked).

Paul goes on a little tirade at the beginning, at the very beginning, saying something along the lines of, “If we’re not going to do this, we should just quit right now.” I felt at the time like that was what split up the Beatles. Throughout the sessions Paul refers to their days in Hamburg several times, which leaves the impression that he hadn’t really had much fun with the band since then because that was a few years back by this point, and he seems dissatisfied with just making albums.

I don’t want to create a false impression. Paul was playful most of the time and upbeat. He just had some moments. George actually quit and the other three had to take a few days to get him to come back, and then later on George talked about all of them just doing solo projects and then coming back together. He seemed frustrated in having too small a role in the band and its songwriting.

There is a little scene, sound only, where Paul and John are talking together about what they need to do to get George back. The documentary claims that the filmmakers at the time hid a microphone in a flower pot at a diner where Paul and John went to discuss the situation with George. That sounds like nonsense to me. You have to realize this was 1969. There is no WiFi or Bluetooth. Of course they had transmitters, but they weren’t that small, and a sound cable running underneath a random booth at a diner would be kind of obvious, not to mention the fact the filmmakers had no way of knowing exactly where Paul and John would be sitting. So I think the conversation was staged. That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t reflect anyone’s real feelings, but I’m just not buying the hidden mic in the flower pot story.

Moving on, I had a strong impression that anything Paul touched musically would be golden because of it. Any input he gave would make a song better. And the first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

The wives were all there at different points. Yoko the most, then Linda (still Eastman with her very young daughter from a previous relationship, who was precocious and hilarious), then Ringo’s wife Maureen, with Pattie Boyd (Harrison) appearing once. Yoko was quiet and unassuming throughout the sessions, and watching her occasional facial expressions and gestures — and they were rare — is worthy of some study and attention. She would at times sing/screech into a mic while the Beatles played to it; at one point Paul played drums to Yoko’s singing. So yes, there were tensions within the band. It’s not clear they weren’t manageable. It’s hard for me to say that Paul, or John, or George, or Yoko split up the band.

What really seemed to be working against the band was having to come up with a bunch of new songs in three weeks and then be ready for a television special at the end of it. They could only agree to get George to come back by scrapping the TV special idea and moving their songwriting and rehearsals back to their own studios instead of the warehouse in Twickenham that was serving as a sound stage. So I think a number of factors were working against the Beatles, the biggest one of them being the Beatles.

I wish they had been able to do what John suggested, which was record their own solo albums and then come back together and record as the Beatles, especially in retrospect of the enormous creative output each of them enjoyed as solo artists in the 70s. It really was something seeing them all at different times sit behind drums or piano or strum the guitar. I think George was the only one who didn’t play any drums.

I couldn’t wait to see them get on the rooftop, because that was a public performance. That’s the one time there is no doubt that while they were having fun, they were also taking the music seriously. The rooftop concert deserves special attention, but not only because it was their last public performance. As a performance, it seemed more like a rehearsal of their new songs than a performance. “Get Back” was played twice at the beginning and once at the end, and two other songs were played twice. Two of those performances of the other songs wound up being the tracks used on the album, while the version of “Get Back” used was performed in the studio some days earlier.

What was enjoyable about the rooftop performance, beyond just seeing the Beatles perform, were interviews with the public on the street. Young and old said, “It’s the Beatles!”, “I wish we could see them,” “This is wonderful,” with a number of complaints too: “They woke me up from my sleep and I don’t appreciate it.” Ha. The police arrived after reportedly receiving 30 complaints about noise in a few minutes. They were stalled, and the two officers who initially arrived on the scene looked like two rosy-faced little fourteen year old boys, blustering and threatening like teenage boys too. There’s been quite a bit of reporting over the last day or two (from this writing) about the officers. The main one in the film was Ray Dagg, who was 19 years old at the time. I can’t track all the references right now, but he admitted he was probably making up “30 complaints” (he had no idea how many they received), and that he was bluffing about being able to arrest them on the charges he specifically mentioned. They don’t apply on private premises.

Most interestingly, he said he knew he was being recorded in the lobby of the Beatles’ studios because he saw a microphone in a flower pot. On the one hand, this validates the mic in the flower pot story explaining the recording of Paul’s and John’s earlier conversation about George, but on the other hand, if he saw it just looking casually while standing up, it’s hard to believe Paul and John wouldn’t notice it sitting at a table.

But throughout all encounters with the police, everyone was very polite. When the police arrived at the rooftop, the Beatles finished their performance without being asked while the officers stood by and watched. They ended with the version of “Get Back” in which Paul sings a line about being arrested which appears on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection.

And that’s the thing with the lyrics. No one showed up with written lyric sheets except maybe John for “Across the Universe” and perhaps George’s songs, but I don’t recall in the latter case. Otherwise, lyrics were improvised on the spot with the music. In one of the film’s highlights, Paul wrote a first run at “Get Back” while they were all waiting for John to show up, who was an hour late. “Get back.” He’s late. Get it? “I miss the old days at Hamburg.” “Get back.” Get it? Several of the songs seemed like immediate reactions to the situation at hand later revised into songs. One version of “Get Back” reflects anti-immigrant feeling in Britain popular at the time, which seemed terribly and painfully familiar.

It’s a great documentary. It’s real life. But it’s real life hanging out with the Beatles while they try to make some new music. It’s real life amplified. It was 41 years to this day since John Lennon died when I posted an initial draft of this review to Facebook. I am grateful for the timing of it all, but what a loss.

Review of Tomorrowland on Sequart

My latest Sequart review of the Disney film Tomorrowland is now live and available: “Tomorrowland and the Disney Ethic.”

Frozen…

Frozen[Yes, beware of spoilers…]

I have a confession to make. After being begged by my daughters (Grace, 8, and Zoe, 4 — Grace did most of the begging because she never forgets anything and at eight years old is probably smarter than me) for about ten continuous days I finally rented Frozen on iTunes and watched it last night with my kids. They loved it.

That’s not my confession, though. My confession is that I watched it again, this morning, all by myself, no kids around, just because I wanted to. I think I’ll have to listen to three hours of AC/DC to get my man card back.

At least I didn’t cry.

Really.

Disney’s Frozen is, on the face of it, until the end, another one of their usual adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which in this case is “The Snow Queen.” True to Disney form, the writers deviate significantly from the story, and through most of the film viewers are set up for a typical Disney romance. Frozen’s plot is focused upon two sisters, who are of course princesses, daughters of the King and Queen of Arendelle. The younger one is Anna, who is redheaded, passionate, and impulsive.  The older one, Elsa, is blonde, cool (even cold and off-putting), and collected. The stereotypes are as familiar as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Even the two sisters’ hair color follows type: the redhead is the impulsive one.

As is the case with most fairy tales, there is a magical curse at work. In this case, Elsa is cursed with magical powers that allow her to freeze things and create ice and snow at will. These powers in themselves aren’t necessarily a curse, but she doesn’t control them very well (think Midas), so she nearly kills her sister while they were playing together one day as children. Her sister was only saved by wise and kind trolls (who, incidentally, are evil in the fairy tale version, but what do you expect from Disney?). Part of Anna’s cure, however, was that all memory of Elsa’s magic was removed from her, and Anna had to be kept apart from Elsa to keep her from regaining knowledge of her sister’s magic as well as for her own protection.

And again, typical to most fairy tales, the girls’ parents must be dispensed with somehow in order for the children to have adventures and agency. In this case, the parents die in a shipwreck while the girls are young, so they grow up separately until Elsa comes of age and is ready to take the throne. Both girls had been kept sequestered from the world until the day of Elsa’s coronation and ball. Anna, inexperienced and impulsive, falls in love with the first prince (Hans) whom she dances with and agrees to marry him: Elsa forbids it because, of course, Anna had just met the man. Take note that Anna is acting just like Cinderella, whose behavior isn’t questioned in that film: falling in love with the first prince you meet is just what Disney princesses do. Love at first sight is real and, after all, he is a prince. In the ensuing argument between Anna and Elsa, Elsa inadvertently releases her powers, flees her kingdom, and unwittingly condemns it to an eternal winter while she seeks solitude and freedom in the mountains.

Anna, naturally, pursues her sister, and on the way she meets a kind peasant man her own age (Kristoff) and a goofy magical sidekick (every Disney film has a goofy sidekick of some kind). The sidekick leads Anna to Elsa, and when Anna confronts Elsa, Elsa accidentally strikes her in the heart with her ice, cursing Anna to eventually freeze solid unless an act of true love saves her. Naturally, Prince Hans’s “true love’s kiss” is supposed to be the device that saves her, so Kristoff rushes Anna back to the castle.

In perhaps the weakest element of the film, Prince Hans turns out to be a villain who sought to marry into a throne by marrying Anna, having planned to dispense with Elsa once he married Anna. Until this point Prince Hans has been uniformly — perfectly — kind and virtuous, so while his motives are plausible, his transformation into a villain is not. In a final confrontation Anna is forced to choose between saving herself with Kristoff’s kiss — whom she realizes loves her — or saving her sister from Prince Hans. At the last minute, she chooses to save her sister. Anna places herself between her sister and Prince Hans just in time to protect Elsa, at which point Anna freezes into solid ice. Prince Hans is knocked out cold by the magical transformation, and Elsa weeps over her sister’s frozen body.

Anna’s sacrifice, however, turns out to be the act of true love that cures her from being struck with her sister’s ice, and she thaws, returning to normal. The princess saved herself without any help from a prince at all, so that the emotional core of the film was not a love story between a man and a woman, but between two sisters. The culmination was not the prince’s kiss, but the sisters’ long-awaited hug.

It’s that ending that makes the film what it is and changes a rather predictable Disney adaptation of a fairy tale into a much more remarkable movie. It’s tempting to call the film a feminist statement, seeing in it Hélène Cixous’s call for women to recover their womanhood in relationships with other women, but I won’t. I would say instead that Frozen is working with a rather conventional “true love waits” ethos: resolve your issues in your home life of origin before your strike out to create a new home of your own. Don’t act impulsively in your choice of a spouse, but take your time choosing and get to know them first. At no point does Disney depart from conventional wisdom for all of its departure from Disney’s own fairy tale template.

But I think the film isn’t really concerned with marriage at all. I think it is concerned, ultimately, with grief: the sisters’ grief for their dead parents and their ensuing loss of and separation from one another, and how grief interrupts our relationships, freezes our lives and hearts, and keeps us from moving forward in life. Being “frozen,” then, is primarily a trope for grief and loss. The two sisters represent two different responses to grief and loss. Elsa, the cold one, shuts people out to keep from causing and suffering further pain, desiring nothing more than to run away to an isolated castle in the mountains. Her freezing everything is a function of her fear. Anna, the hot one, wants to manage her grief with activity and relationships, running away from grief by running into another person’s arms.

The film accepts neither response by itself, but synthesizes the two. Elsa was not allowed to run away, and Anna was not allowed to marry. Both were forced back to one another to draw from each other’s strength and, in fact, each sister’s weakness is what the other sister needs to be strong. Anna needs Elsa’s self-control and restraint, and Elsa needs Anna’s expressiveness. They need and complement each other perfectly. Anna and Kristoff finally get their kiss, but they’re not running to the altar, and Elsa learns that repressing emotion is not the way to control it. She learns to express herself, especially those emotions that are not fear.

The fundamental insight of this film is that you can’t control negative emotions by suppressing them. Human beings can’t live in an emotional vacuum. We can only control negative emotions by expressing positive ones. It’s not that uncommon a message. Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is often played this way: trying to suppress vice, he succumbs to lust. Blake’s angels and devils in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ultimately have to synthesize so that the energy of the devils can fuel the angels, and so that the rationality of the angels can restrain and direct, but not eradicate, the energy of the devils. Spock in all versions of the Star Trek franchise slips at times from Vulcan rationality into human emotion. When we suffer, we naturally seek to escape our suffering, and suppression is a kind of escape, but what we do to escape our pain only makes it worse.

Grief, in particular, only exists because love was present first, but love still exists — as grief — when the object of love is lost. Elsa learns to express her love in ways other than grief, and that is what restores her relationship with her sister and her own country in the end. Both characters were frozen in a sense: emotionally frozen by their separation from their parents and from one another. Recovering love from their grief is what thawed them.

This balance between Elsa and Anna, between restraint and expressiveness, is ultimately a very old one: between form and freedom, restraint and activity, reason and emotion, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the heaven and hell of William Blake. The film envisions joy as the product of this synthesis. I think I can live with that.

PS As of the second day after publishing this post, it’s the most popular post on my blog. Thanks much, everyone, for reading.

The Lion King: Hamlet and the Myth of Happy Vengeance

lionkingThe Lion King: Hamlet and the Myth of Happy Vengeance” is my September 2003 Metaphilm article exploring both the Disney classic as a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the implications of a vengeance plot with a happy, Disney ending.

Finding Hulko

hulkoFinding Hulko” is my July 2003 Metaphilm article describing how Finding Nemo and The Hulk exploit very similar family dramas for the sake of political commentary. Once again, if you think I’ve lost my mind, read the article. Then  you’ll think you’ve lost your mind…

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