On the Rooftop with The Beatles in Peter Jackson’s “Get Back”
By Stuart Mitchner
“Life is an energy field, a bunch of molecules. And these particular molecules formed to make these four guys, who then formed this band called the Beatles and did all that work. I have to think there was something metaphysical. Something alchemic. Something that must be thought of as magic — with a k.”
—Paul McCartney, from a 2007 interview
I’ve just “come down” from Get Back, the film — I say “come down” because I was up on the Apple rooftop four floors above Savile Row for the grand finale with the particular molecules formed to make John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
Up on the roof I could almost feel the January chill along with a mildly exhilarating touch of vertigo as I gazed out over the chimneys and steeples of London’s West End. Down in the cozy confines of the basement studio, it was all I could do to keep from reaching through the fourth wall to pick up the 55-year-old McVittie’s chocolate biscuit on Ringo’s plate, or maybe it was George’s, so dense was the molecular haze, what with all the cigarette smoke. Six-plus hours immersed in the energy field of the Beatles making music and my attention rarely wavered; it was that compelling. My wife watched the entire epic with me, and though she yawned at times, and came near dozing, she enjoyed highlights like Paul and John’s zitheresque take on “The Third Man Theme,” performed for the benefit of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, said to be Orson Welles’s natural son.
Last week I wrote about The Beatles Get Back, the book, focusing on cues in the transcript leading to the moment when George says, “I’m leaving the band now” and then walks out. In the film, as John, Paul, Ringo, and others are discussing a future without him (Paul: “I don’t know what we’re coming back here for.” John: “Just pretending nothing happened.” Ringo: “We have to play harder as a trio…”), George is with them. Although they can’t hear him, he’s on the soundtrack singing “how we break each other’s hearts and cause each other pain, take each other’s love without thinking anymore, forgetting to give back.” Describing “Isn’t It a Pity” in his autobiography, he says “it was a chance to realise that if I felt somebody had let me down, then there’s a good chance I was letting someone else down.” In December 2021, the voiceover has the effect of a sort of ghost chorus, a visitation “out of nowhere,” and it lends a touch of eerie grace to the scene, coming a week after the 20th anniversary of his death.
Vigil for John
On the Sunday after the December 8, 1980 killing of John Lennon 41 years ago today, my wife and I joined millions of others around the world taking part in the 10-minute vigil of silent prayer requested by Yoko Ono. We were about halfway through when the silence in our apartment was broken by the clanking of the radiators, a routine cold weather sound, nothing to take any particular notice of, except that it went on and on as never before and never since. At first we thought we might have a serious problem, the sounds were so extreme, a
chaotic chorus of clanking and rattling and hissing, as if the radiators were about to explode. Being deep in the moment, we accepted the idea that a household apparatus was rising to the occasion, hissing higher and higher before fading back into silence as the vigil ended.
The radiator concert my wife and I heard as something amusingly paranormal had frightened our 4-year-old son, who was already shaken more than we knew by the murder and its poisoning of the bedtime music he loved and now could no longer listen to. All the Beatles records had to be hidden from view, and what had seemed to us a visitation of sorts from the Beatles “energy field” — in McCartney’s words, “something metaphysical. Something alchemic … magic with a k” — sounded to him like nothing but evil dissonance.
In late May 1968 at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, a town in Surrey, the Beatles got together fresh from India to play new songs for one another, everything acoustic, intimate, relaxed: you seem to be in the same room, sitting in the shadows, eyes closed, listening to songs you know and some you never heard before, as when John sings “Child of Nature” and George sings “Circles.” John sounds raw, vulnerable, exposed, as though he were reaching for something he can’t quite find. The melody reappears two years later in “Jealous Guy” from his first solo album, but for someone who was in India around the same time, it’s thrilling to hear him sing, “On the road to Rishikesh, / I was dreaming more or less / And the dream I had was true.” It’s no less moving to hear George sing “He who knows does not speak / He who speaks does not know” in “Circles.” The sense of being in the living presence is what makes the Esher tapes so special. Here they are as real as life. The dream is true.
In my son’s dreams over the years, which he remembers in great detail, he’s been visited by both Paul and John, and sometimes George, playing new music just for him. When I say, “So you can really hear the songs,” his “Yes” is convincing. Listening to the Esher Demos, I imagined I was hearing the music he hears in his dreams. The other day when I played him John and George singing those two songs, almost before I could ask the question, he was saying, quite excited, “This is what I hear in my dreams!”
A Grand Finale
I’ve written about the Beatles, collectively and individually, dozens of times in the almost two decades I’ve been commenting on books, art, film, and music for Town Topics. The past three columns represent a kind of grand finale, which seems appropriate in the context of Get Back, the book, and Peter Jackson’s magnificent, three-act documentary epic, which is well worth the price of admission if you go for a $7.99 one-month subscription to Disney+.