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The Beatles launched me into adolescence, but in 'Get Back' they weren't who I expected

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/14/2021 Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY

In Part 3 of "The Beatles: Get Back," as the band huddles on the floor of the studio control room with the people closest to them, Paul McCartney starts (yet again) to fret: The Beatles are getting stale making one album after another; his (and their) singing is not up to his standards; they haven’t even rehearsed some of their songs; he wants fun and a changed environment – a payoff, someone suggests.

“I would have cut that part,” my husband said.

And I said, “No, look – it has to stay, because look at Ringo.” Ringo was throwing his arm around Paul for a hug, then leaning into his shoulder for a few seconds. And then, finally, everyone was laughing.

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Yes, Peter Jackson’s three-part opus is very long. But by the time you’ve watched it all, you realize that these nearly eight hours of moments, most of them tiny but some of them huge, are the Beatles in microcosm: a sweeping portrait of artistry and achievement, and a granular portrait of a four-way marriage (five-way if you count Yoko Ono) that is best described by the title of director Alan Pakula’s 1973 movie, “Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing.” 

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison, with Yoko Ono, seated right, in a rooftop scene from the Disney+ miniseries “The Beatles: Get Back.” © Disney+ via AP Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison, with Yoko Ono, seated right, in a rooftop scene from the Disney+ miniseries “The Beatles: Get Back.”

Ringo comforting Paul was definitely love, amid the struggles that were soon to become ruins.

The Beatles were my first rebellion

Everyone will have their own response to this instant classic, and a lot will depend on how old you are. For me, the series upended a lot of what I thought I knew and loved about the band that launched me into adolescence.

She Loves You” was the first Beatles song on my scope. I was a mere tween, as they call preteens today, and I immediately fell in love with both the song and the Fab Four. This may have been my first act of rebellion. My parents, who were barely into their 30s and owned a pile of Frank Sinatra albums, would not let me play Beatles music in our living room.

The Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in New York in 1964. © Associated Press The Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in New York in 1964.

The song of the moment, for them and their cohort, was “I Remember You,” by the Australian-British singer Frank Ifield. It wasn’t terrible. Listening to it now, it actually sounds pretty good, yodeling and all. But even the youth of the 1960s knew the difference between cool and terminally uncool. And (sorry, Mr. Ifield) the Beatles with their long hair and irreverent jokes were cool.

When “A Hard Day’s Night” came out, a relative volunteered to take me and a cousin my age to see it. Overcome, especially by Paul, the baby face bass guitarist, the two of us shrieked all through the film. Only later did I discover to my mortification that the screams we joined were from audiences on the screen, not in the theater. Except for my cousin and me.

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Life moved on. As their conductors discovered the Beatles, my mom and dad began singing four-part Beatles arrangements in their barbershop choruses and quartets. By January 1969, the roller-coaster month depicted in Jackson’s film, I was obsessed with Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, then Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The Beatles breakup barely registered.

But decades later, when my younger son was 8 and needed a talent-show act for elementary school, I knew exactly what to do. I taught him three guitar chords and “I Saw Her Standing There.” He took it from there and went on to become a professional musician.

When matching suits stop fitting

The revelations of “The Beatles: Get Back” are stark for those of us who, like me, were among the 73 million Americans (nearly 40% of the entire population!) who watched the Beatles’ live TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964. Five years later, watching them ignite both creativity and tension in the studio, you wonder how they managed to stuff their personalities into those identical suits and haircuts for so long.

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Paul McCartney, left, Ringo Starr and George Harrison face Yoko Ono and John Lennon in a scene from the Disney+ miniseries "The Beatles: Get Back." © Disney+ via AP Paul McCartney, left, Ringo Starr and George Harrison face Yoko Ono and John Lennon in a scene from the Disney+ miniseries "The Beatles: Get Back."

McCartney triggered the most dramatic rethinking. No more sweet baby face misdirection. The 1969 Paul of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions has a dense black beard and a commanding personality. On songs he’s written, he wants what he wants from his bandmates. He also wants vision and organization: plans, lists and frameworks, new settings, new ideas.

He doesn’t like Allen Klein, the New York financial manager John Lennon wants to hire ("a con man who's on our side for a change," as Ringo put it). He announces during one session that photographer Linda Eastman, soon to be his wife, is pregnant. It is her father, an entertainment lawyer, whom he wants to hire instead of Klein. This is the conflict that precipitates a lawsuit and the end of the Beatles.

Linda and Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s wife, are shown on occasional visits, not saying much. Ono is at every session, sitting a few inches from John. At one point she gives him a long kiss on the mouth (her divorce came through, John explains). At other times they are shown ballroom dancing around the studio. As John and Paul sing the Everly Brothers’ “Bye, Bye Love,” Yoko paints Japanese calligraphy on the wall. Sometimes she “scream jams” into a mic. Paul is the only one shown puzzling aloud about her constant presence.

Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney at a special screening of the film "The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years" in London in 2016. © Ben Stansall, AFP via Getty Images Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney at a special screening of the film "The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years" in London in 2016.

John is whimsical and hilarious and occasionally distracted. The documentary shows him stepping in at times to lead the band, often when Paul’s not around. Are they still co-equals? Does he still even care? Who knows. All four of them are straining against the limits of the Beatles, straining to have their own lives, careers and families.

George Harrison – cut out of equal opportunities from Day One – wants desperately to grow, to win the respect of Lennon-McCartney and get more than a couple of songs on each album. He quits for a few days during this fraught first month of 1969, but the Beatles family coaxes him back.

Ringo, who gets even less chance to grow than George, is already branching out into acting. He made “The Magic Christian” with Peter Sellers the same year as this footage was shot. Later my kids met him as Mr. Conductor on “Shining Time Station.”

A Beatles bond that's fathoms deep

One of the many textures and complexities revealed in this film is that despite the breakup to come, and the obvious reasons for it, the Beatles are still laughing at each other’s jokes, appreciating each other’s musicianship, building on someone else’s riff or lyric or nonsense accent or song. Their bond is fathoms deep, even as it moves ever closer to shattering. There is as much affection on display – emotional, physical and musical – as there is frustration. 

And when they get the music right and are set free to perform, as in the wacky rooftop concert – in the freezing cold, as cops deluged with noise complaints threaten to arrest everyone for disturbing the peace – they are joyously liberated and in sync: John and George in their furry coats (and, in George’s case, bright green pants), Ringo in a red plastic raincoat, Paul in his black three-piece banker suit, complete with vest, cuff links and shiny brown loafers.

That mini concert, and this maxi documentary, underscore for all time the truth and universality of advice I've had posted on my bulletin board for years, from the late New York Times media critic David Carr: “Keep typing until it turns into writing.” For the Beatles, that translates into keep playing and singing until it turns into music. For politicians, keep negotiating until it turns into a deal. For scientists, keep experimenting until you get a vaccine. For my husband last week, it was keep trying until that box of boards, screws and what-not turns into an ottoman. 

What’s required is creative persistence with no fear of failure, or at least keeping that fear at bay while you brainstorm and hope for the miracle. You don’t have to be an artistic genius or any kind of genius to appreciate that lesson in these 468 precious minutes of film.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Beatles launched me into adolescence, but in 'Get Back' they weren't who I expected

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