Revisionism A Study: Get Back
One of the sites that I used to browse before I started my Tumblr account, earlier this year, is Hey Dullblog. I’m sure a lot of you are aware of the site, if you're not it’s a Beatles discussion forum with articles on discussion points ranging from whether or not John and Paul were lovers, the role of Yoko Ono in the Beatles story and, more recently, discussions on the upcoming Get Back documentary series. I’ve pulled a quote from a recent Get Back article that be viewed in its entirety here I’ll pull sections out one at a time which will form the basis of my discussion:
When I was coming up in the Beatles fandom, nobody had any problem with “Let It Be.” We didn’t like it — how could you? — but we didn’t think it was lies. We didn’t have the same relationship to our obsessions as people do today. The Beatles made this movie, it seemed to show certain things, you might have opinions about those certain things, but it was accepted as the movie The Beatles gave us, and thus as factual as the tracks on Revolver. Now, fans have a very different relationship to all this stuff; there’s definitely a sense of “fan as customer” working here. A significant number of fans don’t like the story, so Peter Jackson has been brought in to see if there’s another story in the footage, one that fans will like more. And pay for — while at the same time, the Official Narrative becomes a little more forgiving. Paul will be less bossy, Yoko less weird and controlling; both will be more sympathetic. Like those WWI soldiers.
Michael Gerber, Hey Dullblog
“When I was coming up in the Beatles fandom, nobody had any problem with “Let It Be.” We didn’t like it — how could you? — but we didn’t think it was lies.“
This quote outlines the fact that Get Back is not the first time we’ve seen footage from the Get Back/Let it Be sessions. The first presentation of the sessions was the Let It Be movie from 1970, directed by Michael Lindsey-Hogg. The general reception of the Let It Be movie, both at the time and in the decades following, was that it showed the miserable disintegration of a once great band, John looked disinterested, Paul was hectoring George while he bristled under Paul’s tyranny, and Ringo dragged solemnly on cigarette after cigarette, seemingly hoping to be transported anywhere but there. That was the original perception of these sessions that was further bolstered by the principals, John called it “the most miserable sessions ever” and George likened it to their “Winter of Discontent” so that must mean that Let It Be was a true reflection of the sessions then, as the quote above states, fans “didn’t think it was lies” so if Get Back tells us a different story, that must make it proof of Apple and Disney Plus’ duplicity right?
What this quote appears to be making a case against is that of revisionism. Anything that comes first must be true and anything subsequent to that is inherently false and less credible, but is that a historically sound argument?
I recently shared Erin Torkelson Weber’s quote with regards to revisionism but it seems relevant again here:
"Each camp in Beatles historiography has accused the other of revisionism. Yet revisionism is a part of historiography, and simply because a narrative has been revised does not mean that the new, revised version is incorrect. In historiography, official narratives are inherently suspect and early narratives are always incomplete and often incorrect. Condemning later narratives simply because they did not come first excludes sources and perspectives essential to understanding the truth of the subject."
Erin Torkelson Weber, The Beatles and the Historians
As Erin states, revisionism is essential to a better understanding of the truth of any historical subject, taking the Let it Be movie as the whole and only truth of that period of the Beatles history is, in my opinion, a myopic view to have. A lot of what Peter Jackson has highlighted in the new Get Back series we’ve known from bootlegs from the Nagra reels for decades, that there was a lot more camaraderie and fun during the sessions than was originally relayed. The footage that Peter Jackson used as his basis for the Get Back series is exactly the same footage that was available to Michael Lindsey-Hogg in 1970, the footage is one and the same, making more available doesn’t muddy our understanding of that period in the band’s history, it enriches it.
“The Beatles made this movie, it seemed to show certain things, you might have opinions about those certain things, but it was accepted as the movie The Beatles gave us, and thus as factual as the tracks on Revolver”
Again, this appears to be insinuating that the first account of the story we've been presented with must the correct one. Of course, the Beatles were there so we can’t dismiss their accounts of the negativity of the sessions but Get Back is not trying to do that - just from the trailer alone (not to speak of the 6 hours of footage we've yet to see) the new documentary appears to be more transparent on the most negative aspects of the period that were "whitewashed" from the original movie: George quitting is literally circled in the trailer - this is something that isn't even referred to in Let It Be and Get Back also outlines the friction that was caused by Yoko’s presence, something suggested in Let It Be but never as explicitly as in Get Back: "It’s such a comical thing…In 50 years time…They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp."
Something I think we need to remember is that just because John and George, in particular, were so negative about Let It Be in the immediate aftermath, that doesn't make Get Back less authentic or even mean that their original comments are wholly credible. Many of John's comments on Let It Be come from Lennon Remembers which was the first extensive account of the disintegration of the band and how it operated. If we follow the premise that the Beatles', and particular John and George's, contemporaneous view is the most accurate, we should also believe that the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership stopped being collaborative in 1962 and the majority of their songs were written separately - the whole interview was later downplayed by John as per his comments from 1980:
"Yeah, I was lying. It was when I felt resentful, so I felt that we did everything apart. But, actually, a lot of the songs we did eyeball to eyeball"
John Lennon, Playboy Interview 1980
Historical distance is such a crucial aspect when analysing historical events, John and George's original comments on the Let It Be sessions came from the emotionally charged time of the break-up when they were keen to portray the most negative aspects of the band and to break the myth so they could allow themselves to move on. As we see from John's quote above, the resentfulness he felt impacted the statements he was giving to the press in 1970 and 1971 so when we analyse his and any of the other Beatles' statements from that time we need to be aware that their comments come from an emotionally charged place so may not be reliable.
“A significant number of fans don’t like the story, so Peter Jackson has been brought in to see if there’s another story in the footage, one that fans will like more. And pay for — while at the same time, the Official Narrative becomes a little more forgiving. Paul will be less bossy, Yoko less weird and controlling; both will be more sympathetic.”
There seems to be an insinuation that Get Back is fan service for Beatle fans eager to see the Beatles having fun, not squabbling and hating each other’s guts. There’s also a reoccurrence of the suggestion that, as Paul is one of the last Beatles standing, that this happier depiction of January 1969 is purely at his direction (presumably with Ringo, Yoko and Olivia’s sign off too).
It's possible that the remaining Beatles wanted a happier portrayal of Get Back, but if the reality was that the sessions did have happier moments, showing those moments to us improves our understanding of that point in time, it doesn’t diminish it. Paul, Ringo and Yoko aren’t jumping into time machines to make their actions in 1969 more palatable to 2021 audiences, the happier moments being shown in 1969 were produced in the same context as the more downbeat ones that we’ve seen already in Let it Be, seeing more of the picture just helps us to get to a more nuanced view of that time, is that such a bad thing?
The thing that I think we all need to remember is that Get Back isn’t the only project that may have been impacted by agenda. Let It Be would have also been shaped with by the agenda of the day. When the film was released in 1970, the band's break up was now public knowledge, in that context is it really so surprising that Michael Lindsey-Hogg decided to show more of the negative side of the sessions than the more upbeat side? If Let It Be was meant to provide the answer to fans to explain why the band had broken up, the early cut makes more sense but cutting the film to fit the climate of 1970 doesn't make it any more accurate than a film cut to fit the climate of 2021. The sessions took place in January 1969, over a year before the breakup announcement in April 1970, - why should Let It Be explain an event that happened in April 1970 better than the more harmonious Abbey Road sessions that directly followed it in 1969?
I don’t have anything against anyone that holds the view that Get Back is a whitewash, unless they release all 56 hours of footage and all the available audio, we'll never know what they've chosen to show us, and more importantly, what they've decided to keep in the vaults forever. But I do think we need to understand that revisionism isn’t a bad thing, not only has it improved our understanding of the Beatles, it's also improved our understanding of all historical topics.
The Get Back/Let it Be sessions were a broad canvas showing the band at their worst but also at their best. Why should we be beholden to a view of those sessions based on the tiny corner of the picture that we got in 1970 when the band was broken up and the world needed a film to explain why? Getting more of that picture only increases our understanding and highlights the nuances of that point in time. The factual reality is that the Get Back/Let It Be sessions may have been the last canonical word on the Beatles' recording career but they were not the last word on them as a band, after the sessions they continued seamlessly on into Abbey Road, if the Get Back/Let it Be sessions were as miserable as the original film and comments from the principals suggested, why didn’t they break up in January 1969? Why were they all so happy to continue working together? We haven’t seen Get Back yet (or the 56 hours of available footage) but I think the film will more accurately fit into the Beatles story and explain why they all still felt able to continue as a band in 1969, rather than why it all came crashing down over a year later. Get Back isn’t a lie any more than Let It Be was a lie, both films get us closer to a more true understanding of the band so I for one am glad we get to see more of the picture and gain a better insight.
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