Get Back turns a filmmaker loose in one of music’s most illustrious vaults and peers into a period that sometimes gets overlooked.
Photo: Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.
The story of the Beatles stretches out across a vast range of human experiences, touching on spirituality, politics, friendship, drugs, arrests, marriages, breakups, and even murder. The songs revolutionized pop music, taking inspiration from titans like Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, and influenced future generations of songwriters and instrumentalists, all the while enduring through musicals, films, television commercials, and archival rereleases. The talent and adventurousness of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison are well documented, the subject of a nearly 60-year cottage industry of official and unofficial Beatle ephemera. Every inch of the legacy has been thoroughly considered, every strength and weakness detailed. It is strange, then, that New Zealand–based director Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, a three-part, eight-hour Disney+ docuseries culled from the dozens of hours of footage and audio recorded as the band worked on the songs released in the 1970 film and album Let It Be, feels positively chock-full of fresh insights into the inner workings of one of the greatest rock-and-roll bands of all time. We think we know the story of the period in which the lads drafted their final recordings, staged their final live show, and ultimately broke up. We’ve heard that Yoko Ono’s presence in the sessions created static, that McCartney could be a taskmaster when he wanted, that Lennon and McCartney’s egos marginalized Harrison’s contributions. Some of this is true, but the footage tells a slightly different story: one of simple drift setting in between friends and of this last-ditch effort to fight back against the currents pushing the foursome in different directions.
Get Back finds the Beatles reckoning with the weight of being rock royalty. Following the difficult sessions that produced the band’s 1968 self-titled opus, the relative commercial failure of 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour film, the passing of longtime manager Brian Epstein the same year, and the lengthy blowback in the States from the interview in which Lennon said his band was “bigger than Jesus,” the Beatles had their guards up. Their solution was to push through it, to record a live album of new songs in front of a studio audience in the weeks before Starr filmed The Magic Christian alongside Peter Sellers inside the same facility. It is a big ask. It’s immediately apparent that everyone’s mojo is off. Twickenham Studios is a wide-open space dotted with people mucking about in the background, staring as the band workshops new songs around old ideas. The Beatles reflect on the songs they grew up on as they work out ways to bridge a reverence for the music of the past with a burning desire to compete with their peers. One day, while rehearsing the folk ballad “Two of Us,” Lennon suggests singing it like Stevie Wonder, admiring the American vocalist’s ease with tricky vocal runs. When the band gives up on Twickenham and decamps to a new studio in the basement of the headquarters of their multimedia start-up, Apple Corps — another near disaster since the sound in the facility was so lacking that producer George Martin had to truck in instruments and concoct an eight-track recording rig using two four-tracks — American singer-songwriter and keyboard whiz Billy Preston is invited to the sessions in the interest of fleshing out compositions without relying on overdubs, adding a weighty, ruddy soulfulness to the recordings that offsets their classic-rock interests quite nicely.
Really, Get Back is a show about process and compromise, and the mercurial nature of creativity and the value of an edifying work-life balance. Sometimes — often — great work takes time, and inspiration won’t show face until the distractions in your periphery are sufficiently quieted. There is just no predicting what will happen when you sit down to create, no telling what you’re in for. Watching the Beatles work is very illuminating. They’re brilliant writers, performers, interpreters, and musicians, and the three weeks in the weeds depicted in Get Back showcases this and more. You get heaps of McCartney’s professorial grasp on music history, as much from spectating the spontaneous creation of classic songs like “Get Back” and “Let It Be” as through covers, impressions, and bits like the time he tries to explain the everlasting appeal of the piano: “The great thing about the piano is that there it all is. There’s all the music ever … All that’s ever been written is there.” Lennon’s balance of comic absurdism and wife-guy devotion is on full display; his peacenik tendencies, his raw and primal performances, and his documented temper make a complex composite — a genius who could use an editor, a smart-ass unafraid to tell you he has earned a right to be arrogant. Starr is the Everyman who radiates good spirits and genial relatability. Harrison is clearly the baby of the group, but he’s sitting on a batch of songs arguably better than the album they’re working on. You just get the sense they’re comfortable with doing most of the writing. “I can hear myself annoying you,” McCartney says to his friend at one point. (Actually, the footage mostly shows McCartney being quite nice to his bandmates, family, and engineers, to the extent that one wonders how much of what we think we know about the Beatles is sourced by things they actually did and how much is tabloid fantasy, or rooted in all of the backbiting beef of the early ’70s.) Harrison quits for a few days; the lads coolly call his bluff.
Between rehearsals and conversations about the direction of the project — which pivots from the original idea of a live album and television show to an album, a film, and a rooftop show — you get the story of the slow rot that led Lennon to sing “I don’t believe in Beatles” on Plastic Ono Band’s “God” in 1970, a few months after their back-to-basics project Let It Be and its accompanying film were released. The gist of it is spelled out in a scene in which McCartney loudly reads a tabloid story that, despite outlandish embellishments, offers this razor-sharp reading on the last days of the band: “They went their own private ways, found their own friends, and became less reliant on each other for guidance and comradeship.” The trickle of visitors to the sessions hints at the many ways this’ll cut. Harrison is visited a few times by friends like Mukunda Goswami of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness; in late 1971, his interests in Hinduism dovetail with his music in the classic Concert for Bangladesh. (Listening to the Beatles wonder aloud if their 1968 India trip was in good faith is riveting.) Lennon and Ono are nearly inseparable, and the others respect their commitment to radical honesty and togetherness. McCartney is spending a lot of time with Linda and 8-year-old Heather, who trades caterwauls with Ono during the jam that gets sampled for Let It Be’s “Dig It,” in the most adorable moment in a docuseries frankly teeming with them. A quick visit from Sellers signals Starr’s intent to pivot into acting in the early 1970s. Let It Be is a dodgy plan riddled with kinks, but it saves the band. Or, at the least, it buys everyone another year. Shaking off the jitters gets the songs flowing. You see flashes of the world-beating magic of Abbey Road and imagine an alternate timeline in which cuts like Imagine’s “Jealous Guy” or McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” or All Things Must Pass’s title track or even a loosie like “Old Brown Shoe” make the cut on a Beatles album. Let It Be is not easy to make, but it restores a sense of unity and family to a splintering band of brothers.
As fun as it is to watch the Beatles and their wives and friends catch up after the 1968 holiday and repair their frayed bonds as friends and musical collaborators, it’s just as much of a blast seeing them interact with current events. The spontaneous “Commonwealth” jam that springs forth from an article detailing the anti-immigrant stances of longtime British Parliament conservative Enoch Powell is a delight, as is Lennon’s admiration of the poetic timing of Martin Luther King Jr. In one episode, you see Harrison clutching a copy of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1967 classic, Make It Happen, home to “The Tears of a Clown.” In another scene, Ono uses the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet as a plate. (In spite of McCartney’s recent comments about the Stones, there’s an obvious mutual respect between the two bands in Get Back, in which Lennon has just been tapped to appear in Rock and Roll Circus and won’t stop interjecting with a line he is meant to deliver in the film.) We get a reminder about McCartney’s love of science fiction when he mentions a random episode of Journey to the Unknown, a supernatural anthology series that Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg worked on. The Beatles’ delicate balance of wistful nostalgia and up-to-the-minute awareness of popular culture set the pace for decades of pop careers conceptualized in their wake. Get Back shows how much intention and work this requires. (It also calls bullshit on the myth that Ono tore this band apart. Ono — who serves as a producer on the doc alongside Starr, McCartney, Jackson, Olivia Harrison, and others — is talented and fearless, and they all seem to love having her around. “It’s gonna be such an incredible, comical thing, like in 50 years’ time,” McCartney says in one scene, eerily predicting not just the impending end of his band but the narratives that eventually spring up around it. “‘They broke up ’cause Yoko sat on an amp … See, John kept bringing this girl along.’” In another bit of foreshadowing, McCartney and Starr are unwinding after a particularly taxing day, and McCartney says, “And then there were two.”)
Letting the footage do the talking here sets Get Back apart from a majority of modern films about music, which employ critical narratives to augment archival performances and interviews. Jackson trusts Lindsay-Hogg’s footage as a corrective to the long-standing view of Let It Be as an acrimonious and trying time for the Beatles and leans into the fact that most who’ll watch Get Back will be aware of at least some of the most important details about this band. It’s hard to see it as a sea change for music documentaries, though, because stories this widely known but slightly misunderstood are not easy to find. Just like Alan Elliott’s restructuring of Sydney Pollack’s Aretha Franklin film, Amazing Grace, Get Back turns a filmmaker loose in one of music’s most illustrious vaults and peers into a period that sometimes gets overlooked. It’s a bit like Metallica’s band-therapy opus, Some Kind of Monster, in the way it seeks to resolve a group’s creative struggles by getting to the heart of the relationships between them as friends, as co-workers, and as artistic foils. It’s also unlike anything else in the field right now, perhaps the purest representation of the care that goes into keeping lines of communication open with the people you deal with the closest. Lennon and McCartney’s secret powwow when Harrison leaves (captured in a stroke of genius by a microphone hidden in a flowerpot by the director) — about how to stop treating the 25-year-old like their little brother — feels like a conversation we weren’t necessarily meant to observe, as much of this documentary does, both in prickly moments, which seem rarer than we’ve been led to believe up till now, and in times when the band parts briefly with its veneer of professionalism and its steady flow of intriguing music and cuts loose for a while.
Get Back is stuffed with intrigue. The sheer amount of cigarettes smoked and the zany places the guys stash lit ones for safe keeping are of note, as is the elaborate network of engineers and suits required to bring Let It Be to term. The Beatles are experimentalists as much as classicists, so it’s fun to see their minds get blown by a new bit of tech or a pitch for a custom instrument. Legendary engineer Magic Alex Mardas’s mock-up of a twin-neck guitar is a riot, rotating a single neck instead of using two. Producer Glyn Johns stuffing a newspaper between the hammers and lid of a piano when the band asks how to make it sound “bad” is quick thinking. Lennon’s gleeful ease in getting Preston out of his record deal in a matter of a few days and signing him to Apple is the kind of shit you can only pull when your records drive strong business, like Adele asking Spotify to stop letting people shuffle albums and getting her way. The Beatles get that they’re the Beatles; sometimes they lean in and have fun with the obligations and the power that this brings, and sometimes they wear it like a ball and chain. At Twickenham, Starr is talking through ideas with Lindsay-Hogg, who says of the multimedia endeavor, “The hearts of millions are with you … It simply has to be the best.” Starr replies, “Every time we do anything, it’s got to be the best,” and purses his lips a bit, as if he’s bone-tired of the performance of perfection, presaging the next five years in bucking every expectation fans might have had for his solo career.
The Beatles’ past and present collide like this through much of Get Back. Anyone who has ever had to make sense of a recording of two people speaking over each other knows there’s technical wizardry happening here, but we never get the uncanny-valley vibes some restorations of old footage invite. Get Back is the noble kind of nostalgia project. It rises to the unenviable task of offering new insights into one of the most documented music careers of all time. The doc covers only three stressful weeks, but you come away with a slightly keener understanding of the Beatles’ entire decade-long run and some of the triumphs and tragedies that happened afterward. It’s a little too long; it’s just as rewarding watched closely as it is when treated like an audiovisual tapestry you simply play in the background while doing something else. It isn’t perfect; it might be an instant classic?
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