How much do you love The Beatles? Because your enjoyment of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s mammoth exploration of a month in the band’s life, is going to very, very much depend on your interest in the band. For some it’s going to be a revelatory experience, in which they soak in the company and creativity of John, Paul, George and Ringo in a way that is far more intimate than has ever been possible before. For others, the series will be sometimes compelling, usually at least mildly interesting, occasionally a little dull and will depend greatly on their tolerance for hearing the classic title track performed over and over and over again.
Some background – Early in 1969 the four Beatles and their entourage installed themselves into a movie studio in Twickenham with the intention of writing a back-to-basics, no frills rock album from scratch, which they would then record live as part of a television special. With them was the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who, by the way, may or may not be the illegitimate son of Orson Welles – but that’s another story for another time) and his crew, filming proceedings for an accompanying documentary. Following a number of twists and turns and some inter-band drama, the group decamped to their Saville Road HQ to record their new songs, culminating with a now-famous rooftop performance, the cameras rolling the whole time.
The TV idea was abandoned somewhere along the way, and Lindsay-Hogg would go on to edit his fly-on-the-wall footage into a theatrical film, Let It Be, released alongside the album of the same name in 1970. Both the film and the record were compromises, cobbled together from the work the band did for the abandoned special. Though John, Paul, George and Ringo would go on to make another album together, Abbey Road, released later in 1969, the earlier recordings that comprised Let It Be would be the final ‘new’ Beatles music to emerge during the band’s lifetime.
By the time the movie premiered the group had fallen apart for good – rather bitterly, at that. Lindsay-Hogg’s film, which featured its fair share of catty arguments and passive-aggressive asides, was scoured for evidence of the souring mood that preceded the band’s demise and was widely seen as the document of an impending divorce. It hasn’t been available commercially since the ’80s, with a DVD release in the early 2000s reportedly blocked by Paul and Ringo themselves, keen for their dirty linen to be kept in the hamper while a new generation of fans discovered the band via the 1s and Love compilations, and an album remaster campaign.
Somewhere down the line the mood softened. Perhaps the two remaining Beatles felt that enough water had passed under the bridge, and that their legacy was safe enough for the footage to see the light of day? Perhaps the Apple vaults had precious few lucrative gems left within, and it was time to cash in one of their last high-value chips? Either way, in 2018 the entire archive of footage from the Let It Be sessions, some sixty hours, shot mostly on 16mm film, was turned over to Peter Jackson, whose restoration work on the World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old had been genuinely astonishing. Jackson and his team set about digitizing, syncing and painstakingly restoring the footage to uber high def, planning to edit together a new film. The surviving Beatles had often claimed that the original movie misrepresented the band’s relationship and the spirit of the sessions; emphasising the drama over the comradeship and creativity (though Lindsay-Hogg disagrees). Jackson was tasked with creating a more honest document.
It was all very tantalising – fans had been crying out for this footage for years, and a filmmaker of Jackson’s pedigree was bound to do wonderful things. Alas, in all the excitement everyone seemed to have forgotten something crucial about Peter Jackson: he doesn’t know when to stop. This is a man that turned one short children’s book into a nine-hour, three-film epic. What was he going to do with sixty hours of footage? True to form, Get Back (a title kicked around for the original project) clocks in at close to nine hours itself, and while much of it is absolutely fascinating and other parts an utter joy, there’s still plenty that could probably have been reserved for the blu-ray extras. You could comfortably shave an hour from each of the installments and still have a fascinating series.
We get the writing and arranging process of the classic single, ‘Get Back’ in its entirety, from McCartney vaguely jamming some ideas and mumbling a melody in episode one, to the recording of the single in episode two, to two full performances on the rooftop of the Apple building in episode three – an incredible insight into the creative process of arguably the most important pop band of all time. We also get George and Ringo talking about what they watched on telly the previous evening. Then there’s the incredibly open and candid conversation between John and Paul about the future of the band and the problems with their relationship, and John and Paul talking to the producers about film stock. For every utterly compelling look at one of the most creative musical forces ever to shake their heads and go “woooo!”, there’s another point, particularly in the first two-thirds of episode one, where it really feels like it’s going nowhere, man.
Of course for Beatles nerds this is manna from heaven, a trough of unsurpassed joy. The massive run-time and fly-on-the-wall style means we’re truly spending time with these people, catching them in some astonishingly unguarded moments, particularly a sneakily taped chat between John and Paul in episode two. Though Jackson and his team have carefully layered a developing story, that of a band questioning their place in a world they long ago conquered, the glacial pace means we can revel in some wonderful moments. John Lennon, for example, when he’s not sulkily playing bass to one of Paul’s songs or deep in conversation with girlfriend Yoko, is an absolute hoot: bouncing from Spike Milligan-ish word association to impressions, to telling Linda McCartney’s young daughter she will have to eat her new kittens. His free-form improvisation gives us valuable insight into his process, “Just say whatever comes into your head until you get it right” he tells George, who’s grasping for a line in his new song, ‘Something’, demonstrating with an ad-libbed “distracts me like a cauliflower”.
When the four are getting on, when things are flying, their enthusiasm is utterly infectious. The creative stuff is wonderful; in less than a month the band develops the entirety of Let It Be and about half of Abbey Road. We see glimpses of songs that won’t emerge for years, Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘Gimme Some Truth’, Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’. At one point the cameras follow casual conversations between assorted parties dotted around the room, some serious, some flippant, while in the background we can hear Paul composing what would become ‘The Long and Winding Road’, just casually knocking out one of his masterpieces.
As a document of the creative process this is probably the best film about being in a band that has ever been made. Despite the weighty legacy of the fabs, anyone who has been in a functioning (or disfunctioning) band will see a little of themselves in the bickering and frustration and will relate to the deadpan look Ringo gives the camera as McCartney tells him what the drums should be doing on ‘Let It Be’. They’ll also recognise those moments, as here when Billy Preston adds electric piano to ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, when something suddenly locks into place and no-one can stop themselves beaming. The in-jokes, the camaraderie and the shared history are universal experiences for most musicians and are rarely captured so accurately.
The rooftop sequence is an editing masterclass, a brilliant bit of filmmaking that could easily stand alone. We watch as two chinstrapped and baffled bobbies attempt to keep their cool while trying to get the band to turn down their racket, interspersed with vox pops from the street below – each a beautiful snapshot of 1969 London – and an exhilarating performance from the Beatles themselves. It combines a comedy of the absurd that sometimes feels like Parks and Recreation or The Office with one of the all-time classic moments in rock music. It’s honestly extraordinary. It does, however, follow about 45 minutes of fairly uneventful rehearsal and debate. Smoking. Endless cups of tea. Arguments about microphone placement.
And that’s the problem with Get Back. The source material and subject matter feels so important that Jackson apparently couldn’t bear to lose any of it. If you’re a big fan then that’s fine; just to hear the band pass the time of day, hear the songs slowly emerge, to hear Ringo interrupt an important chat to apologize for farting, it all feels invaluable. The joy is in the trivial details as much as it is the dramatic moments. If your interest is more casual, however, much of this is going to come off as tedious.
It’s possible to make riveting documentaries that engage people with no interest in the subject matter – Asif Kapadia’s Senna for example, or Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil, which require no knowledge of either motor racing nor heavy metal to enjoy. Jackson hasn’t done that. If you’re in, then you’re in, but if you’re coming to Get Back with little knowledge of the Beatles, or as someone who actively doesn’t like their music (such people, bafflingly, do exist), then much of Get Back is going to be unbelievably wearying.
And that’s a shame, because the story here, once picked out of the details, is compelling. There’s drama, there’s politics, there’s romance, there’s intrigue, there’s joy and bitterness. A two-hour film could have been a universally accepted masterpiece. Even a brisker edit of the three episodes would at least have kept the attention of the casual viewer. There’s enough here. Instead, Jackson has pitched his series to the same kind of fans that bought the extended-edition Lord of the Rings box sets and watched all of the extras. Unmissable for those invested and largely unneeded to those who aren’t. If you’re a Beatles devotee this is the five star film you’ve always wanted, for everyone else it might be better to wait for the re-release of the original Let It Be movie, apparently coming next year.