“The Beatles: Get Back”
Directed by Peter Jackson
Three-part television docuseries on Disney+ (2021)
A half-century ago, The Beatles reigned supreme across the land in the heyday of AM radio and rec room hi-fi turntables. Like many youngsters who were another decade or so away from scoring a coveted driver’s license, I lived and breathed in anticipation of hearing the newest release from the 20th century’s greatest musical group in the band’s final few years.
As a preteen listening to the album “Let It Be” — played ad nauseam in my bedroom in a cookie-cutter American suburb of Seattle, to be a fly on the wall of the studio in which this original supergroup fashioned its iconic songs was my unattainable dream. Unimaginable because The Beatles were superhuman and as mythical as Superman and Santa Claus. And they were a million miles separated from my suburban American life.
These mythical characters were subject to the whims of mythmakers who had us believing a litany of half-truths and fantasies: Yoko Ono broke up the venerated band — or was it Paul who callously left the group? The famously bonded members weren’t on speaking terms during the making of the “Get Back” album and recorded their contributions in separate studios.
None of that was true, as shown by the new, mesmerizing three-part, eight-hour docuseries, “Get Back,” now appearing on the Disney+ streaming channel. Director Peter Jackson’s stunning film dispels those suspicions while reacquainting millions of Beatles fans with the magic and charisma that drew them to the superband in the first place.
Through its sheer length, the series gave a more truthful and contextual retelling of the Beatles’ work composing, rehearsing and recording a dozen songs for their “Let It Be” album while at the same time serving as the protagonists of a cinema verite documentary originally shot by a two-camera crew under the direction of British filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Adding stress to the strain to this effort was the third leg of an overly ambitious project, all of which needed to be finished in a month: to perform their newly created songs in front of an audience for the first time in more than two years.
Jackson’s work was an unexpected revelation and offered Beatles devotees a joyous reunion with the rock group that still dominates my childhood memories. While watching Lennon and McCartney struggle to find the right wording for lines in “Get Back,” I found it akin to peering over the shoulder of William Shakespeare as he noodled over word placement while writing “Hamlet.”
To be fair, the docuseries would likely be an overindulgence for the casual Beatles fan and excruciatingly boring to a non-fan of a different generation. But it’s easy to see why the acclaimed director of two multi-part film series based on the “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” literary trilogy — felt the need to expand his effort well beyond its planned two-hour running time. And after viewing “Get Back” in its entirety, it’s easy to see why. The source material, 60 hours of 16mm film shot by Lindsay-Hogg’s crew, was simply too compelling and too rich to allow it to return, unaired, into the Apple vault for perhaps another 50 years.
Lindsay-Hogg’s “Let It Be” two-hour documentary, released in 1970 after The Beatles disbanded, was dour, dark and somber in its portrayal of the Fab Four’s rehearsal and recording sessions leading to the creation of the mega-band’s second-to-last album. On the face of it, it’s no wonder.
With just two hours to tell the story in his 1970 film, Lindsay-Hogg opted to play up the periodic moments of drama and emphasize the undercurrent of tension that existed within the Twickenham Film Studios and, later, in the small basement recording space at Apple Studios: most notably Paul’s tiff with George, who complains to the perfectionist McCartney that he’s doing the best he can to interpret Macca’s musical vision. The disagreement led to Harrison’s quiet withdrawal from the rehearsal and his temporary departure as a member of the Beatles.
While drama abounds in Jackson’s series, the band members otherwise are clear-eyed and in good cheer throughout the film, and predictably irreverent and funny (John names sound engineer Glyn Johns “Glynis” after British actress Glynis Johns). There are surprisingly few hissy fits and tantrums, considering the oppressive timeline they set for themselves to finish the joint album/concert project.
Based on a past urban legend, one might have imagined the four tripping over themselves in a drug-induced stupor. That’s not in evidence, although the boys are seen puffing on marijuana stogies throughout and pouring themselves an occasional scotch-and-Coke. And Ringo is heard asking gofer Mal Evans to procure a couple of uppers for the evening as they leave the studio. Sadly, though, I viscerally reached out to the screen to knock George Harrison’s omnipresent cigarette from his fingertips (a heavy smoker most of his life, he experienced an early death in 2001 from the ravages of metastasized throat cancer).
Lindsay-Hogg’s 52-year-old film stock, relegated to the vaults of Apple, Ltd., was painstakingly scanned frame-by-frame by Jackson’s New Zealand cinematic wizards, who cleaned and optimized the film, then reformatted it into spectacular digitally optimized high-definition footage, just a step below that of a live television broadcast. The Fab Four appear as vivid and alive in the restored film footage as they were in that turbulent decade. The few scenes showing their age included glimpses of George Harrison’s funky neon-bright wardrobe and the now-antiquated four-track audio mixing equipment and recording system fit into the cramped Apple studio. (George, a new-technology buff, allowed Apple engineers to transport his then-state-of-the-art home studio’s eight-track recording equipment to Twickenham and, later, to Apple Studios on Abbey Road.)
While it’s not evident in the series that the supergroup is on the threshold of a breakup, observant viewers will see hints of the fractures that would soon divide them forever. The four possessed distinctly different personalities: Paul, the uniquely talented visionary with driving ambition and a singularly unyielding work ethic; John, renowned for his razor-sharp caustic wit, at turns humorous and silly in the footage, then withdrawn and uninvolved — but never the dour, nasty musician torturing his songwriting partner with curt, hurtful comments, as we’ve been led to believe. George is the intense musical tactician seen often frustrated with what he sees as Paul’s overbearing direction and John’s disinclination to champion his burgeoning songwriting talents.
Then there’s Ringo: always affable, good-natured and the effortless master of the drum kit.
Behind the scenes, the erstwhile leader of the band — John — loosens his grip on the direction of the group through a combination of factors: his growing disinterest in the mechanics of songwriting and rehearsing, and his infatuation with Yoko Ono. And George’s newfound confidence in his talents is drawing him nearer to his own break from the band.
But on-camera, the fissures are opaque. Paul, long characterized during this time as overbearing, bossy, and interested only in advancing his own songs, instead is seen as playing the role of parental facilitator, gently prodding the boys to “get back” on task to compose new songs, refine lyrics and get them recorded.
John, who’s bored with the process of writing lyrics and rehearsing, brightens when it comes time to record the group’s newly penned material. He is, after all, like the gifted athlete with an aversion to practicing who comes to life at gametime. Lennon isn’t the uninvolved, dour band member not on speaking terms with his songwriting partner. In Jackson’s docuseries, he is jovial, playful, silly and witty. His sarcastic wit is on display throughout and is often at Paul’s expense, although the barbs are gentle. When Glyn Johns, the studio engineer and erstwhile album producer (longtime Beatles studio producer George Martin is rarely seen except when he putters around the studio), offers a back-handed compliment at the end of a recording take for “Dig A Pony” (he tells group members, “You even got the end right …”), George wryly offers “We improve with time.” Then a smirking John quickly chimes in with “You’re not talking to Ricky & the Red Streaks, you know!”
Harrison was portrayed as distant and annoyed in the Lindsay-Hogg film, but he instead comes across in Jackson’s series as engaged, affable and involved — but conflicted. It’s evident he’s brimming with new music to share with the group, but his frustration over failing to breach the Lennon-McCartney songwriting dam seems to have brought him near the boiling point. Ringo is his usual amiable, genial self throughout Jackson’s eight hours of footage.
Even the long-held, vaguely racist, misogynistic impression of Yoko as Lennon’s inscrutable, unsmiling Svengali gets a needed revision in the three-part series. In Jackson’s film, his dutiful lover is more observer than a disrupter. She’s a benign presence, more ignored than disdained by the others. Yoko is even seen cheerfully grinning as the others listen to playbacks. She even animatedly chats up Linda Eastman, Paul’s girlfriend and future wife, about an unheard topic. McCartney’s future wife is shown attending several of the Apple Studio sessions seated next to Paul.
It’s at its most intense when a conversation between Lennon and McCartney is surreptitiously recorded by filmmakers, who positioned a hidden microphone in the cafeteria after the songwriting team excused themselves to hash out their differences and endeavor to bring Harrison back to the studio. There’s no shouting or recriminations; instead, they offer apologies and reflections on why their lead guitarist’s contributions had been minimized.
At the conclusion of the three-part series, I found myself immensely drawn to these four titans of music history — especially for their humanity and love for one another. At its core, the series is a four-way love story. That love percolated during a formative time as they wrote music at each others’ homes, performed exhaustively throughout Britain, Europe and the world, and commiserated over assorted trials and tribulations on their way to stardom — while coping as best they could as the World’s Most Famous Band.
Most affecting is the obvious love shared between the songwriting team of Paul and John, two boys-turned-men who were spirit animals at heart. Paul wrote the song “Two of Us,” on the surface a tune about McCartney and his girlfriend Linda. But in reality, it succinctly captures the songwriting team’s deep connection. The two awkwardly and embarrassingly rehearse the heartfelt ballad, with Paul affecting a German accent and John substituting word gibberish — seemingly to avoid disclosing their true feelings about the tight bond existing between them.
Like many love stories, this one has an ending that is foreshadowed in the series by a gnawing sense of heartbreak, followed by a well-documented breakup just months in the future. That’s evidenced by a scene in which Paul and Ringo, sans George (John left for home), are slumped in chairs to ponder what the departure of their disgruntled lead guitarist means to the group. Both men look shattered and Paul is near tears during a poignant half-minute of silence. It’s probably the most heartbreaking scene in the series.
Even during the band’s most difficult times during the recording sessions, they’d relieve the tension by spontaneously performing old American rockabilly songs, committed to memory by countless performances during their early performing days, or busting out an old British folk tune like “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen By The Sea.”
Performing the music
For this Beatles devotee, the series truly shines when John, Paul, George and Ringo — having polished their songs into final form — began playing them in earnest for the recording engineer. The session performances are exhilarating. John’s unforgettable voice — one of rock music’s most recognizable ever — is riveting as he performs “Dig A Pony” and “Across the Universe.” His trademark nasal baritone is matched by Paul’s versatile, upper-register baritone on “Hey Jude,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be.” And George’s “I Me Mine” is stunning in its emotion and wordplay.
The series’ climatic ending featuring the iconic concert on the roof of Apple Studios is familiar territory for Beatles fans, but Jackson has included new footage taken on the street below and inside the Apple Studio lobby that adds texture and context to the Fab Four’s filmed performance. The polite “Britishness” of the day is charmingly on display, especially by the London helmet-wearing bobbies who implored the office staff to “do something” so that the busy business district below the rooftop concert wouldn’t be further disturbed by the cacophony from above.
One of the baby-faced police constables wondered aloud if the music couldn’t be dubbed in later for the film. A sergeant later arrives at the office and politely asks if he could head upstairs to assess the situation (one could only imagine a quite-different response by an American cop). A camera crew also captured the measured disapproval voiced by a couple of miffed, bowler-hat-wearing businessmen.
Little did they know, of course, that the rooftop concert would become an iconic symbol of an amazing decade of music and social change championed by that era’s seminal rock band.
Robert Smith is executive editor of the Kitsap News Group newspapers and editor of the Port Orchard Independent and Central Kitsap Reporter community newspapers.