The Beatles: Get Back

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The Beatles: Get Back.
The Beatles: Get Back.
Photo: 2020 Apple Corps Ltd


The Beatles: Get Back




5/5 Stars


Working with more than fifty hours of video and 150 hours of audio, Peter Jackson, the visionary director behind the Lord of the Rings series, presents a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Beatles' Get Back sessions: a multimedia extravaganza that was to include the Beatles' latest album that was to be written, rehearsed and recorded in just two weeks; a return to playing before a live audience for the first time in two years; and a TV documentary about the making of the album. These notorious sessions would yield the brilliant if messy album, Let It Be, which ended up being released after the Beatles had broken up, and a film of the same name that is long out-of-print but is notorious for showing the band coming apart at the seams. Across three feature-length episodes with fully restored and remastered video and audio, Jackson paints a very different picture of these infamous sessions and an intimate, invaluable peek into the creative process of the greatest band to have ever walked the earth.   


To get what will become increasingly obviously out of the way, I am a gigantic Beatles fan. And I do mean gigantic. I may have been born nearly a year after John Lennon was murdered, but seeing the Beatles film Help at a friend's house as a kid changed my life. I had little interest in music before that, but after spending a couple of hours with these four funny, charismatic individuals and their killer tunes, I was hooked.

I can still remember being enchanted, especially with the You're Going to Lose That Girl sequence – one of their best, if lesser-known, "early period" songs, performed by the Fab 4 even as the film's baddies try and kidnap Ringo by sawing a hole in the floor beneath his drum kit (Help is a wonderfully silly movie) – and that enchantment never really went away. Indeed, though the Beatles were my way into music, that would actually only come later: I listened to pretty much nothing but the Beatles and their solo careers (especially Paul McCartney's) for the rest of my formative years.

I've read the books, I've seen the movies and the documentaries (someone really needs to get the Beatles Anthology up on a streaming service asap), and, of course, I've listened to the records (and even some bootlegs) more often than I can count. I could probably write a Beatles book myself at this point without even having to do a ton of extra research. So, when I say that Get Back is a stunning revelation about the Beatles and their music – and the biggest gift to come from the Beatles camp since at least Giles Martin's transcendental stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper – I'm not kidding around.

Truthfully, despite my virtually lifelong fandom, I've never actually seen the whole of Michael Lindsay-Hogg's infamous documentary, Let It Be. It hasn't been officially released on DVD, and I'm not even sure if it even made it to VHS (look it up, kids), but what I had seen of it didn't exactly have me wanting to rush out and hunt down an... unofficial copy. All the clips that I had seen (including, as I recall, in the aforementioned Anthology) painted a truly depressing picture of a band that meant so much to me constantly at each other's throats, all captured in joyless, drably shot 16mm film with a final cut that the Beatles themselves are known to have hated.

There has always been an incongruity, however, between the notorious bitterness of the documentary and the joyously defiant "Rooftop Concert" that capped the Get Back project. Plus, for all the well-known complications and controversies around the Let It Be album that resulted from these sessions, the entire album sounds significantly more like a group effort than The Beatles (aka the White Album), which immediately preceded it and, for all of its greatness, still sounds to me more like four solo Beatles albums squished together than a full-band Beatles album, ironically – and indeed, that's actually how it was often recorded with the other Beatles acting as session musicians on each other's songs rather than as proper collaborators.

Paul McCartney was understandably reticent, therefore, when Peter Jackson approached him with the idea of assembling a new version of Let It Be from the hours of material that were sitting untouched in the Apple vaults (the Beatles had a company named Apple long before Steve Jobs ever came along). It's not just that he didn't want a repeat of last time; his actual memory had been so tainted by the notoriety surrounding Let It Be and the year leading up to the break up of his beloved band that he now truly believed the entire experience to be uniformly awful and really not worth revisiting.  

After looking through the hours upon hours of material available to him, Jackson assured McCartney that these sessions were not as he - and the rest of us -  remembered at all. There was inter-personal conflict and logistical issues around what the Get Back project was ultimately to be, sure, but these were only a relatively small part of the story. Primarily, these hours of video and audio showed a group of guys who genuinely loved each other and truly enjoyed making music together. Paul was convinced. So was Ringo Starr. And so were Yoko and Olivia, John Lennon's and George Harrison's widows, respectively.   

And, indeed, that's exactly what The Beatles: Get Back delivers in spades.

There is some drama here – at near eight hours in length, there damn well better be – but though Jackson doesn't paper over the interpersonal conflict that arose during the sessions, Get Back is an overwhelmingly joyous and endlessly fascinating affair. Most crucially, though, Jackson does amplify the drama somewhat by making a ticking clock out of the frankly ludicrously tight time limit that the Beatles imposed on themselves for the entire Get Back project (14 days to write and record the album, film the documentary, and stage the live show), he's clearly not at all interested in sensationalizing the conflict that arose, in particular, as a result of Paul's vision of what he wanted Get Back to be.

Take, for example, the Let It Be film's most infamous moment: George bitterly biting back at Paul for trying to control his guitar playing, "I'll play whatever you want me to play, or I won't play at all." It's a moment that became emblematic of the resentment, barely contained hatred, and passive-aggressive sniping that allegedly defined this period in the Beatles' career and these sessions, especially. Jackson doesn't ignore this spat – indeed, it comes quite early on in the first episode – but lets it play out fully in the proper context.

Some in-depth Beatles knowledge is required to know what George is referring to when he brings up Hey Jude (Paul, quite rightly, stopped George from amping up the guitar work in the song, preferring a far subtler approach), but even without that, it's clear that what we're looking at here is much more nuanced than had previously been assumed.

George Harrison was, by this point, more than fed up with playing second banana to John and Paul – spoiler: he actually temporarily quits the band later in the same episode – but the conflict here was more of two clashing approaches to working out the arrangements of the song than anything else. While George was happy to improvise around what they were already doing until he found the perfect guitar part for the song, Paul preferred moving on and trying something else. And, to add further nuance to the situation, it quickly becomes clear that Paul realises how bossy he's being and admits to being uncomfortable with being put in that position, but at that point, no one else was really stepping up to drive the Beatles since their manager, Brian Epstein, died over a year before.

This whole thing takes place over a couple of minutes out of nearly eight hours, but just as the out-of-context version was used to represent the bitterness of the Let It Be film, here it's no less emblematic of what's so great about Get Back. The four Beatles are among the most iconic personalities in the history of popular music, and it has become increasingly tempting to view them as icons rather than as the complex, often contradictory people they so obviously were. Jackson fully allows those complexities to show throughout these eight hours, even as he makes it clear why John, Paul, George and Ringo (no surnames required) are icons in the first place: they're simply terrific company.

Which brings us to the biggest question mark in evaluating something like Get Back. For me, this is about as easy a 5-star rating as I have ever given in all my years as a reviewer, but I am a massive Beatleshead. Obviously, I'm going to love this. And, yes, if you are anywhere near as much a Beatles fan as I am, you will find all eight hours of Get Back endlessly rewarding and insightful, both in the big moments and in the tiniest details (Paul worked with John on the latter's solo song, Gimme Some Truth?! Wow, John was really, really taken with Alan Klein, huh? Hey, check out that brand new copy of the Stones' recent release, Beggars Banquet, just lying there on the floor of the studio!) But what if you're not? Eight hours is a lot, especially when almost all of it involves a bunch of guys (and sometimes their wives and kids) messing about in a studio.

There is, though, something here for everybody – even if not everybody will want to watch these episodes in one go or even in their entirety. But not only is the music here obviously sublime, but the Beatles themselves are some of the best "characters" on TV right now, and they're a real pleasure to hang out with for all those hours. Casual fans and non-fans will get at least something out of it, but there is one other group who will love it almost as much as us Beatles fanatics (if they're not Beatles fanatics already): musicians, general creators and anyone interested in the creative process. This is, after all, a fly-on-the-wall, all-access look at the working process of the greatest band of the rock and roll era (and counting) and whether it's watching Paul literally conjure Get Back out of thin air (awesome, in the most literal sense of the word) or seeing how the Beatles prove John Cleese's assertion, time and time again, that the keys to creativity are boredom and playfulness, this is an unparalleled masterclass in the creative process. 

And, honestly, if you don't want to pick up a guitar (or a drum stick or, for that matter, a pen) after this, I really don't know what to tell you.


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