January 1969. The Beatles gather at Twickenham Film Studios to rehearse for an album, a live show and a documentary. But, with drummer Ringo Starr booked to shoot a movie in two weeks, the pressure is on to find their creative mojo pronto.
Streaming on: Disney+
Episodes viewed: 3 of 3
“The Beatles face a daunting task,” says a subtitle early on during Get Back. “They must write and rehearse 14 new songs. And perform them live… two weeks from now.” This is the ticking bomb at the heart of Peter Jackson’s 468 minute-long, deeply affectionate portrait of his favourite band, another fellowship of sorts. Assembled from 60 hours of outtakes from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 Let It Be documentary (along with 150 hours of audio recordings played over ‘representative’ imagery), Get Back is so much more than a by-the-numbers rockumentary. Instead it’s a beautifully restored, ridiculously intimate portrait of music’s most famous group (sorry, 5 Star) at a crossroads in their career — between being a live act or a studio band, and more pertinently between sticking together or breaking up — capturing the alchemy of their collaboration before your very eyes.
After a beautifully crafted, ten-minute potted history of the band that provides all the feels, the film proper starts on a soundstage in Twickenham, with the boys rehearsing for an album, a live event — could be a TV show or a gig at a Libyan amphitheatre — and a documentary. At this point John and Ringo are 28, Paul is 26 and George is just 25; iconhood has yet to be bestowed. It’s the most famous set of pop stars on the planet (sorry again, 5 Star) asking for sarnies and dry buns, talking about last night’s telly (sci-fi show Out Of The Unknown) and generally mucking about. Jackson focuses on the song-writing process — the playing of old hits to ignite the magic, the slow chiselling of songs rather than “Eureka!” moments — but it’s no white(album)wash either. There are endless band meetings that go round in circles — they candidly admit they are a band in the doldrums, missing the guiding influence of their late manager Brian Epstein — and Jackson doesn’t flinch from the micro-aggressions that build, until one of them quits with the parting shot, “See you around the clubs.” The response: “If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, get Clapton.”
At the start of Episode 2, the band decide to move from Twickenham to Apple HQ to continue recording. While it proves fruitful for both the creation of new music and the esprit de corps, it doesn’t really help Jackson’s film, adding little in the way of gripping drama (it also sidelines young documentarian Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who hid microphones in plant pots to get the dirt, but is left with “a movie about smokers, nose-pickers and nail-biters”). This episode feels a bit like guitar noodling, lacking propulsion. But it’s still full of fantastic moments: the band taking the piss out of their press coverage; Ringo admitting he’s farted; and the in-the-moment reaction to Yoko Ono. “It’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing, like, in 50 years’ time,” suggests Paul prophetically. “‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.’”
Get Back is a tribute to the musicianship of the band and a potent reminder of the power of the songs.
The received wisdom surrounding the recording of Let It Be is that it was a difficult, depressive end-game, but Jackson’s film acts as a jubilant corrective; a lot of the running time is four friends enjoying making music together, often just playing for play’s sake, or mates desperately trying to make each other laugh with a silly voice or word-play. Get Back is also a tribute to the musicianship of the band (even Ringo) and a potent reminder of the power of the songs — in half-finished states, The Beatles’ tunes still fuel the blood and melt the heart with consummate ease.
When it comes time for a live event — a concert on the roof of Apple HQ — the film hits top gear again, Jackson using split-screen to cover the band in action, interviews with people on the street who can’t actually see the performers (’60s vox pops: never not funny) and the attempts of the coppers, wearing helmets with straps too short for their chins, to get the gig shut down (McCartney’s joy that the rozzers have arrived is priceless). It’s a big, bittersweet ending to a tightly focused endeavour. The concert is the last time the band played for the public, the beginning of the end of a seismic cultural phenomenon. And because Peter Jackson feels it so deeply — whether you think the four are fab or not — you will too.
It takes a long and winding road, but The Beatles: Get Back leaves tons of jewels along the way, a celebration of not only one band but also music, creativity and friendship. You can feel Jackson’s love and care in every perfectly restored frame.