Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back is an eight-hour long, three-part documentary that exhaustively and exhaustingly covers the attempt in January 1969 by the world’s most famous band, The Beatles, to make an album of new tunes performed live, free of overdubbing and supplemental instrumentation. For super-fans like me, it is compelling viewing, but for those who enjoy the group’s music but aren’t interested in listening to dozens of versions of individual songs, it is best consumed in moderation. To such viewers, I recommend watching the fifteen-minute introduction, dipping into each episode two or three times for ten-minute stretches, and then viewing the entirety of the famous performance on the rooftop of their London studio, making for a manageable cumulative running time of around 150 minutes.
The film’s achievement is threefold. First, it exposes the cracks in the group thoroughly enough to make their break-up seem inevitable, but does so without pointing fingers or assigning blame. It is another matter that haters, particularly of the anti-Yoko Ono camp, will find enough evidence to feed their prejudice. Second, even as it underlines divisions between the Fab Four, it shows us how brilliant they were as composers, singers, instrumentalists, and collaborators. Third, it provides the best insight we possess into the process of song creation employed by these astoundingly prolific artists.
In the case of Get Back, the song that gives the film its title, we see its entire development, beginning with Paul McCartney dreaming up a few notes and the two-word refrain. He adds a gender-bending narrative about Sweet Loretta Martin; takes a detour into contemporary politics of immigration (Sidi Abdul Rami was a Pakistani / But he didn’t live at home / Worried people said we don’t need Pakistanis / Boy you better travel home / Get back); that protest aspect gets spun off into two separate tunes, never released as Beatles tracks; finally, in discussion with John Lennon and George Harrison, the verse about a second character, JoJo, is polished to the form we recognize today.
Paul is the driving force behind much of the project, and produces the most substantial songs generated on camera: Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road, aside from Get Back. In fact, it was his idea to create an album in this fashion.
The Beatles matured as performers before they became recording artists and then world-famous celebrities. They played hundreds of gigs in Liverpool and then Hamburg, where for months they shacked in a backroom next to the club’s smelly toilet, enduring a winter without heating, grinding out hours of rock and roll each night for little pay. In 1966, four years into their ascent to the peak of pop music, they stopped touring because the speakers of the time weren’t powerful enough to convey their music to crowds in the stadiums they filled, and because they were spooked by a series of threats to their security. They retreated to the studio to make intricate compositions that took pop music in novel directions.
However, friction within the band grew during the recording of 1968’s White Album, leading Paul to suggest a return to their concert roots as a way of rescuing their bond and reviving their sense of purpose. The filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to make a television special from their rehearsals, and it is from the material he shot that Peter Jackson has edited Get Back. Jackson adopts a simple chronological approach, crossing out dates on a calendar of January 1969 as they pass, and marking changes in the schedule of the proposed live performance as it keeps being postponed.
The first episode covers sessions held within a sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, one potential site for the concert, another being a grand Roman amphitheatre in Sabratha, Libya. The fact that both Twickenham and Tripoli were considered possible venues demonstrates both the inchoateness of the concept and the endless possibilities available to the Beatles in that period. Imagine the audacity and brazen confidence that went into thinking, “Well, we don’t have any songs finalised yet, but at the end of the month we plan to sing a dozen or more finished tunes to a packed audience in a two thousand year-old theatre in North Africa, maybe even sail a cruise ship full of music lovers to the location.”
Despite its picturesque potential, the amphitheatre idea is eventually abandoned and so is Twickenham, not least because the acoustics of the sound stage are atrocious. The place is cavernous and cold, John appears distant and distracted, making few contributions in the early sessions. Beatles historians have speculated that he was addicted to heroin at this time, though there is nothing in his behaviour to suggest it. He asks an assistant for pep pills at one point, but otherwise appears content with the tea and wine that keeps being served up.
George is more involved, but both Paul and John mock his contributions, spurring him to announce his departure from the group. He has a sackful of songs ready, but as the junior member can only get one or two into each album, leaving him frustrated and morose.
Two emergency meetings follow, off camera, the first of which goes very badly. Not only does George not agree to return, it appears John is also considering leaving. The next morning, first to work at Twickenham as usual, Paul muses about Yoko Ono’s relationship with John having changed his own equation with his friend. Later on, captured on a hidden microphone, he and John speak about how John used to be the undisputed leader, but Paul is increasingly taking over that role.
Eventually, the four decide to shift to their own studio on Savile Row, where the mood gets considerably warmer. The equipment in Apple Studio, installed by a huckster named Alexis Mardas whose eccentricities the band indulged at great cost to themselves, is useless. But hey, they’re the Beatles, and can commandeer what they need from their publisher EMI. In that basement studio, they work on tunes that will make up their last two albums Let It Be and Abbey Road, as also a few that will be recorded for their solo efforts after the break-up.
Yoko is a constant presence but, with a bunch of cameramen, sound recordists and gofers in the room, she is hardly a distraction. Things were probably different when it was just the four band members and her at jam sessions. Paul’s girlfriend Linda Eastman visits frequently, on one occasion bringing along her adorable daughter Heather, who brightens the mood further.
The most important positive contribution comes from Billy Preston, a keyboardist they know from their Hamburg days who happens to be in town. Having decided to do entire songs in single takes, they desperately need an extra player, and recruit Billy, a move that dissolves internal disputes which were in any case fading into the background. Not only is he an exceptional session keyboardist, his enthusiasm is as infectious and unbounded on the twentieth take of a song as on the first.
John is now full of energy, doing impressions, mugging for the camera, and displaying his wit and wordplay. Neither he nor Paul spare their voices, covering over a dozen favourite artists just for the heck of it when they aren’t trying out their own material. The songlist is getting tighter, but Paul still wants something more than “just another album”. While it is now too late to find an adequate venue, Michael Lindsay-Hogg and the sound engineer Glyn Johns suggest the rooftop as a possible location, with recording being done in the basement.
The final episode is largely a lead-up to the rooftop gig, of which we get an extended cut, with split screens showing the singers in flow, the crowd gathering underneath, and bobbies entering the premises to stop the disturbance of peace.
Savile Row does not provide the ideal demographic for their music but, aside from a few malcontents, the passersby interviewed are happy to hear the new songs. The Apple receptionist along with the Beatles’ longtime personal assistant Mal Evans delay the cops long enough for the band to work through the songlist. Their first public concert in years is an unqualified success.
The next day, they reconvene in the studio to record the slower numbers, and that’s where the film ends. Sadly, they weren’t pleased with the product, and the project was suspended till after their break-up, when it was resurrected under the stewardship of Phil Spector. He added a few typically bombastic arrangements, going entirely against the grain of the original concept. Let It Be, as the finished album was called, became the Beatles final release, aside from anthologies. Though it is uneven, and certainly not among their best albums, there is plenty to love in it.
Peter Jackson’s documentary altered my perspective on the Beatles in two ways. First, it underlined the genius of Paul McCartney. I have always been drawn to the John Lennon-Yoko Ono side of the divide. I love John’s acid humour and his political interventions. Knowing the history of performance within the visual arts, I appreciate Yoko Ono’s career and understand where her primal screaming and the Bed-ins for Peace come from.
Unlike John and George’s post-Beatles careers, which were filled with interesting professional and personal experiments, Paul’s can be summarised in one word: pabulum. All this has led me to underestimate his Beatles output, but Jackson’s documentary forced me to see that, if Paul was a bit bossy, it was because he was the indisputable boss of the band in its final phase.
Second, I am now fully reconciled to the end of the Beatles. No more counterfactual if-they-had-stayed-together fantasies for me. All things must pass, we can’t always work it out, sometimes it is best to let it be rather than trying endlessly to come together.