My dad saw the Beatles play live once. Lots of parents and grandparents did, obviously, but I like to think my dad’s story was a bit special. He was sweeping up after a youth club dance and chanced to catch the night’s entertainers, four up-and-coming local lads, jamming together on the stage. I wonder if, while watching John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr messing around together at the very start of their career, he got goosebumps like I got from new documentary, which gives you an intimate closeup of the fractured Fab Four in their final days.
Directed by Peter Jackson, Get Back takes us to 1969 and challenges a long-established narrative about the last days of the Beatles. It’s a documentary series consisting of three lengthy episodes, released onone at a time on Nov. 25, 26 and 27.
This exhaustive (and, honestly, slightly exhausting) look inside the songwriting and recording process gives you a closeup of the four most famous musicians in the world as they try to work out whether they want to be Beatles anymore. It’s undoubtedly a hypnotic treat for music scholars and Beatles megafans. But even with the absorbing undercurrent of suspense around the band’s fate, Get Back is still eight hours of watching some guys sitting around in a room.
Having grown from a gang of bequiffed teenagers in the late 1950s into the lauded lords of Beatlemania in the 1960s, by 1969 the group found itself adrift. After a backlash from American religious types against Lennon’s glib remark about being more famous than Jesus, they gave up touring to focus on increasingly complex and experimental music. But a side effect of the time-saving technological innovation of multitracking meant they played individually rather than together as a unit, just as other commitments and relationships put their friendship under strain.
Feeling they needed to recapture their old energy, the band decided to write and record an album in two weeks, building toward their first live gig in years. They also decided to film the whole thing. But the resulting film, Let It Be, turned out to be something very different, as by the time it came out, the Beatles were no more.
Let It Be has been for decades considered a seminal rock text, an inside look at a band on the verge of implosion. But Get Back revisits and to some extent corrects that myth, opening with a pointed disclaimer about portraying the events as they happened and people as they were in the moment. The new series sifts through 56 hours of unseen footage and more than 150 hours of previously unheard audio, and the three lengthy episodes have space for much more nuance.
Sure, there’s obvious tension. Harrison makes his pitch to be more involved, but chafes against McCartney’s leadership. McCartney, meanwhile, despairs at a lack of enthusiasm. Lennon is always late, Yoko Ono perennially on his shoulder. With cameras discreetly rolling from the other side of the cavernous yet claustrophobic studio where the band meets to rehearse, the four slip into real talk about being in the doldrums.
And there’s the external pressure of being the biggest pop group on the planet. After the death of their manager, the Beatles are now managing themselves and reckoning with tedious complications like having to haggle over equipment from record label EMI. Desperately unhip director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the man overseeing the filming, keeps suggesting that the band perform in an amphitheater in Libya or a children’s hospital. And the clock is ticking because Ringo has to go and make a movie with Peter Sellers.
But Get Back also shows a bunch of creative people having fun. Lennon makes everyone laugh with his silly voices, everybody takes the piss out of McCartney’s beard, and they goof around with a filthy version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. The camera catches Lennon gazing at Harrison playing. John and Yoko slow-dance to jam sessions, and the ever-present yet almost completely silent Ono is even seen joking with McCartney’s soon-to-be-wife Linda. There’s a delightful moment when Linda’s young daughter, Heather, cheekily joins in with a song. And after hours of watching a crisis build around Harrison, it’s genuinely heartwarming to see him unable to stop himself smiling when the others comically mess up a take.
Most of all, Get Back shows a gang of lads making magic. The film begins with unhurried shots of musical and filming equipment being set up as John, Paul, George and Ringo drift into their seats for the first song. They intently watch each other, locking in on a new song, joking with each other in between slipping in and out of the groove. It’s spellbinding.
This happens again and again, whether they’re noodling around with Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry songs or feeling out possible lyrics to The Long and Winding Road. As they struggle through embryonic versions of so many iconic songs, you find yourself rooting for them to find the right word you know is waiting to slot into place.
McCartney’s love and understanding of music is infectious as he connects what they’re doing with wider musical traditions. You get an intriguing glimpse of how inspiration strikes as Harrison discusses what he watched on telly last night and how a jarring juxtaposition between two shows sparked the song I Me Mine. And just as my dad did while pushing a broom ’round a back room in Merseyside, you get to see the Beatles casually and joyously swapping instruments, working together to shape their sound.
Though I’m from the Wirral, a leafy peninsula across the river from Liverpool that the Beatles played many times as they grew up, my parents didn’t have any rarities or collector’s items in their record collection. We weren’t a musical household, or if I’m honest, even particularly big Beatles fans. They were just the main/only shared interest in my parents’ jumble of easy-listening LPs. I’m sure I’m not the only person who connected with my parents through the Beatles as a sort of background radiation transcending musical taste.
On paper then, Get Back would seem like perfect holiday season family viewing. Good luck with that. My dad would’ve been asleep in his chair within minutes. Not only is it excruciatingly long, but it’s also pretty static. Get Back is very good at capturing the band’s boredom and frustration as they sit around waiting for missing members to show up, but it does that by actually showing them sitting around bored and frustrated, for aaages. Episode 2, in which the music-making grinds to a halt when one member of the band disappears, makes Jackson’s Hobbit films look like a master class in brevity.
“You do realize this tape is costing you two shillings a foot?” someone inquires at one point during the recording session, and it feels like a question someone at Disney might’ve directed at Jackson.
The Oscar-winning director famously extended his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies into different cuts, and maybe Get Back needs multiple versions too. It might not be in the spirit of the thing, but you’d have an easier time if you could choose Just the Music, Just the Chat or Just the Fights.
Still, if you have the time, you do grow to know and empathize with these icons on a deeply human level. And the footage is filled with striking moments, whether it’s a portentous zoom into an abandoned mic or a private conversation captured with a recorder hidden in a flowerpot. As a bonus there’s the ongoing pleasure of the clothes: Each day the band and their camp followers show up and show off in bright shirts and cravats, flamboyant fluffy coats and deliciously stylish suits.
And of course, it all builds to the big moment: the gig. Hours before, the band members are still divided about whether they want to go up on the roof. But up they go. Get Back includes the entire 42-minute show performed and filmed on a freezing rooftop several stories above London’s Savile Row one January lunchtime in 1969. A raucous and unique moment in rock history, it turned out to be their last ever concert, but what a way to say goodbye.
I said goodbye to both my parents in 2020 (neither from COVID, though the pandemic stopped us from spending time with them toward the end). Returning to our old house, my siblings and I went through the old record collection one last time. The tattered 7-inches and a well-worn tape cassette of Abbey Road reminded me of my dad’s story, and made me think of my mum and dad dancing in their youth.
The last time I saw mum and dad together was on a Beatles tour around Liverpool where they met my new baby daughter for only the second time. My little girl is now a toddler, and sings Yellow Submarine in the bath while splashing around with a suitably hued toy. She na-na-naaas along to Hey Jude in the car, which never fails to get me and my wife misty. Of course that doesn’t mean she’ll pay any attention when I put the Get Back concert on the TV over the holidays, but never mind.
One day we’ll watch it together. For now we’ll let it be.