I felt quite bereft at the conclusion of Peter Jackson's epic documentary The Beatles: Get Back (2021). Jackson and his team at Weta Digital had access to over 50 hours of previously unseen material and 150 hours of unheard audio to remaster, remix and reimagine. What emerges is such an immersive experience that you really feel as if you are sitting in the same room as John, Paul, George and Ringo; eavesdropping on conversations you shouldn't be privy to and watching master craftsmen at work.
The Beatles: Get Back has transformed into an impressive three part work lasting nearly eight hours.
Jackson's output has largely been the cinematic equivalent of someone who won't use one word when 250 will do. Originally conceived as a feature length film intending to right the perceived wrongs of Michael Lindsay-Hogg's original Let It Be (1969) documentary feature film, The Beatles: Get Back has transformed into an impressive three part work lasting nearly eight hours.
It is January 1969 and The Beatles congregate at the cavernous (no pun intended) Twickenham Film Studios to write and record a new album with the intention of culminating in a promotional TV Special. All the while, they are being filmed for a documentary by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. It is soon clear the environment is cold and oppressive - every candid moment and mounting tension being captured for posterity. History tells us this is the beginning of the end for the Fab Four.
Part 1 certainly lives up to this perception. The ill-fated Twickenham sessions come across as somewhat aimless, with no one having a particularly clear idea of what the TV Special will end up being. (Are they going to play a concert on an ocean liner? An ancient amphitheatre in Tripoli?) In these moments, the band seem slightly rudderless, managing themselves following the death of Brian Epstein two years earlier. The initial sessions see a band who have largely had the joy sucked out of them, unclear of a common goal; once a tight unit, now four individuals pulling in different directions.
Those familiar with the original documentary will spot some of the famous previously released material. George and Paul getting narky with each other over a guitar part; John's witty introductions, some of which would eventually make their way onto the 'Let It Be' album; George helping Ringo out with the chord sequence for 'Octopus's Garden' on the piano. These scenes are fairly immaterial when one considers what other content now surrounds them.
It is interesting to see how John and Paul treat George's material like an afterthought.
Jackson's sprawling documentary is full of truly astonishing 'history-in-the-making' moments. McCartney, searching for inspiration during the ill-fated Twickenham sessions, seemingly grabs the next Beatles single out of thin air whilst persevering with a chugging bass riff (the eponymous 'Get Back'). George Harrison presents early versions of 'All Things Must Pass' and 'Something', and it is clear that he is on the cusp of something special. It is interesting to see how John and Paul treat George's material like an afterthought, though. There is a telling conversation where he tells John Lennon about the list of songs backing up that haven't yet made a Beatles album. He wonders aloud whether he should go and record them himself to get them off his chest. The resultant solo triple-album 'All Things Must Pass' appeared in 1970. It would be replete with some stone cold classic Harrison compositions, any of which would have equalled and, in some cases, surpassed the quality of some Lennon and McCartney material on later Beatles albums.
The original Let It Be documentary would have us believe that, at this latter stage of the band’s existence, Paul McCartney is the de facto leader, rallying reluctant troops and spearheading a doomed project. Then there’s happy-go-lucky Ringo Starr, never taking sides. Meanwhile, George Harrison is the emerging, frustrated dark horse, creatively constrained by the fact that he is in a band with the forces of Lennon and McCartney; and John Lennon, already emotionally checked out, living in blithe idyll with Yoko Ono. While elements of these traits are evident, The Beatles: Get Back largely paints a quite different picture.
To that end, there are some intriguing, eye-opening moments. The atmosphere generally improves once they decide to reconvene at their new Apple Studio at 3 Savile Row (which, amusingly, is still being fitted out when they arrive). This relocation gives the band an opportunity to reassess the project and get back (pun intended) to being a tight rock and roll band. There is also some constructive revisionism in the presence of one particular polarising figure. Though often lazily deemed the woman who ‘broke up The Beatles’, Yoko Ono does not say a word throughout the whole piece. Yes, she is constantly at John’s side and does break into her patented wailing during jam sessions, but The Beatles: Get Back suggests that rumours of her causing animosity between the band are greatly exaggerated. In fact, McCartney, in particular, is quite cordial towards her.
I found it hard not to feel a tinge of sadness, knowing that just a year later, the long and winding road would come to an end.
There is a sense of dramatic irony underlying The Beatles: Get Back. The band would have one more ace up their collective sleeve following these sessions (the far more harmonious ‘Abbey Road’ album), but I found it hard not to feel a tinge of sadness, knowing that just a year later, the long and winding road would come to an end. Therefore, the merit of Peter Jackson’s documentary as an historical document cannot be overstated. For the casual fan, it may be a touch overlong (particularly the first part), but for those who have The Beatles coursing through their veins, it is an unparalleled, extended insight into the creativity and camaraderie of four lads from Liverpool, not even thirty, at the tail-end of their career together. Of course, they had just so happened to have become the biggest band on the planet.