My dad once saw the Beatles play live. A lot of people do, of course, but I like to think that my father’s story was a bit odd. Sweeping up a youth club dance, he chanced upon the night’s entertainers, four up-and-coming local boys, jamming together in an empty hall. I wonder if watching John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr have fun together at the very beginning of their careers gave my dad goosebumps like I did from the new documentarywhich gives you an intimate look at the fractured Fab Four in their final days.
Directed by Peter Jackson, Get Back takes us back to 1969 and challenges conventional wisdom about the last days of The Beatles before they went their separate ways. The documentary series consists of three long episodes, with behind-the-scenes footage also including the band’s last full-length live performance.
Get Back is streamingsince last November and will finally be released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 12th. (This was originally announced for February, but Variety reported a delay due to faulty discs.)
This exhaustive (and frankly slightly exhausting) look into the songwriting and recording process gives you an in-depth look at four of the world’s most famous musicians as they try to figure out if they still want to be the Beatles. It is undoubtedly a hypnotic treat for musicologists and Beatles megafans. But despite the absorbing undercurrent of tension surrounding the fate of the band, Get Back is still eight hours of watching some guys sit in a room.
Having grown from a gang of bequiffed teenagers in the late 1950s to the vaunted lords of Beatlemania in the 1960s, the group found themselves on a roll in 1969. After a backlash from American religious types to Lennon’s libidinous remark about being more famous than Jesus, they gave up touring and focused on increasingly complex and experimental music. However, the time-saving technological innovation of multitracking meant that they often played separately rather than together as a unit, as other commitments and relationships pulled their friendship in opposing directions.
Feeling that they needed to recapture their old energy, the band decided to write and record an album in two weeks, preparing for their first live show in years. They also decided to film the whole thing. But the resulting film Let It Be turned out to be something very different – by the time it came out, the Beatles were no more.
For decades, Let It Be has been considered a seminal rock text, an inside look at a band on the brink of implosion. But Get Back revisits and somewhat corrects the myth, opening with a stark statement about portraying the events as they happened and the people as they were at the time. The new series goes through 56 hours of unseen footage and over 150 hours of previously unheard audio, and the three long episodes have room for more nuance than the original film.
Sure, there’s an obvious tension. Harrison tries to be more involved but runs into McCartney’s leadership. McCartney, meanwhile, despairs over others’ lack of enthusiasm. Lennon is always late, Yoko Ono is always on his shoulder. With cameras rolling subtly from the other side of the cavernous yet claustrophobic studio where the band meets to rehearse, the four slip into some 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 dealing with tedious complications such as negotiating equipment from the record company EMI. To top it all off, the man overseeing the shoot hovers around them, the desperately relaxed director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who keeps suggesting that the band perform in an amphitheater in Libya or perhaps a children’s hospital. And the clock is ticking because Ringo has to go shoot a movie with Peter Sellers (who also makes a brief and very awkward appearance).
But Get Back also shows the joy of having a bunch of creative people having fun. Lennon makes everyone laugh with his goofy voices, everyone pisses on McCartney’s beard and slurs a dirty version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. The camera cuts to Lennon looking at Harrison playing the guitar. John and Yoko gently slow dance to jam sessions, and the ever-present but almost completely mute Ono is even seen cracking jokes with McCartney’s soon-to-be wife, Linda. There is a wonderful moment when Linda’s young daughter Heather cheekily joins in with the song. And after hours of watching the crisis build up around Harrison, it’s really heartwarming to see how he can’t stop smiling when others comically screw up the look.
Most of all, Get Back shows a bunch of boys doing magic. The film opens with unhurried shots of the music and filming equipment being set up as John, Paul, George and Ringo carry the first song to their seats. They watch each other intently, focusing on the new song, joking with each other between slipping in and out of the groove. It’s charming.
This happens time and time again, whether he’s boring himself with Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry songs or coming up with possible lyrics to The Long and Winding Road. As they thrash through embryonic versions of so many iconic songs, you’ll find yourself rooting for them to find the right word that you know is waiting to fall into place.
McCartney’s love and understanding of music is infectious as he connects what they do to wider musical traditions. You get an interesting look at how inspiration strikes as Harrison discusses what he watched on TV last night and how the jarring comparison between the two shows sparked the song I Me Mine. And just like my dad did when he was pushing a broom in a back room in Merseyside, you can see the Beatles casually and happily swapping instruments and working together to shape their sound.
Although I’m from the Wirral, a leafy peninsula across the river from Liverpool where the Beatles played many times growing up, my parents didn’t have any rarities or collectables in their record collection. We weren’t a musical household, or to be honest, not particularly big Beatles fans. They were just the main/only common interest in my parents’ mess of easy-listening LPs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who connected with my parents through the Beatles as a kind of background radiation beyond musical taste. On paper, then, Get Back would seem like the perfect holiday season family tour.
My dad would fall asleep in the 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 the missing members to show up, but it does so by actually shows them he sits bored and frustrated. For aaaages. With Episode 2, in which music production grinds to a halt when one band member disappears, Jackson’s Hobbit films feel like a master class in brevity.
“Do you realize this tape costs you two shillings a foot?” someone asks at one point during the recording, and it feels like a question someone at Disney could have directed at Jackson.
The Oscar-winning director famously expanded his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films into different cuts, and perhaps Get Back needs multiple versions. It may not be in the spirit of the point, 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 can get to know these icons and empathize with them on a deeply human level. And the footage is full of remarkable moments, whether it’s a flashy close-up of an abandoned microphone or a private conversation captured by a tape recorder hidden in a flower pot. As a bonus, there’s the constant delight of clothing: Every day, the band and their camp followers show up and show off in bright shirts and neckties, flamboyant puffy coats and deliciously stylish suits.
And of course, it all leads to the big moment: the concert. A few hours ago, the band members were still debating whether they wanted to go to the roof. But they are going up. Get Back comprises a full 42-minute show performed and filmed on a frosty rooftop several stories above London’s Savile Row one January lunchtime in 1969. A tumultuous and unique moment in rock history, it turned out to be their last concert, but what a way to say goodbye .
In 2020, I said goodbye to both parents (neither from COVID, although the pandemic prevented us from spending time with them towards the end). When we got back to our old house, my siblings and I went through the old record collection one last time. The tattered 7 inch and worn Abbey Road tape reminded me of my dad’s story and reminded me of my mum and dad dancing in their youth.
The last time I saw mum and dad together was on a Beatles tour of Liverpool where they met my new daughter for only the second time. My little girl is now a toddler singing Yellow Submarine in the bath and splashing around with a toy of the appropriate shade. She na-na-naaas along with Hey Jude in the car, which never ceases to blur me and my wife. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll pay attention if I put a Get Back concert on the TV, but he doesn’t mind.
One day we will look at it together. We’ll leave it at that for now.
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