Think you know what the Beatles’ last days were like? Disney+’s ‘Get Back’ will shatter your assumptions.
This past holiday weekend, you may have noticed a variant of the traditional Thanksgiving food coma taking hold of various family, friends and neighbors. This new condition—I’ll call it Beatles blackout—is characterized by fanatical attention to detailed dissections of the moods and utterances of four 20-something Liverpudlians over the course of 21 days in January 1969. Those suffering from this disorder, and I count myself among them, could be found firmly planted on the couch with their eyes glued to a screen watching (and rewatching) “The Beatles: Get Back.”
The eight-hour documentary released on Disney+ over three days during Thanksgiving weekend is a dream come true for obsessive Beatles fans—whose numbers are legion—not to mention pop culture historians and Beatles scholars (yes, that is a real thing). But for the more casual fan in this age of endless on-demand content streaming, “Get Back” may prove to be a test of the outer limits of one’s patience and interest in the creative journey of artists even as beloved as the Fab Four.
Peter Jackson’s achievement with “Get Back” is groundbreaking in the way it shatters long-held assumptions about the final days of the Beatles.
Directed by Peter Jackson, the Academy Award–winning filmmaker responsible for the maximalist “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, “Get Back” is a feat of technical mastery by virtue of its very existence. Jackson spent four years combing through 60 hours of 50-year-old film footage and over 150 hours of audio, and then employed state-of-the-art digital restoration techniques to assemble “Get Back.” Still, the film’s technical achievements are not all that surprising when you consider that Jackson and his team were also behind the innovative World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which transformed 100-year-old black-and-white war footage into vivid full-color cinema.
Jackson’s achievement with “Get Back” is groundbreaking, however, in the way it shatters long-held assumptions about the band’s final days. If the prospect of spending Thanksgiving with one’s own dysfunctional family can be a cause for serious distress for many, before Jackson’s “Get Back” the idea of spending the holidays with the Beatles circa January 1969 could have been exponentially more troubling. Ever since the release in 1970 of the original 80-minute documentary from this period, “Let It Be,” helmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the consensus was that the band’s last year together was a miserable final chapter filled with rancor and bitterness. In the original film, the once-loveable moptops who told the world “all you need is love” are reduced to petty bickering and miserable, sullen glaring. Jackson’s “Get Back” is drawn almost entirely from unused footage from the same “Let It Be” sessions, but in his expansive telling it is a much different story.
Clearly, all was not well in the Beatles’ world at the time, and “Get Back” is in many ways a portrait of a bittersweet musical divorce.
To be sure, as with our own family gatherings, when the Beatles assemble certain archetypes emerge. There is Paul as the bossy aunt, directing the proceedings and making sure everything is in control and taken care of; meanwhile, off in the corner, the younger sibling, George, quietly seethes over an accumulation of slights that goes back years. Then there is the oblivious older brother, John, who brings his new girlfriend to the affair while the rest of the family remains deeply ambivalent about whether she is a good fit. Finally, there is the ever-dutiful sibling, Ringo, who stays out of the fray and just wishes people could get along while they’re at the table.
Clearly, all was not well in the Beatles’ world at the time, and “Get Back” is in many ways a portrait of a bittersweet musical divorce. By the time of filming, the Beatles had already been an unrivaled phenomenon sitting atop the pop culture mountain and working constantly for years. They had sold over 300 million records globally and toured the world, playing massive outdoor stadiums before the infrastructure of the concert industry as we know it today even existed. They had become so tired of that mayhem that they decided to stop touring completely to concentrate on creating in the studio, where they proceeded to revolutionize and redefine the possibilities of what pop music was capable of.
Perhaps most importantly, the Beatles were now self-managed, as they were just 17 months removed from the untimely death of their longtime manager, Brian Epstein, who had been a steady guiding force since 1962. McCartney, reflecting on the cause of some of the fractiousness in the band, comments in the second episode that “we probably do need, really a sort of central daddy figure.”
In truth, taming the colossal beast that the Beatles had become by 1969 would likely have been an impossible task. By this point, their other father figure, producer George Martin, was still very much alive and in the room, but in “Get Back” they rarely seem to pay him any mind. The reality was that John, Paul and George had been playing in a band together in one form or another since they were teenagers in the late 1950s. It is hard to shake the sense that a decade later, John and George feel they are being asked to contribute enthusiastically to an alma mater that they had already given enough to and needed to graduate from already.
There is another context here that is too often overlooked. The Beatles were not only writing incredible songs, they were also creating a paradigm that didn’t exist prior to them. Before they burst on the scene, the closest you had to a self-contained band that wrote its own material was Buddy Holly and the Crickets. There really was no template then or now for what they did or the scale of success they achieved. With perfect hindsight, it can be frustrating to listen to George Harrison lecture Paul about the way Bob Dylan and The Band made records. “That’s all well and good, George,” I found myself thinking, “but you’re in the Beatles!?” They simply had no reference points to help them understand how important they were and would remain in the public consciousness decades later.
The Beatles were not only writing incredible songs, they were also creating a paradigm that didn’t exist prior to them.
And yet, as “Get Back” once again confirms, McCartney somehow gets it. At the ripe old age of 26, he seems to grasp on some core level that the Beatles are important and that people will still care about the music they’ve created half a century later and beyond. It is an early sign (borne out over time) that McCartney himself has always been as big a fan of the Beatles as the rest of us are. His bottomless well of ideas and his desire to keep pushing the band forward seems less about arrogance and control and more about a preternaturally mature understanding that what they have together is extraordinarily rare and special, and that to let it die—which is what is happening—would be a tragedy.
In a particularly candid moment regarding tensions surrounding John Lennon’s insistence that Yoko Ono be with him at all times, McCartney remarks in Episode 2, “Well, I think for them to be able to compromise, I have to be able to compromise first. Then they’ll be able to. But it’s silly, neither of us compromising.” He adds with alarming prescience, “It’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing like in 50 years time. ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.’” “Get Back,” at the very least, definitively ends the ridiculous debate about whether it was Yoko’s or Paul’s fault the Beatles broke up. It was the Beatles who broke the Beatles up.
With its fly-on-the-wall footage of their long, rambling, undisciplined rehearsals and recording sessions, “Get Back” also reveals that, alongside their exhaustion with being Beatles, there existed an undeniably deep affection and respect among the four of them. For all the moments of tension and muted conflict we witness, we see far more instances of relationships that are touching in their vulnerability and care for one another.
What “Get Back” makes abundantly clear is that, in terms of sound and song, something magical and magnetic occurred when John, Paul, George and Ringo came together.
For example, while working on the lyrics to the song “Get Back,” McCartney sits across from Lennon and looks over at him for approval as he strums and sings, “Jo Jo left his home in nuh nuh Arizona.” He is trying out different words that might work well in a song—a very high standard that the Lennon/McCartney song catalog always maintained. When McCartney lands on “Tucson, Arizona,” Lennon looks over at him with a glimmering sense of recognition that he’s really hit the mark. “Is Tucson in Arizona?” Lennon asks. It is a small window into what must have been a eureka moment that the duo had experienced countless times since they were teenagers.
One morning as they are showing up for work, George Harrison—who appears deeply frustrated as he tries to get Lennon and McCartney to work on his songs—somewhat sheepishly asks McCartney, “Do you want to hear a song I wrote last night?” McCartney begins to take real interest as George begins to play “I Me Mine.” Similarly, during a lull, Ringo Starr begins playing Harrison the rough outline of a new song called “Octopus’s Garden” on piano; Harrison walks over with his acoustic guitar and gently helps him figure out where the song should go next. (One of the many pleasant surprises that occur during Jackson’s film is the revelation of how much the “Let It Be” sessions essentially ended up as a dry run for most of the songs that eventually appeared on the Beatles final masterwork, “Abbey Road.”)
Peter Jackson’s great contribution with the monumentally long “Get Back” is that he has somehow provided us with a chronicle of the Beatles’ creative process that is fascinating, tedious and indispensable all at the same time. It would not surprise me if Disney+ pushed for a condensed, feature-length version of Jackson’s eight-hour final cut to attract the less-obsessed Beatles fans among us. But given the director’s recent statements and the finicky nature of the Beatles’ multimedia company Apple Corps, I will not be holding my breath.
I’m not convinced that the lack of a more easily digestible version would really be much of a loss anyway. Fifty years from now, people’s love for the Beatles and their music will not be grounded in Jackson’s epic document; it will be rooted in the band’s astonishing musical output between 1963 and 1969. What “Get Back” makes abundantly clear is that, in terms of sound and song, something magical and magnetic occurs when John, Paul, George and Ringo came together during that finite six-year period. “Get Back” allows us a rare peek behind the curtain to see how the magic was made. For those who have a deep love for it, if that peek lasts for eight seconds or eight hours isn’t really the point. In the end, it all simply amounts to more magic.