“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,” a wise man once sang to us. “A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.” At their best and brightest, the Beatles found a way to embody both natural phenomena: For eight glorious years, four working-class boys from Liverpool painted our horizon with a masterpiece of a million colors. At the same time, their music was a sudden drench that washed away the status quo and allowed new possibilities to sprout in that same space. Ancient wisdom tells us that you can add beauty to anything by accepting that it is only temporary, and that especially goes for the sunrise and storm brought forth by the Beatles. All things must pass away, but how lucky we were to experience them in the first place.
Here then, is Peter Jackson’s long-awaited documentary, The Beatles: Get Back. For eight hours, spread over three episodes, Jackson presents never-before-seen footage of the band in January 1969, as they rehearse for what ultimately became the Let It Be album. They had also planned to perform a full concert–their first since 1966. Of course, Beatle fans now know that these sessions were fraught with friction: George and Paul squabbled over the former’s lead guitar. John and George scuffled over Yoko. Paul was too bossy. John was too passive. And Ringo? He was hungover, gassy, and frankly happy to be there. Michael Lindsey-Hogg’s original film crew was hired to capture the rejuvenation of the Beatles. Instead, they were present for the beginning of the band’s end.
Jackson was presented with over 150 hours of audio and video, a trove of footage that had spent fifty years moldering in a vault somewhere. For four years, he and a crew of effects gurus pored over every bit, restoring and upgrading it to modern 4K brilliance. Even from a superficial standpoint, the results are stunning: The visuals are crisp and brimming with color, while also maintaining the original 60s aesthetic. When the band jams or engages in hushed conversation, it all emerges from the speakers in immersive surround sound. Just on pure cinematic merit alone, this is a fanatic’s dream come true.
Now, let’s unpack a little about each episode.
The band assembles at Twickenham Studios, which is later described as a freezing warehouse with bad acoustics. Things go downhill very quickly. Outside of McCartney, who now acts as the group’s cheerleader, nobody appears as if they want to be there. John goofs around relentlessly, performing cartoonish voices and mannerisms, to the fitful amusement of his bandmates. George noodles on his new Telecaster, frustrated at the thirty or so songs he has collecting dust. Ringo passively stares into oblivion, as if he’d rather be in bed. Meanwhile, Yoko Ono somehow manages to be strangely invisible and irritatingly omnipresent at the same time.
It doesn’t help anything that the band kicks off this project in an impossible situation: In a nutshell, the group has to compose and rehearse an album’s worth of material for a live performance, all before a two-week deadline. This represents at least two months of work, and it immediately becomes clear that no has come prepared￼. “You haven’t been writing?!” Paul asks John, incredulously. Rather than a group of rough sketches, the Beatles start the Get Back sessions with a whole lot of nothing.
Unsurprisingly, this first episode packs the most drama. In these early days, everybody looks stressed out and pissed off, especially when Paul tries to rally everybody around his leadership. This reopens the rift between Paul and George that first became apparent during recording for The Beatles (popularly known as The White Album), when the latter chafed at the former’s incessant micromanaging. Here, Paul constantly oversteps his bounds: He arranges the backup vocals on John’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” bosses Ringo how to drum the fills on that song, and lectures George how to riff the solos on “I’ve Got a Feeling.” This hall monitor behavior comes to a head when George curtly informs the group he’s finished. “See ya ’round the clubs,” he says, flippantly.
This sobering moment courses through the rest of documentary and beyond, all the way to the band’s eventual demise. The remaining members cycle through the stages of grief: “If he’s not back in a day or two, we’ll get Eric [Clapton],” John sniffs. Next, John, Paul, and Ringo infamously spend the rest of the day furiously bashing their instruments, while Yoko grabs a mic and wails like a perforated animal. It’s as if the group channels all their rage and frustration into a vortex of angry, violent music. In this moment, Yoko’s eccentric, asymmetrical style of performance art actually provides a moment of therapy for the three anxious Beatles.
For the remainder of this episode, John Paul, and Ringo attempt to scoop water out of their sinking raft. They arrange a meeting at Ringo’s mansion, to which Yoko and Linda Eastman are wrongheadedly invited. As the mediation occurs away from the cameras, the particulars of this conference are mostly unknown, except that it only adds to the looming disaster. Yoko does most of the talking for John, which irks George to no end. John, stung by what he perceives as a refusal of the group to treat Yoko as an equal, retreats into a haze of apathy and petulance. Eventually, only Paul and Ringo stumble into the studio, holding court as if a funeral has just taken place. “And then there were two,” Paul notes, with tears forming in the corners of his eyes. The sun is beginning to set on Beatlemania.
Get Back‘s second act begins with the band in limbo. George is still gone, morale has bottomed out, and no one knows if the Beatles even have a future. One thing becomes clear: If these sessions are to continue, nothing could go on the way it was.
George spells out as much during multiple band meetings: The frigid, hippie-hued dungeon at Twickenham has to go. The wacky notions of playing at a Roman amphitheater or on a cruise ship must be chucked in the dumpster, as well. For George to rejoin the fold, back-to-basics had to mean exactly that. The Beatles would relocate to a proper studio for rehearsals, and eventually take the stage at a reasonable venue. It may have started with high ambitions, but George’s temper effectively lassos Get Back down to reality.
The sessions will soon continue at the Beatles’ new studios at Apple Records. George quietly re-enters the picture, and things instantly improve. Apple’s recording digs are much brighter, cozier, and more efficient. (That is, once the technical aspects get up to snuff. The band had invited a kooky pseudo-inventor named Magic Alex to design their new studios. Most of his half-assed contraptions didn’t work, and had to be frantically replaced with actual equipment.) Even better: The Beatles have spent most of these rehearsals praying for a keyboard player, and the rock gods finally oblige them. Billy Preston, an old Hamburg buddy who played for Little Richard, pops in to see his old mates. The boys treat Preston like an oasis in the desert, and he is instantly invited to take a seat at the electric piano. As they start to jam, it’s like a brand new band. Everyone is crisper, bouncier, and friendlier. “You’ve given us a lift, Bill!” John exclaims, and he ain’t kiddin’.
This middle episode is the longest, and it’s probably the slowest. Much of it lingers on the group as they attempt to sculpt their raw material into coherent shapes. They repeatedly run through “Get Back,” including several misguided takes as a parody of racist immigration policies. Paul continues to labor over “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road,” although both are still a full step from completion. Ringo troops in with a fragment of “Octopus’s Garden,” and George dutifully helps him fatten it into an actual song. Meanwhile, John seems adrift, content to slowly coast until the project is either finished or slowly implodes in on itself.
The second possibility seems most likely, as the band still can’t agree on where and how to stage their live performance. Somebody says the Cavern Club, back in Liverpool. Another voice chimes in with the London Palladium. Neither option is taken seriously. Finally, producer Glyn Johns and Lindsey-Hogg present Paul with a solution that’s brilliant in its simplicity: Rather than tussle with the logistics of a remote location, how about they just lug their instruments up to the studio roof and play there? As with everything else, the Beatles are skittish on the idea at first. Over time, however, they warm to its possibilities. And just like that, another iconic moment in the band’s history begins to take shape.
The Get Back sessions may’ve begun with a storm of backstage drama, but they now feel blessed with peace and purpose. This third week of work sees the bulk of two albums beginning to take shape. “Get Back,” “Let It Be,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Dig a Pony” are nearly done. Meanwhile, George begins work on “Something,” which will blossom into his songwriting masterpiece. Paul and John tinker with musical snippets that will eventually transform into Abbey Road‘s majestic song suite. For all its emotional difficulty, this fertile stretch yielded some of the band’s most durable classics.
Everything culminates in the rooftop concert, which is presented in its entirety for the very first time. As the foursome strolls into a drab, chilly London morning, the contrast from their heyday of Beatlemania couldn’t be more stark: When they first endured a level of fame no band has seen before or since, the boys functioned as Musketeers. They dressed identically and had matching haircuts. They finished each other’s sentences and riffed on each other’s jokes. Now, the band that emerged from a three-year studio hibernation served as a model of both individualism and spiritual burnout. Everyone had different outfits and hairdos. Everyone was now looking at the music, business, and life itself from four different angles. What’s more, each Beatle modeled some balance of exhaustion and introspection. Even from a visual standpoint, this was a marriage fraying at the seams.
Still, for 34 minutes, none of that mattered. Once the group starts thumping the skiffle beat of “Get Back,” they suddenly step into a time machine. For this brief instant, they aren’t haggard superstars, stuck in a never-ending spiral of petty business squabbles. Instead, we get to see and feel the joy of watching them transform back into four giddy Scouse boys jamming on the top floor of a double decker. The payoff of Paul’s initial idea–that the adrenaline of playing live would reignite the Beatles’ drive to make music with each other–finally gets realized. Even the cynical John and George can’t contain their smiles.
The concert that follows is both ragged and wondrous. Ringo interrupts the count-in to “Dig a Pony” with a sneeze. John garbles the lyrics to “Don’t Let Me Down.” Down below, Londoners slowly pour onto Saville Row. Lindsey-Hogg captures a few street-side interviews with the makeshift crowd. Predictably, some are gushing fans, while a few older folks offer starchy complaints. It’s only a matter of time before somebody calls in the fuzz.
The bobbies force their way into the building and behave like belligerent hall monitors. Members of Apple staff stall them with an expert game of bureaucratic runaround, and it’s pretty funny to watch. When the cops inevitably make it roof-side, the Beatles react like rowdy teenagers. (Ringo later confessed that he desperately wanted to be cuffed and dragged off his drum kit as the film faded to black.)
After the concert, the group is still abuzz in the studio control room. They groove and sing, sitting in tight quarters with their spouses and friends. It’s a moment of pure bliss that proves how much these people truly love each other. In this moment, Get Back isn’t a study of what broke the Beatles up. It’s a reminder of everything that drew them together in the first place. Sure, storm clouds are gathering in the distance. Allen Klein is lurking out there, and his sketchy antics will do much to demolish the group for all time. George is still pissed that his songs are being ignored by John and Paul. But that’s tomorrow. For now, the Beatles have earned a good day’s sunshine.
And in the End…
Jackson accomplishes something amazing with Get Back: Amongst this sprawl of meandering jams, incessant bickering, and nonstop horseplay, Jackson provides the first half of the Beatles’ final chapter with an actual narrative. And within this loose structure, there is a poetic beauty that flows throughout all three episodes. Yes, the Beatles were world-famous bandmates and struggling businessmen, but before all that, they were brothers and best friends. What they had was beautiful, mysterious, and temporary.
“None of life’s things can last,” a great man once said. Along the topography of pop culture, the Beatles weren’t just a force of nature–they were every force of nature. They scorched, churned, and soaked the landscape, reshaping and enriching it along the way. Jackson’s documentary captures a piece of that natural magic and beautifully preserves it for all eternity.
What will non-fanatics think of all this? I honestly can’t say. My Beatles adoration runs so deep, I can’t really separate it from my analysis of this film. These guys aren’t just a band for me, and I reveled in the chance to get to know them better. For anybody who loves them, this documentary will prove to be essential. People who want to simply learn more about the strange alchemy of making great music will also find much to enjoy. Non-believers may even discover something to love about the Beatles, or at least appreciate their immense contribution to popular music. In any case, this is an exhilarating and enlightening experience to behold.
468 min. TV-14. Disney+.