‘The Beatles: Get Back’ Review: Peter Jackson’s Documentary Epic Is an Addictive Look at Who the Beatles Were
How does anyone, especially a Beatle, write a melody? The answer may be as simple as it is mysterious. In “The Beatles: Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s sprawling and revelatory fly-on-the-studio-wall documentary, there’s a great moment when we get to see it happen. It’s January 1969, and the Beatles — long-haired, scruffy, bearded, looking less like the “lads” they still call themselves than the grown men they’ve become — have taken over the colorfully dank, cavernous Twickenham Studios. There, they have just three weeks to create and rehearse 14 songs, at which point they’re supposed to play them in front of a live audience for a TV special. (They’re locked into the timing because Ringo has been cast to star opposite Peter Sellers in “The Magic Christian,” a movie set to begin shooting on Jan. 24.)
So far, the Beatles aren’t making much headway. But on the morning of day four, a spark ignites. John Lennon hasn’t come into the studio yet, and Paul McCartney, sitting around in one of his natty sweaters (this one is yellow), starts playing his bass guitar as if it were a regular guitar, strumming out a familiar propulsive rhythm. Over the guitar, he improvises in a high voice, but he’s only singing one note — the note that will become “Jojo was a man…” For a minute or two, he noodles around on that note; he’s got a groove, a feeling, but not a song. Then, just like that, with the guitar beat driving from below, his voice inches up two notes, to the sixth and seventh. He’s pushing out the melody as if it were being born. The song hasn’t been named yet, but “Get Back” suddenly exists in the universe.
In the world of movies, and the world of documentaries in particular, there’s a place known as the cutting-room floor. What’s on it is all the stuff that wasn’t lively or punchy or resonant or dramatic enough to make it into the finished film. “The Beatles: Get Back” is an eight-hour documentary, shown in three parts (starting Thanksgiving Day) on Disney Plus, that consists, to a large degree, of 1,000 moments you might have expected to be left on the cutting-room floor.
We’ve seen the Beatles with their hair down before, of course — in “Let It Be,” the original 80-minute documentary that was put together, in 1970, out of these same sessions. In that film, we saw bits of their process, their camaraderie, their acrimony, their exultation. “Get Back,” however, invites us to eavesdrop on the Beatles with a whole new micro level of voyeuristic engagement. We see them horsing around and smoking like chimneys, singing the numbers they’re working on in mock accents worthy of Monty Python, chortling over gossip columns about themselves that they read out like reports from Mars, trading bits and pieces of their history with the driest of winks, not to mention their constant playing of old rock ‘n’ roll songs, including some of the ones they wrote when they were 15, as they try to work their way of the creative rut they seem to be stuck in.
What’s startling about “Get Back” is that as you watch it, drinking in the moment-to-moment reality of what it was like for the Beatles as they toiled away on their second-to-last studio album, the film’s accumulation of quirks and delights and boredom and exhilaration becomes more than fascinating; it becomes addictive. We’re there in the studio, right alongside the Beatles, seeing — living — what they do. There are moments when “Get Back” meanders (at a certain point in Part 3, you may feel like you never want to hear “Don’t Let Me Down” or “Let It Be” again). Yet even the repetition is part of the documentary’s experiential quality. As you soak up the film in its totality, it become moving and momentous. “Get Back” is a long-form portrait of the dissolution of the Beatles and the togetherness of the Beatles. It’s really about all of us.
There are hangout movies. “Get Back” is an epic hangout documentary, assembled by Jackson out of 60 hours of film footage, and 150 hours of audio recordings, shot over the course of that fateful January. The publicity for the documentary has been dominated by the idea that it’s going to present a more upbeat vision of the Beatles than the gloomy, end-of-an-era, swan-song-of-a-group one that was showcased — and mythologized — in “Let It Be.” At the same time, that publicity has given rise to the fear and trepidation, on the part of any number of Beatles fans, that “Get Back” might turn out to be a kind of Paul-and-Ringo-approved whitewash: a movie that would replace the desultory myth of “Let It Be” with a reductive smiley-face version of the late-period Beatles as happy campers.
As it turns out, the finished film transcends both the hype and the fan anxiety. “Get Back” does indeed present the Beatles as a close-knit group of showman-gods who never stopped clowning around or loving each other. The vibe that links them is boisterous and unmistakable. In a funny way, it’s still a version of the bond they radiated in the fantasy kingdoms of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!” and “Yellow Submarine” — the sense they had of being spiritually joined, of floating above the world, beyond the reach of others. They still speak their own language and revel in their power and magic. They aren’t pretentious about it. It’s just the reality they live in.
The period covered by “Get Back” is just 21 days (not counting the weekends off), which Jackson documents in strict chronological order, day by day, so that we feel we’re leafing through the Beatles’ diary, with arresting details on every page. But what makes “Get Back” more than a diary is the grand story it tells, which is richer and fuller than the one told by “Let It Be.” It’s not that “Let It Be” got it wrong, exactly. And “Get Back” isn’t all sweetness and light. Its first episode is actually much darker than “Let It Be.” In this more complete version, the Beatles know in some part of their collective heart and gut that they’re headed for a breakup (if not now, then soon enough). They make casual reference to it, and the prospect causes them visible distress.
But then they walk themselves back from the ledge, and it re-animates them. The threat is still there, beneath it all, but it’s the very possibility that they’re growing inexorably apart, as individuals and as a group, that turns the highly unusual album they’re working on — no overdubs or studio fiddling, the songs created to be performed live — into a rediscovery of what it means for them to play together. They become a band all over again, and a transcendent one. They remind each other, and the audience, of why they’re the Beatles. The undercurrents of “Let It Be” are still there (as are a number of moments from that film), but now they’re part of something richer and sweeter, like the dark streaks in a marble cake.
Jackson, in the 2019 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” did an extraordinary job of heightening scratchy World War I footage into something more contemporary and accessible without violating its authenticity. Here, he uses technology to enhance the Beatles footage in a way that’s singular and amazing. In “Get Back,” we’re not seeing grainy old footage with a fake contempo gloss. We’re seeing the footage de-aged, so that it looks like it was shot yesterday, and so we feel like we’re right there in the room with the Beatles, who look and sound just like themselves. As an act of restoration, “Get Back” is a marvel.
“They had faces then,” said Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” She meant the old Hollywood stars, but even the movie stars of the 20th century didn’t have faces like the Beatles. And the glory of Jackson’s technological coup is the way it allows us to interface with the faces of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and how those faces still speak to us. It has something to do with their brotherly beauty, and how sublimely comfortable they are in their own skin: Paul, always handsome, now with the look of a dashing coiffed black-Irish lumberjack. John, stringy long hair parted down the middle, his bespectacled face an acerbic mask — until his grin cracks it into an open book. George, his sexy elegant severity set on a slow simmer, for it’s his dissatisfaction that is setting off the rumbles of disunity. And Ringo, with those tilted eyes of innocence, now as shaggy and huggable as a sheepdog. “Get Back,” in a way, is all about the music: how the songs on what became “Let It Be” got built, changed, massaged, infused. But what we read in the Beatles’ faces is the drama between the lines. Here’s how the movie goes:
Part 1. Most of the “Let It Be” film was culled from the early sessions that the Beatles did at Twickenham, a film studio they didn’t care for (it was too big, with mediocre acoustics). The first part of “Get Back,” which covers that week, plays like a more foreboding two-and-a-half-hour expansion of “Let It Be.” There are many familiar moments, like John and Yoko waltzing to “I Me Mine” or the famous tiff between Paul and George (“I always hear myself annoying you.” “You don’t annoy me anymore”). But the cynicism is now on open display. “Maybe we should have a divorce,” says George. “Well, I said that at the last meeting,” says Paul. “But it’s getting nearer, you know.”
The whole notion that the Beatles were going to come up with 14 songs in three weeks, and perform them live, put them under insane pressure. The chats we see between the group and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the noodgy, persnickety, exacting director of “Let It Be,” whose dream is to stage the TV special in an ancient amphitheater in Tripoli, are grimly comical in their unreality. Yet the slightly depressed mood, with the songs at formative stages, none of them quite catching fire, is really about what’s nagging at the group — the fact that even making great albums has become rote for them, not to mention the power struggle that is George vs. John and Paul.
It was Paul, in a way, who became the “bad guy,” but in “Get Back” we see how both the lead Beatles collaborate, with a kind of invisible communion, in the brushing off of George. They are not going to give up their dominance of the group. The Beatles consider dipping into their ancient unused songs just to fill the 14-song quota (they finally do use “One After 909,” which is the “Citizen Kane” of rousing cliché genre Beatle oldies), and it’s striking to register how close they still feel to this material. Throughout “Get Back,” the Beatles seem emotionally closer to their early days than they do to the extraordinary studio era that began with “Rubber Soul.” It makes you wonder if they felt distant from the wizardry of their producer, George Martin, the “fifth Beatle,” who in “Get Back” is a constant but mostly silent presence, with the look of a tall stoic ’40s movie star. He’s holding his power in reserve, and knows it. (It will come pouring out on “Abbey Road.”)
There’s a lot of clowning around — the Beatles play “Midnight Special,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and the zither theme from “The Third Man.” But they’re vamping. Paul smokes cigars, and they have drinks: white wine for George, a beer for John and Paul. Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman enjoy an animated conversation, completely oblivious to Paul’s playing of “Let It Be.” As Paul reveals, the loss of Brian Epstein, their late manager and organizing daddy figure, has never stopped haunting them. Near the end, as they’re getting ready for their lunch break, George announces, as casually as if he were going to the kitchen for a cup of tea, that he’s leaving the group. The other three Beatles return and try to carry on, but it’s clear that they’re stunned. Paul, in a way that we’ve never seen him, is visibly anxious. Maybe this really is the end. And there’s suspense! John and Paul go to the cafeteria for a private lunch, and the filmmakers have planted a bug in a flower pot. We get to spy on John and Paul’s intimate conversation, and it’s the two of them talking about how George feels shut out, how Paul dominates everything, and it’s all the more painful because John is so gentlemanly about it.
Part 2. The Beatles, after two meetings with George, talk him into rejoining the group, and they’re now leaving the tomb of Twickenham behind. The rest of the sessions will be at the basement studio of Apple, their chic company office on Savile Row, and the moment they get into the compact white-walled studio, the mood lifts. There’s a new giddiness to them. It’s really about how close they came to crashing, and the exhilaration they feel at still being together. The concept of the TV special has been dropped, and wisely. The sessions will now culminate in an outdoor concert somewhere (it’s Paul who has the idea that maybe they should get shut down by the police), which at first is going to be Primrose Park. Then Michael Lindsay-Hogg gets an idea that’s closer to home.
The second episode is nearly three hours long, and it has the feel of an extended Beatles party. The joking around really takes off, and it’s not just about being funny. To understand the Beatles is to realize that they were, at heart, comedians. Rock ‘n’ roll is in their blood, and has been since they were teenagers, but on some primal level they were British boys imitating American rock ‘n’ rollers, and that sense of performance is layered into them. Paul will be singing “Let It Be,” as serious a song as the Beatles ever wrote, and without missing a beat his voice will lapse into lounge-lizard parody. Everything the Beatles do is incandescent in its sincerity, and also a sublimely layered conceit. That’s part of their greatness.
Songs like “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Dig a Pony” now come into focus; it’s as if the blood is finally coursing through them. And we start to connect with what was so unique in the Beatles sound — their sweetness touched with grit — and how the four of them, together, are like one instrument. Except for Paul on bass, none of them is a technical virtuoso, but the fusion, the blend — it’s there in sound and spirit. It’s thrilling to see and hear how they work together, even as their songcraft patter is unintentionally hilarious, because they know each other so well that the communication is like a form of hieroglyphics. A sample exchange: “So then it becomes…” “It’s just like the bit before that bit.” “Yeah, but then it stays too long on the other one.” This is how the work gets done.
Part 3. As they begin to approach the outdoor concert, which is now set to take place on the rooftop of Apple, the songs have jelled, but practice makes perfect. That said, it’s striking, throughout the eight-hour film, how many numbers the Beatles rehearse that wind up being on “Abbey Road” (“I Want You,” “Oh! Darling,” “Something”), or on one of their solo albums (“All Things Must Pass,” “Teddy Boy,” “Gimme Some Truth”). The Beatles are straddling eras even as they’re struggling, more than ever, to define the present moment. You get the feeling that they could honestly play old rock ‘n’ roll songs for 10 hours a day (we hear “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” “Kansas City,” and “Miss Ann”) and be utterly happy. For them, it’s breathing — it’s heaven. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll paradise they never left.
But the future beckons. There’s a moment that’s like something out of a thriller, when John is talking about how much he’s looking forward to his meeting, later in the week, with Allen Klein, the Rolling Stones manager who is desperate to manage the Beatles. This, far more than the issue of how many songs George gets on an album, really is the beginning of the end. (Though if Paul had gone along with Klein and not insisted, unreasonably, that the Eastmans, who were his in-laws, manage the band…who knows?) Part 3 builds to the rooftop concert, and though at two hours and 18 minutes it’s the shortest episode, it’s the one that felt, to me, a bit bloated. At one point, the Beatles start chewing over the fact that they’ve been chewing over these songs too doggedly, and that leaves us, for a bit, watching a movie that’s chewing over the Beatles chewing over how much they’re chewing over.
But the rooftop concert provides the emotional catharsis that “Get Back” deserves. And that’s because even though so many of us know it so well, in “Get Back,” which nimbly intercuts the footage from 10 cameras (and we finally get to hear what those bobbies are saying!), we connect to the Beatles going up there and playing in a richer human way than we did in “Let It Be.” For the Beatles have now been through the ringer, and we’ve been through it along with them. We savor the music: the astounding cool propulsion of “Get Back,” the succulent vulnerability of “Don’t Let Me Down,” the raucous roaring faith of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” The rooftop performance, which in “Let It Be” seemed a cheeky lark, is now about perseverance, and it’s about grace — the beauty of these “lads” finding a way, after all the obstacles, to do what they do. In the end, “Get Back” is better than good. It’s essential, an extended love letter to everything that made the Beatles real.