What’s The… Movie? TV Show? Documentary? Er, Thing: Get Back
What’s It All About, JG? Back in the dim and distant days of *checks notes* 2020? Really? That feels ages ago. Anyway, back then, Peter Jackson started to assemble footage from the apparently-near-infinite amount of film shot for what was originally Get Back, but ultimately became Let It Be. Let It Be as a movie had one rare distinction – it managed to make arguably the most important band of all time seem boring. The rooftop concert is amazing, that goes without saying, but the rest is tedious drag of frazzled band members, myth repeated so endlessly it’s become fact, and a gloomy, depressing and doom-laden atmosphere.
Forced by Covid to ultimately delay then abandon the theatrical release and instead shift to a sprawlingly-inclusive eight hour, three-part documentary aired on Disney+, Get Back is an attempt to de-mythologise one of the most contentious period in the band’s history and allow the footage to speak for itself. And it’s a fascinating moment – the lone crack in the Beatles’ facade where, just this once, they fell manifestly short of their own talent and abilities. Even Magical Mystery Tour – the band’s other critical drubbing – has had some kind of re-evaluation, and nobody ever questioned the quality of the music. But the Get Back / Let It Be sessions have always felt like an open wound just waiting to be healed so the question is – does Get Back manage to heal it?
Is It Any Good? Yes. Both to the last rhetorical question and the title of this section. In fact it’s fucking stunning. Saying that, there’s a few things to understand. Firstly, and most importantly, this is less a documentary, more of a document – similar, but absolutely not the same there. There’s a few on-screen captions to clue the audience in to what’s going on, and a rough chronological approach is used to give some shape to the footage, but beyond that the vast amounts of film are left simply to speak for themselves. There are no interviews, talking heads, reminiscences or anything else that might otherwise feature in a more traditional documentary. It’s all footage all the time.
In this, Jackson has absolutely made the right call, and it’s where the sheer, vast running time comes into its own. It is, for example, cute when Heather McCartney, just a young girl at the time, frolics round the studio. Delightful, even. Yet it goes on, and on, and on, rapidly becoming wearisome. A more traditional documentary – or movie, for that matter – would have allowed the sweet moment of a child playing among the musical detritus of Apple Studios to stand. But by letting it play out until it wears out its welcome we get a far more accurate picture of what it would have been like to actually be there. Which is tiresome, basically, and you couldn’t achieve that effect with an edited run-time. It’s a bold choice – brave, even – but the length of the piece really does give far greater insight into the environment of the recording than any more trimmed-down version would have. That doesn’t necessarily make it an easy watch. But it does make it a more accurate one.
And what of all those myths to be busted? Well, one of the great things about Get Back – and again this is at least in part a function of its length – is that so many of them can be seen as they were, stripped of ego, self-mythologising or any other form of editorial distortion. George Harrison walking out isn’t some massive hissy fit – he’s clearly just had enough and toddles off. Yoko, far from being the cause of the split, mostly just sits at the side looking bored – her presence is sometimes awkward, but one very much gets the sense that she’s there because John has demanded it, not because she’s welded herself to his side. Linda appears only infrequently, drifting in to take a few pictures, or to bring the kid round to see their (new) dad at work. But you could no more lay blame at her feet than at Yoko’s.
Everyone points out how quickly the band pull themselves together when Billy Preston enters the picture, which is true, but it’s much less remarked-upon that they do the same when George Martin – a quite staggeringly handsome man in 1969 – turns up. Glyn Johns is obviously a phenomenally gifted producer, but it’s clear from the footage that though he gets on well with the band and there’s a strong rapport, he simply doesn’t have the authority to get done what needs to be done. George Martin turns up? Just his presence makes them sit up and pay attention. At one point, McCartney laments that they don’t have a dad figure and could with one – apparently failing to realise there’s one already in place if they would just care to notice.
Elsewhere it can be the little details that matter. There’s an absolutely startling moment towards the end of the first episode where Linda and Yoko sit in front of the band, having what looks for all the world like a fabulously girly chat – Yoko animated and throwing her arms up in mock frustration, Linda sympathetically giving her an I-know-what-you-mean look. It’s about as far away from the daggers-at-dawn myth imaginable.
The footage is absolutely choc full of moments like those, both big and small, that add up to an utterly riveting portrayal of the band, their entourage, and of the creative process. Oh, and on that footage – it looks absolutely stunning. There’s a vibrancy, warmth and depth to the restoration process that does Jackson and his team proud – this looks like it could have been shot yesterday, and the vividness really lends itself to the sense of immersion and verisimilitude. The sound, too, is fantastically well restored, and even if it were just for these technical achievements the whole thing would be worthwhile. The fact that it’s so much more than that really speaks to what a fulfilling and worthwhile project this has been.
How Many Of These Have You Seen? Well I’ve seen all the Beatles movies, and Let It Be is definitely the least of them. To describe this as a course correction might actually be the biggest understatement of all time.
Would You Recommend It? For anyone even vaguely interested in the creative process, without a second’s hesitation. There’s just so much that comes through, like the initial ignoring of George Harrison’s writing – it really is heartbreaking to see “All Things Must Pass” simply dismissed out of hand – that leads to him quitting. And yet it’s genuinely spine-tingling to see McCartney start jamming and watching “Get Back” suddenly appear out of nowhere – and the footage suggests that a Harrison/McCartney writing credit might be rather more apropos than and a Lennon/McCartney one. And seeing the unquestioning trust Lennon and McCartney have in each other, intuitively responding to the ideas of the other, is absolutely astounding, even at this late stage in the game. And it’s not all about the four core members – Billy Preston’s textures pull so much of the randomly unfocussed nonsense of the Twickenham sessions into much sharper material once he turns up after the move to Apple Studios (and nothing – and I mean nothing – in all eight hours of footage screams “1969!” more than the shade of green the carpet in Apple Studios boasts. It’s an insult to the senses). The whole idea of the TV special which collapses like a wet sandcastle as the tide comes in being captured on camera is just fascinating, as idea after idea gets shunted to one side in favour of what, eventually, becomes the legendary rooftop concert. And it’s clear the reason the special goes through several iterations before being, essentially, reduced to nothing is ennui, a total lack of interest, working at cross purposes and laziness – exactly the factors that will eventually fatally under mine the band.
And here, even if you find the other seven and a half hours simply too much, is the one beyond-essential element of the piece – the whole of the rooftop concert, presented in its entirety for the very first time. It’s mostly done in split screen – a conceit that probably made more sense on the vast wideness of an IMAX screen than it does at home, though it’s still effective – either showing off different camera positions trained on the band, or intercut with footage from the street below (including a few very-much-of-their-time vox pops) and the fantastically ineffectual efforts of the police to try and get them to knock it off. At one point, after they’ve made it on the roof, Mal Evans makes a show of complying with the police and turns off Lennon’s amp, only for Harrison to causally stroll over and turn it on again. The whole rooftop concert is, in fact, very funny but also strangely touching – McCartney comes alive during those sequences and despite future reticence when it comes to playing live it’s clear Lennon’s having a ball. It takes Harrison a couple of songs to warm up but even he gets into the swing of things, and of course Starr is reliably stoic and just gets on it with it. It’s a delightful sequence, and again would justify the whole project on its own.
And what of the Beatles themselves? It’s funny how much the footage both confirms and simultaneously counters expectations. Early in the first episode, George is trying to talk to Paul about music – he makes a series of absolutely on-point observations and comments, but his timing sucks because McCartney is clearly stoned out of his mind. Harrison comes across as vindicated, and yet he’s not quite getting it right either. It’s easy to see why he would be pissed off at not being listened to, but dude – pick your moment. Harrison, for his part, remains likeable but prickly – the moment of him helping Ringo with “Octopus’s Garden” is charming beyond words, but he’s never afraid to speak his mind, even when “speak his mind” amounts to “well, I think I’ll just leave the band”.
McCartney himself comes across as a curiously sympathetic figure – for all that it might annoy the others, he’s right when he says what they’re doing needs some kind of shape, or form, or climax. Yes he sometimes spills over into preciousness or self-delusion but often he’s the only one that has any idea that “farting around doing stuff” simply isn’t adequate. There’s a couple of really heartbreaking moments too when he visibly sees things falling apart, especially a moment in the second episode where he sits, alone and desolate on a chair, holding back the tears before having to excuse himself and move off-camera. In moments like those it’s impossible not to feel empathy with his pain.
Lennon, though, mostly seems exhausting to be around. This is yet again the big advantage of so much footage being in the final product – in short bursts Lennon can be funny, vibrant, engaging and silly. He can, indeed, be a very winning presence. But he just never stops and the extended run-time gives an idea of how tiring that can be to have to put up with, rather than chopping it down to a couple of moments of larking about. Like Eric Morecambe or Tommy Cooper he just doesn’t seem to have the ability to turn it off and what starts off as funny good times just becomes grating after a while – it’s not hard to imagine why people get burned out just being around him. Which is all the more frustrating because the few moments when he does drop the slightly desperate-seeming need to be the centre of attention and knuckles down it’s clear how much talent and investment still remain.
And Ringo – well, he’s Ringo. Also, a fucking hero.
Scores On The Doors? 10/10