More than fifty years after their breakup, The Beatles can still entice and enthrall. Peter Jackson’s new documentary project, a minor miracle of restorative editing, proves just that, presenting the foursome in a new, full light, with a richness of detail literally never seen before. His three-part series The Beatles: Get Back resuscitates the vexed legacy of the troubled sessions for the Get Back album that never happened—at least until its later, post-breakup release as Let It Be—and shows the group’s prickly, productive creative process at work with a sense of joie de vivre that few at the time, or since, knew existed.
The Let It Be Album
Let It Be—the original U.S. vinyl release back in May 1970—was the first album I ever purchased with my own allowance money. And boy did I treasure it, from its mega hits to its offbeat gems to its witty banter and even its perplexing song snippets. A ten-year-old kid in a North Dakota farmhouse bedroom, did I know the band was already broken up, the album rejected by the foursome, its contents only grudgingly released after its reportedly acrimonious sessions? No, and I hardly would have cared, for the music itself was plenty for me; a mix of the earthy, jovial, crotchety, and heartfelt, Let It Be helped me to understand friendship, patience, charity, even acrimony.
“Two of Us” and “I Got a Feeling” featured old friends John and Paul singing together in ways that moved from the casual to the exuberant, acoustic to electric, in simply-but-energetically performed folk and rock. McCartney’s signature ballads were moving, memorable, and timeless, even if “The Long and Winding Road” bordered on the mawkish with notorious overproducer Phil Spector’s orchestras, choirs, and harps. Lennon is less present on Let It Be, his “Across the Universe” pure poetry and “Dig a Pony” an enigma.
Harrison’s contributions are, in comparison to those that would show up on Abbey Road and All Things Must Pass, little more than filler, but “For You Blue” and “I Me Mine” are both pleasurable blues and rock workouts, the latter of them perhaps a dig-and-diss at his bandmate. The rockers “Get Back” and “One after 909” are both delights of old-school rockabilly shuffle with energetic accompaniment from keyboardist Billy Preston.
As the years passed and I completed my collection of Beatles LPs (and singles, and EPs, and anthologies and rereleases, not to mention their films and dozens of books), I confess I never fully embraced the conventional wisdom of Let It Be’s vexed reputation as a miserable footnote to their otherwise-impressive canon, its having been outshone by the glossy, proper Abbey Road, nor even the contentious battles over its production and release. I still loved its unfussiness, its mistakes, its false starts and ellipses, and many of its songs—as much as or more than anything in their history.
Let It Be: The Film
But no other Beatles album suffered the kind of scrutiny Let It Be did, perhaps because its making was recorded on film from start to finish. One goal of the sessions was to document, for a television special, the Beatles’ songwriting and performance processes, so the group trudged into the drafty set at Twickenham Film Studios each morning for a fortnight. With nine cameras and more microphones, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had known the group since having directed their performance videos for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” in 1966, shot some 60 hours’ worth of footage and recorded another 150 hours of unsynchronized audio.
The resultant 80-minute documentary film of the sessions, featuring less than two percent of what had been shot for the project, was reviewed so poorly that no one, it seemed, wanted to suffer through the group’s breakup again. Let It Be never received so much as a remastering for home video in the decades to follow. What few knew, even after McCartney remixed and rereleased his Let It Be…Naked version (sans the infamous Spector choir-and-orchestra overdubs) in 2003, is that Lindsay-Hogg’s audio and video footage remained undisturbed in the basement archives at Apple Studios for decades.
The Beatles: Get Back
Director Peter Jackson was given the unprecedented opportunity to review, restore, and remaster the contents. Jackson and his team had accomplished something of a miracle with the 2018 World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, scrubbing damaged black-and-white hand-cranked footage, colorizing it, adding audio, and remastering over 100 hours of video and 600 of audio into not just a coherent narrative but a gripping work of documentary filmmaking magic.
Jackson’s accomplishment is worthy of some particular note here. Not only are the sheer tasks of sifting through and organizing material vast in scope; so too is the technical detail invested in restoring random and damaged footage shot with century-old equipment, remastering it in high definition, reframing and colorizing it with consistency, and synchronizing it to different audio sources. The moment in They Shall Not Grow Old when Jackson transitions from black and white, silent, narrow aspect ratio to a widescreen, remastered, full-color, and immersive audio experience as new recruits first approach the front is as enthralling cinematic experience as I recall.
The Beatles: Get Back bears some similarity to They Shall Not Grow Old in that both projects depend on culling, sorting, synching, and restoring footage from massive troves of unedited content in a way no one could have imagined when filming. It’s more than a little ironic that two of the most culturally important restorative projects in recent memory have been entrusted to a director whose filmmaking reputation was largely built on his elaborate fantasy franchises Lord of the Rings and King Kong, but Jackson’s incredible work with They Shall Not Grow Old—his first documentary!—proved him the one person who might accomplish a similar miracle with The Beatles: Get Back.
The Get Back Sessions
Of course, the Beatles themselves had set a pretty high bar for the Get Back sessions (later renamed as Let It Be after the original plans had been shelved). In retrospect the plan smacked of hubris. Not only would the band schedule itself to write and rehearse—from scratch!—a set of 14 new songs for their next album in a 14-day period, it would perform them, in full, in their first live concert appearance, venue to be determined, alongside a companion made-for-television documentary comprised of the footage that would capture every word, note, and chord (and discord!) of the process.
It was a crazy plan. And by and large, it’s understood not to have worked.
The film studio was cold and sterile. Sessions began daily at 8 a.m. to accommodate the film crew, though the Beatles were not “morning people.” Lennon’s soon-to-be wife Yoko Ono was a constant presence. Lennon hadn’t written much, but neither he nor McCartney were giving much time to Harrison, who had: the “quiet” Beatle had been working up early versions of the gems that would comprise his brilliant All Thing Must Pass.
The musical plan—to “get back” to the collegial magic of rock-and-roll that informed their early years playing at the Cavern—was neither universally embraced nor perfectly conversant with the individual songs, which ranged from the absurd (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) to the oblique (“Dig a Pony”) to the formless (“Dig It”). The business decisions in the wake of Apple’s ongoing financial failures and the group’s lack of a manager weighed on them. No one had a coherent plan for the live performance that was to conclude the project.
Get Back: Episode One (Days 1-7)
That’s the context that informs Episode 1 of The Beatles: Get Back. Jackson begins the episode with a streamlined bit of exposition framing the group’s motivation for the project. Having abandoned touring in 1966, turning instead to the studio, the group that had honed their chops playing for ravenous audiences in Liverpool and Hamburg was eager to connect with fans. But their recent records were elaborate studio concoctions recorded with multitracks and overdubs. Get Back—though no such song existed yet—begins here, on January 2, 1969.
Twickenham Film Studio is little more than a large hangar outfitted with lighting rigs. Director Lindsay-Hogg is shot smoking in a chiaroscuro that makes him seem unquestionably the offspring of Orson Welles. (His parentage was long rumored, never confirmed.) His overarching mission: to secure content necessary for a behind-the-scenes television special culminating in a live performance. It’s one that will prove itself at odds with the group’s desires and difficult to manage on the tight and self-imposed timeline.
In fact, the absurdity of the project sounds almost like a contemporary television reality competition. You know, the kinds where the assignment is to create, using a specified list of random ingredients, a concoction by a prescribed deadline, but with additional arbitrary complications imposed. That the group imagined they might succeed in pulling this trick off suggests they really did feel they could do what they wanted, how they wanted, when they wanted.
Those first days at Twickenham, though, are anything but promising. It’s clear from the start that content is an issue. George has an early draft of what will become the elegiac title cut of All Things Must Pass, but neither John nor Paul shows much interest. Paul’s “I Got a Feeling” has a vibe, but no structure; “Two of Us” a structure but no vibe. Neither works, yet, so they turn to the songs they recall from their youth, including the delightful skiffle piffle “One after 909” and dozens of others. There’s a joy and a comfort in this return to the familiar.
Those workout jams aren’t going to make for a Beatles record, though. Composing new songs on the spot, in these foreign and uncomfortable environs, is not easy. Paul’s songs in particular demand some complex time signatures. Transcribing lyrics written on the spot requires pen and paper—a task often assigned to road manager Mal Evans. Some songs begin with nothing more than a few strums of the instrument: “Get Back” is at first nothing more than its first repeated chord, slowly evolving into a story and chorus, then protest verses about the plight of immigrants before finding its final form weeks later.
George Harrison’s much-ballyhooed discontent registers here as reasonable. His songs get short shrift from the others—even when we know, with the benefit of hindsight, they merit attention. It’s up to him, it seems, to squash the others’ often absurd ideas, including renting the Queen Elizabeth II for their fans to travel with them to Tripoli to see them play. While George is more than adept with his instrument, he’s not a nimble learner of new material, and lead guitar is more a matter of accompaniment than of construction. And he’s had nearly enough of Paul’s commands. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not his verbal argument with Paul (“You don’t annoy me anymore”) that sends him packing; rather, it’s his being silenced at every turn by the relationship between John and Paul.
A carefully edited sequence towards the end of the episode shows just how shut out George must have felt. John and Paul shared a deeply forged bond from their early years writing together on their acoustic guitars, standing face-to-face as near-mirror images of each other. At Twickenham, some 12 years after they first met, John and Paul still would share a musical connection, face-to-face, interacting vocally and enthusiastically with each other. Jackson and editor Jabez Olssen intercut Lindsay-Hogg’s shots of John and Paul cavorting with close-up reaction shots of a glum George staring silently. It’s hard not to read his quietness as a slowly simmering discontent.
Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras were set up in Twickenham’s vast spaces to capture multiple angles of each Beatle from different distances. While the Direct Cinema movement of Drew and Associates, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers would seek at the time to capture their subjects unobtrusively, the sheer number and constant presence of the cameras and crew here not only makes composing and rehearsing more challenging for the band; it also creates different possibilities for how to edit the film. Olssen and Jackson might have cut from those shots of John and Paul in tight, harmonious synchronicity to others of Ringo, of the set, of extreme close-ups, or even the crew. But their tight close-ups of quiet George tell his story of disenchantment.
And so George quits, with a simple, “I’m leaving the band.” A week in, with no material finished, and now no lead guitarist, the project seems in danger of collapsing entirely upon itself.
Episode 2: Days 8–16
George’s absence impacts the group and their project more than they might have imagined. When the three other Beatles return to the studio, their jamming resembles a primal bedlam of shreds and yowls. Lindsay-Hogg’s crew had set up hidden microphones throughout Twickenham, so John and Paul’s private audio conversation is a matter of record. It shows the two knew well how the group dynamic had shifted over the years from John’s leadership to co-leadership with Paul to a reluctant Paul alone after Brian Epstein’s death—with George’s increasing talent and confidence necessitating further accommodation.
Though their meeting with George at his home is not recorded, the results of renegotiation are clear, the most prevalent of them a move to the Apple’s basement studio at Savile Row, where “Magic” Alex Madras will install an updated eight-track recording system. (It will need work.) The scene is far smaller, more intimate, with better acoustics, and to the group, a more comfortable setting in every respect. In this episode, we see less of Lindsay-Hogg’s crew and gear and more focus on the songcraft. Whether this is a choice of Jackson’s or not is anyone’s guess, but the result is clear. At Savile Row the sessions are vastly improved by a newly collaborative mood.
To watch the talent on display here inspires awe. McCartney, soon to marry Linda Eastman, was on a songwriting tear, trotting out early versions of a number of songs that would appear later on Abbey Road and his first couple of solo albums: “Oh Darling,” “Carry that Weight,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Another Day,” “Teddy Boy,” “Back Seat of My Car.” And these alongside “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road,” both of which begin to take shape at their new digs.
Jackson’s inclusion of so many song snippets makes for an exciting Easter-egg hunt for Beatles devotees, but The Beatles: Get Back is no primer for the novice. Its nearly nine hours is too convoluted and detailed for a tyro, who might be better off with a few hours spent with the “Red” (1962–66) and “Blue” (1967–1970) compilations, their first film A Hard Day’s Night, and perhaps Ron Howard’s 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week—The Touring Years. Given its detail, I can’t see that Disney+ is the right home for something of its scope.
For those of us Beatles aficionados, devotees, and completists, however, this interplay of the new and the old, the process of composing and playing, provides an insight to the group’s work that is unprecedented. And in 1969 it was something groundbreaking that the most famous musicians in the world granted such intimate access to their process, even if that process was clearly disrupted and influenced by the presence of the cameras and crew themselves.
While the simple act of relocation seems to loosen up the group a bit, the arrival of longtime friend Billy Preston lights a fire under their playing. His electric piano takes some pressure off George, excites John, who offers him a permanent spot in the group, and lends an entirely new dimension to at least three of the songs that had proved a struggle for the foursome. “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” soon resemble the fleshed-out, full-bodied versions on record. “Don’t Let Me Down” forgoes the corny background vocals for directness and sincerity. And “Two of Us,” which proved so problematic as an electric bass-and-guitar rocker, gets for a time shelved until Paul and George find their acoustic guitars.
Preston’s goodwill and charisma are nearly as important as his keyboard talent. It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had he taken up John’s offer seriously. Might the group have continued with him on Abbey Road, performed live, or even found a place for his compositions? Who knows, but for now, it’s clear from Jackson’s cut that Preston’s effervescence was a key ingredient of the cocktail that saved the project. Meanwhile, John touts potential business manager Allen Klein to George and Ringo while Paul is out, a development that will (unlike Yoko, unlike Paul, unlike Linda) indeed break up the band within a year.
Ringo too deserves some notice here. While the songcraft is all John and Paul—and to a lesser extent, George—Ringo might be the MVP of the sessions. Only occasionally is he given feedback or instruction, but he delivers an innovative beat and fresh fills to every song, seemingly without effort. Too often, I feel, analysis of the group focuses more on his personality than his talent. And while his affable, easygoing charm completed the Beatles’ collective persona, his diverse and effective playing made the group’s recordings special. Whether a song calls for a driving rhythm, a light touch, or a crafty fill, Ringo delivers. He should teach a masterclass. (He does.)
The mood is lightened, the acoustics better, the songs finally taking shape, and conflicts seem, at least for the moment, resolved. But there are still pressing matters: within a week there is to be a completed 14-song record, and only a handful of songs are near completion; Lindsay-Hogg’s film (now a film, not a TV special) demands a climax, a performance of some sort, and no venue is booked; and Ringo is still under contract to leave soon for work on The Magic Christian. Two weeks of rehearsal have led to fatigue, time has been lost to George’s leaving and the group’s relocation, and the complete album and live performance still seem miles away.
Episode 3: Days 17–22
Though neither song will feature on this particular album, both Ringo’s “Octopus’ Garden” and George’s “Something”—each little more than an opening verse—are shown in the early stages of composition. George is quick to assist Ringo, teaching him how to resolve the verse with a chorus, and eager to solicit lyric help from Paul and John, whose first suggestion (“loves me like a cauliflower”) is shelved, fortunately. With Linda’s six-year-old daughter Heather cavorting about, the sessions are lively. “Dig It” features the snippet on the Let It Be album and Billy, the gals, and the band jam loosely.
Lindsay-Hogg finally has a tenable idea for a performance, though the difficulties of collaborative decision-making are still on display. Ultimately, the decision to approve or disapprove seems to fall to Paul, whether he wants it or not. Even in a large-group conference including Lindsay-Hogg, Evans, producer George Martin (who seems a bit bewildered at this new working method), Evans, the band, and their significant others, the decision-making power is largely in the hands of John, who does not seem to have any particular agenda other than staying high and happy, and Paul.
Even this late in the game, uncertainties abound. Paul lobbies for a televisual multimedia spectacle. George wants an album. John is uncertain. When Paul is out of earshot, other conversations take place. Glyn Johns warns John about Allen Klein (Glyn is right). George muses to John about the possibility of doing a solo album (good idea, George, how about a triple-disc titled after that song John and Paul ignored!). Though the Beatles are together, much of what happens in Get Back is about their ever-nearing apartness. Remember, these lads had been a foursome for more than twelve years—and so far, the entirety of their adulthoods. Independence from each other looms.
Every Beatles fan has seen footage of their rooftop concert. I’ve never seen Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be, but Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week documentary concludes with about three minutes of rooftop footage running over its end credits. At the end of it, I pined: I wished I just could have watched the gig unfold in its entirety. Jackson provides as close to such as I suspect we’ll ever get, showing the events in what appears to be close to real-time, extending it a bit even from its 42 minutes, with split-screen used to connect two concurrent stories—the performance and its reception—together at once.
The performance footage is, frankly, revelatory in its quality, especially in comparison to Eight Days a Week (or, I assume, to Let It Be), crisp, detailed, rich in texture and color, the audio providing ample separation and volume. It looks and sounds great, and I know I will be watching this sequence more than a few times in the future. The Beatles “with Billy Preston” (as their next single will credit them) may have completed only five songs to their satisfaction, and a couple of them require multiple takes: they run through two takes of “Get Back,” then “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909,” and “Dig a Pony” before reprising those first three again.
Despite the obvious cold, the boys are in fine spirits and form. Jackson uses the split-screen to characterize the local law enforcement as villains in a comic set-piece, their investigation of the noise delayed and derailed by Apple employees. On the street, most fans enthuse and a few carp: “It woke me up from my sleep and I don’t like it!” But the group’s joy at performing is palpable, as at heart they are still performers by nature, loving the show of it all and finding bliss in their shared art. The performance is like a latter-day flash-mob, sound-bombing the unsuspected, and even fifty-two years later it’s a gas.
Minutes later, the bobbies finally having put the clamps on the show, the group crowds into Apple’s tiny control room for a listen. Ringo and Maureen, Paul and Linda, John and Yoko, George, Billy, Lindsay-Hogg, Evans, and Johns tap their feet, clap their hands, and bob their heads, the sound of the concert feeling a rich reward for the month’s work. The group will need to reconvene for one more day to finish up the now-acoustic “Two of Us” and the piano ballads “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”—all of which had been problematic—to complete the album. (That album, by the way, would be handed over to Glyn Johns for production, then rejected by the band before turning its contents to Phil Spector for what would become Let It Be some 15 months later.)
Lennon concluded the rooftop concert with one of his most famous one-liners: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and myself and I hope we passed the audition.” On behalf of the audience and myself, I’d like to offer John and his bandmates thanks for sticking through those sessions, playing those 42 minutes on the roof, and giving fans one last look at the Beatles live—as well as to Peter Jackson and his team for the time invested in making The Beatles: Get Back.
Jackson’s nearly nine-hour opus may not work for the uninitiated, but for the millions who are already fans, The Beatles: Get Back offers a rare glimpse at creative genius and consummate musicianship at work, in all its attendant chaos and joy.
2 CommentsLeave a Reply
This review is 100% on target. For Beatles fanatics this is Manna From Heaven, literally getting to be a fly on the wall and see them work. If someone is looking to learn about them, this would not be the same, a lot of inside baseball. As advertised, not as much conflict as one thought, and Yoko not as big a pain as assumed.
The coolest thing was seeing hit songs for we know word by word and them struggling for the lyrics. We know what they will eventually come up with m, so it’s kind of enjoyable in hindsight. Plus a lot of songs that will end up on Abbey Road working on, which kind of explains why they did return for one more album, they had a lot of more stuff they needed to get out.
“Inside baseball” is a great term for what we get here, Stuart! I agree it’s pretty incredible to see so many other wonderful songs worked up and put aside. Glad we eventually got to hear them all, on Let It Be, Abbey Road, or the first set of solo albums. Thanks for the props and thanks for reading!