As Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back opens, a bit of nondiegetic text reminds viewers of the scope of his project before addressing that of the Beatles’. “The ‘Get Back’ project in January 1969,” the text declares, “produced over 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio recordings.” A second line follows: “Numerous editorial choices had to be made during the production of these films.”
Not only has the footage been whittled down to length, Jackson and his editor Jabez Olssen have reshaped and reworked both it and audio to tell a coherent, dramatic three-act narrative of the band’s hubris, collaboration, and triumph.
Theirs is a much more daunting task, though, than merely making “editorial choices” to manage a quantity of footage to a viewable run-length. They have to establish a sufficient context for the project itself, which they do with a ten-minute expository précis of The Beatles’ history to that point. The editing team has to color-correct and remaster the film footage, match unsynchronized audio to the film, and rework and remix the audio footage, all constituting a task of Herculean proportion.
But more than anything else, they must arrange these sources into a narrative that will explain and depict the notoriously vexed sessions. “At all times, the filmmakers have attempted to present an accurate portrait of the events depicted and the people involved,” the introductory nondiegetic text continues. Documentary editing always involves a set of choices that help accomplish the main goals of filmmaking. Whether establishing the proxemics of a location, characterizing traits or motivations, clarifying dialogue, or developing conflict, editing serves the narrative.
Perhaps no scene in the entire eight hours of The Beatles: Get Back does this quite so well as does the infamous episode of January 10, 1969, Day Seven of the project. In the sequence of events leading up to George Harrison’s leaving the band, Jackson and Olssen use a mix of Nouvelle Vague-inspired jump cuts and more traditional, Kuleshov-effect reaction shots, matching image, cut, and sound in ways that emphasize the simmering, stultifying discontent that led the guitarist to walk out on the sessions.
To this point, the band has struggled, over the first week of rehearsal, to craft even a handful of the 14 songs planned for the album. Of them, John’s “Don’t Let Me Down” is still plagued by a corny, high-pitched, call-and-response vocal arrangement that will later (thankfully!) be abandoned. Paul’s “Two of Us” is an electric mess with a complex time-change the band has yet to master. Though more in the intended spirit of the project, his “I Got a Feeling” has yet to mesh with John’s “Everybody Had a Hard Year” (originally more of a Donovan-style finger-picked folk ballad).
“Get Back,” meanwhile, is little more than a promising riff seemingly pulled out of the blue. An inordinate amount of time is spent trying to shake some fruit from the oldies tree, with Lennon’s Liverpool-era “One after 909” showing some promise and briefly energizing the band with its reminder of the lads’ youth. But the band is far from ready for its scheduled dress rehearsal set for January 18, just eight days away.
George has been writing, too, certainly more than John. As George says, his songs are mostly simple and acoustic. They are the kind the band has never performed live, save for Paul’s years-ago “Yesterday.” The conventional wisdom is that George’s walkout was precipitated in part by his bandmates’ lack of enthusiasm for his compositions, the elegiac “All Things Must Pass” in particular. That notion is one that The Beatles: Get Back does little to dispel as the foursome run through a few versions of the song with little spirit. What Jackson and Olssen don’t show, though, is that the band ran through that particular song over 70 times during the sessions, often meticulously arranging background vocals: to do so hardly suggests a blunt dismissal of George’s effort.
The choice by Jackson and Olssen to make the The Beatles: Get Back a nearly purely observational documentary, in the American Direct Cinema tradition of D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, and Frederick Wiseman, as opposed to something more participatory with reflective expert interviews and more nondiegetic explainers, is one that largely excludes discussion of anything that happens off-camera. The focus is instead on the subjects themselves, letting the cameras record and aiming for a realistic, “fly-on-the-wall” approach to capturing content.
But even the most observational documentaries are the result of thousands of editorial decisions. In The Beatles: Get Back, while Jackson and Olssen will include some brief reference to the group’s later negotiation with George, unfilmed at his house, that brought him back into the fold, the series is also silent on another offscreen development of the moment: the fact that his wife Pattie (as she recounts in her autobiography Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me) had left him, following George’s affair with a girlfriend of Eric Clapton’s, just days before. 1969 was off to a rough start at the Harrison household.
If George had an offscreen reason to feel less than spirited during the first week of the Get Back sessions, the events at Twickenham, though cordial to that point, did little to lift his mood. Paul berates the others for a lack of enthusiasm and chides George for playing lead fills during “Get Back.” In an early run at “Let It Be,” George wearily yields to Paul’s command:
I’ll play whatever you want me to play or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it.
Meanwhile, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg pushes for an overseas venture that George dreads. Between rehearsals, business decisions—like music publisher Dick James’ visit to suggest a catalog purchase—further relegate the guitarist to second-tier status.
So as the events of January 10 unfold, Jackson and Olssen employ a radical departure from their technique to date in order to tell a specific story. Following the discussion with Evans, the group begins with work on “Get Back” and then more renditions of “Two of Us.” While the lyrics of this song in particular reference his and Linda’s fondness for driving aimlessly through the countryside, the recorded version’s Everlyesque harmonies have always made it one that could be interpreted also as a paean to the long friendship enjoyed by John and Paul. A close-up of the lyric sheet includes Paul’s handwritten note “A Quarrymen Original,” a tongue-on-cheek reference to the lads’ early days.
As the musical track plays, Jackson and Olssen use a series of jump cuts of John and Paul laughing, cavorting, mugging, and smiling their way through a high-spirited romp. As an editing technique, jump cuts were rare until Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle/Breathless, heralding the Nouvelle Vague/New Wave movement of the 1960s. More associated with discontinuity than continuity, jump cuts create the illusion of a subject “jumping” forward in time, cutting directly from one image of the subject to another, but without any change in composition, perspective, angle, or distance. To use them in documentary is unusual and in observational documentary more than a little pronounced, a technique that calls attention to itself.
The sound here does not always match the footage, and who knows—some of the film footage may not even correspond to this particular performance of the song “Two of Us” at all. But in using the jump cuts, signifying a form of ellipsis, Jackson and Olssen suggest that this particular display went on for a period of time much longer than what we see. John and Paul stand facing each other, Paul’s left-handed bass mirroring John’s righty guitar just as it did in the archival photos we saw of their Liverpudlian days, composing their early ditties together at Paul’s parents’ house. And the lyrics, even if they are about Paul and Linda, are ambiguous enough to tell the story of a platonic homosocial bond between bandmates. Two of them. Not three, not four, but two of them.
The performance as cut here works to exclude and silence George. While the shots of Paul and John are almost always in long and medium shot, ones that frame the two of them together, Lindsay-Hogg’s other camera (two were reportedly always running) captures reaction shots of George, in “dirty,” or partially occluded, close-up. The Kuleshov effect—that conclusion derived from the interplay of shot and reaction shot—is in full force here, demanding that viewers create a logical relationship between Paul and John’s playful interaction and George’s sullen glares. On their own those shots of George might signify intense concentration, peaceful mediation, painful constipation or any number of states; cut against his bandmates’ play they become precise in meaning.
In fact, whether these individual shots of George in extreme close-up occurred at the exact moments they are inset in Jackson and Olssen’s edit is anyone’s guess, but the story they tell in their carefully composed sequencing could not be more clear: even though his songwriting skills are growing by leaps and bounds, he’s still the odd man out in the two primary songwriters’ long-held and uncannily close bond, relegated once again to the silent sideman, a subordinate session player. Each successive close-up, from medium to nearly extreme, frames the guitarist further occluded by Paul’s shadow.
The choice to use the jump cuts here is brilliant, implying an extended length of fraternal frolic between John and Paul and excluding George, as is the infrequent but impactful use of reaction shots. Those reactions are framed a little tighter and dirtier each time until nearly all we see is George’s glum one-eyed stare. And the sequence of the cutting suggests, a la Kuleshov, that his is a direct reaction to John and Paul’s playful cavorting. Whether it was so or not, the editing tells the story.
When this version of “Two of Us” draws to a close, Paul has another bit of instruction and directs George to stop playing so he can advise him. The camera charts George rising from his seated position and turning his back as audio of him plays: “I think I’ll be leaving the band now.” Here too the edit, even though we don’t see George speak the words, helps establish this moment as the culmination of days of frustration. Though there is apparently no audio of him saying so, onscreen text quotes his famous departing line—“I’ll be seeing you ‘round the clubs”—and an animated reconstruction of his diary entry plays: “Got up went to Twickenham rehearsed until lunch time—left the Beatles—went home.”
Though the edit might make it seem so, it’s not clearly the case that John and Paul had ignored or dismissed George’s songwriting efforts. “All Things Must Pass” in particular is more stately and sober than many of the other songs the group was rehearsing, and other audio tapes from the sessions reveal the group considered including the song in their rooftop set, but George himself declined. More to the point, Jackson and Olssen’s edit of George’s departure suggests his leaving was largely a consequence of feeling frozen out by John and Paul’s camaraderie.
What that edit of The Beatles: Get Back can’t include, though, are the seventy-odd takes of his “All Things Must Pass” or reference to Pattie having left him in the wake of his extramarital affair. George was notoriously reticent and did not speak of his situation while at Twickenham. And of course even his momentous declarations are comically-terse examples of understatement: “I’ll be leaving the band now.”
Documentary editing is always a matter of telling a specific story for viewers to follow. The events as edited may or may not be perfectly chronological in sequence—although the macro-level organizational structure of The Beatles: Get Back carefully follows the calendar—but they need more than anything to persuade viewers that events occurred in a way that makes a certain kind of coherent, logical sense. In this particular scene, the jump cuts and reaction shots, the audio of performance and dialogue, are all assembled in a manner that does not necessarily hew to an exact chronology but that tells a story of George Harrison’s winter of discontent.
In the days that followed, as the subsequent and final episodes of The Beatles: Get Back depict, the band would renegotiate the terms of the project, abandon plans for a performance abroad, relocate to a makeshift studio on Savile Row, bring aboard old friend Billy Preston, and ascend to the rooftop of Apple for their final historic performance. Jackson and Olssen’s edit of the January 10 session make it a “belly-of-the-beast” moment in the narrative, one borne out of George’s apparent and extreme isolation, and an instance that helps viewers process a set of specific reasons for his famous decision to leave the band.