“Hobbit” filmmaker Peter Jackson invites his fellow “kids” into the candy store of Beatles archives for “The Beatles: Get Back,” a film compiled from the mountains of documentary footage shot as the band scrambled to make an album in London in January of 1969.
Over the seven-almost-eight hours of this three part streaming series, a project that was pitched as a single theatrical film pre-pandemic, Jackson shows us just what a fanatical fan would be up against, trying to edit 57 hours of often-candid film footage and 150 hours of audio into a project that says something new about The Beatles.
“Kid in the candy store” indeed. It’s as if Jackson couldn’t bear to leave this, that or the other out of his film appreciation of The Fab Four. That makes for an exhaustively-detailed but often repetitive and redundant illumination of their creative process, even as it is a telling documentation of the forces that broke them up. That happened shortly after this project climaxed with their iconic “rooftop concert” from their new and crowded Apple townhouse office and studio.
The album was to be called “Get Back.” It was to be accompanied by a couple of live shows — which they hadn’t performed in three years — and include another Beatles TV special.
They were attempting a deadline-pressing recreation of their earliest recording days — writing, re-writing, working out arrangements and solos, rehearsing and re-rehearsing on a soundstage, and then in a studio, and finally performing live-on-tape (no overdubs) for an album that might have been called “Get Back,” but ended up as “Let It Be.”
And that rooftop show, “taking over London” for a no-permit “free concert” that was busted up by the bobbies after a few tunes, turned out to be their last live performance as a quartet.
Jackson, working with film shot by a vast crew led by then-director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, shows us enough footage to rewrite or at least renew their legend. But watching a film this long, with this much banter, this many versions of “Get Back” and “Two of Us,” becomes the visual equivalent of panning for gold. Still, by the time that last take of “Let It Be” decays on the soundtrack, I think he’s turned up some shiny flecks in that panning.
Lindsay-Hogg, already by 1969 a veteran of music videos for the Beatles and Rolling Stones (he’d go on to film “Frankie Starlight” and “The Object of Beauty”), is very much a character in this project, explaining what he’s doing, clarifying with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr the direction things are going in the film he’s making, which seems to be “going to pieces” much like the band, at times.
Ringo had a movie production start date, “The Magic Christian,” pressing down on their plans. They begin rehearsing and filming on a soundstage at Twickenham Studios, where the movie would largely be shot (co-star Peter Sellers drops in to say “Hi.”).
Those early days, on a cavernous stage with a cyclorama backdrop, come off as a lot of goofing around, getting back in the groove, going in circles if they’re “going” at all. Stress fractures are glimpsed in that setting
Jackson shows us the countdown pages on the calendar bearing down on them. They had to have the songs composed and the album and the live filmed performances in the can before month’s end.
There’s no overt hostility to the presence of John’s new flame, Yoko Ono, who has injected herself into these proceedings, often literally sitting between John and Paul. Linda Eastman, soon to be Linda McCartney, also shows up and takes photos and her daughter Heather bounces around the studio, entertaining and then being entertained by each Beatle in turn.
When Paul jokes about “fifty years from now” the story that “The Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amplifier,” he seems prophetic. The worst you could say about Ono was that she was underfoot, mostly-silent but distracted and a little distracting, shoehorning her way into an intimate circle that formerly was just four.
There’s a little visible tension in Harrison, lacking confidence that he can do this or that to always-upbeat task-master McCartney’s satisfaction, unhappy at the backlog of songs he’s written or partially composed that he will never get on a Beatles LP. George, remember, walked out of the band at one point in these sessions.
Then they move to their more intimate, yet-unused (the gear installation was botched by a Beatles hanger-on) new Apple studios. Ray-of-light keyboardist Billy Preston starts sitting in and George comes back.
In one quietly magical moment, we and George watch as Ringo plays a bit of this lark he’s working out on the piano, “Octopus’s Garden.” George comes over to compliment what’s there and suggest what’s needed to turn that — lyrically and musically — into a pop single.
A Beatles fan might shed a tear over that. It’s a little fleck of gold, one of many Jackson found in all that footage. We hear the first rough idea of what “Get Back,” the song, will be, catching a literal “moment of creation.” Paul pounds away at it like the craftsman he is, getting a melody and a chorus by force of will. He envisions it as a protest tune for an LP that might have a little edge to it, commenting on the anti-immigrant backlash sweeping Europe…in 1969.
Paul gets into their “nervousness” about performing live and mentions that ultimate fear of the Fabs — repeating themselves. Gathered together, they’re “talking about the past like old age pensioners.” But as the series’ prologue reminds us, they’d been together for a dozen years, most of them. Liverpool to Hamburg to the Cavern Club to EMI and George Martin (always in the scene here, with producer Glyn Johns), to glory and superstardom and fame so overwhelming it became a trap and a cliche.
Yes, there’s footage of their trek to India, and George has a spiritual advisor/guru in studio with him at times.
But what Lindsay-Hogg preserved on celluloid and what Jackson wants us to see, throwing all this never-before (or seldom) seen footage at us, is their bonhomie, their good humor and musicianship and mutual support, even at what became “the end.”
George has this new tune, “Something in the way she moves me,” but can’t work out what comes next. “Just sing anything that comes to mind,” John coaches, something we’ve seen all of them do time and again as they work out songs like “Let It Be” in these sessions. “‘Attracts me like a cauliflower‘ — until you get the right words.”
“Attracts me like a pomegranate,” George offers.
Split screens and overlapping audio break up the straightforward “documentary” style. There are secretly-recorded conversations about the state of the band in the Apple commissary, endless cigarettes and tea and toast. “Let It Be,” “Long and Winding Road, “Something,” and others come together a little, then are dropped as the band backslides into their vast repertoire of Hamburg eight-hours-of-sets-a-night days, rock and pop classics from the late ’50s and early ’60s, just to break up the grind.
It’s all entirely too much, of course. Jackson copped out on cutting this into a tighter, more coherent “history.” Ninety minutes per show would have sufficed. But in this form, he really is asking “Well, what would YOU leave out?”
A Beatles buff won’t need any salesmanship to know Disney+ is the place to be this weekend. And even a more casual fan might want to drop in on “Get Back,” just to get a peek at what all the fuss was about and why they still seem relevant over fifty years later. Because “where they once belonged” is where they’ve always been.
Rating: smoking, profanity
Cast: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman McCartney, George Martin, Billy Preston, Glyn Johns, Mal Evans, Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Credits: Directed by Peter Jackson and Michael Lindsay-Hogg. A Disney+ release.
Running time: 3 episodes, 2-3 hours each, 468 minutes (7 hours, 48 minutes) total