The Pitch: In January of 1969, the Beatles, wearing by internal tensions and alienated through years of not touring together, attempted to do the impossible: get back together to craft not only a new album but to record it live in concert, without any overdubs or studio tricks. Not only that, they wanted to film a TV special to coincide with the album’s release, which necessitated the hiring of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and the building of Twickenham Film Studios into an erstwhile rehearsal space. On top of all that, they had just four weeks to pull this all off.
The results were bittersweet: The album was released to muted fanfare (though it’s since been reappraised), and the ambitious TV special was whittled down to a now-iconic live concert atop the roof of Apple headquarters. But it’d be the last hurrah for a band that redefined pop music in a mere decade, a breakup whose causes have been speculated on wildly in the years since.
Maybe it’s Yoko Ono pulling John Lennon away from the band; maybe it’s manager Allein Klein screwing them out of royalties; maybe it’s the clashing egos of four twentysomething Liverpudlians who became rock gods virtually overnight. But director Peter Jackson, overseeing nearly 60 hours of previously unseen footage from Lindsay-Hogg’s filming of events (which eventually became the middling, 80-minute doc Let It Be), chronicles that strained month in the Fab Four’s life with a new three-part miniseries for Disney+, The Beatles: Get Back.
The Long and Winding Runtime: Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami once said, “I really think that I don’t mind people sleeping during my films, because I know that some very good films might prepare you for sleeping or falling asleep or snoozing.”
This, I say with all love, fits The Beatles: Get Back to a tee. At nearly eight hours, Jackson has essentially crafted another Lord of the Rings-level epic, but this time one that features guitars and bruised egos rather than magic rings and elfen armies. It’s luxuriantly paced, Jackson massaging dozens of hours of footage and stream of consciousness jam sessions into three episodes that range from two-plus hours to nearly three.
It’s fly-on-the-wall filmmaking in the truest sense, with Jackson less interested in culling moments that don’t matter and more interested in letting us soak in the atmosphere of the Beatles as they push through interpersonal and creative challenges. What moments of drama persist jut through the otherwise chill recording atmosphere like a hangnail, evidence that — despite their life-long camaraderie and the clear bliss they feel playing together — there are deep rifts between them they’re surely not going to open in front of Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras.
From the first day, Paul McCartney‘s patronizing, controlling attitude clearly rankles George and John, micromanaging one play style after another. George Harrison pushes back with his frustrations at feeling marginalized, and John will deflect with one absurdist joke after another. (Yoko Ono is almost always by his side, largely silent except for a few playful wails in the studio as they mess about.)
George publicly leaves for a short time, and only agrees to come back if they cancel the concert, abandon Twickenham, and set up shop in Apple’s headquarters, where they’ll break the album in a makeshift studio. Ringo Starr? Well, he’s just happy to be here, and his calm, jovial grins are clearly the glue that keeps these kids together. The only real pressure he puts on the proceedings is that it’s his deadline they have to ultimately meet: Starting in late January, he’s got to swan off to film The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers in that same rehearsal space.
Get It Back (To Basics): But far from a portrait of a band ripping itself apart, Get Back shows a group of guys who, at the end of the day, still get along famously. The Get Back Sessions saw the Beatles returning to more basic music, the kind they could play in a room together rather than staying isolated in the hermetically-sealed prison of multitrack recordings. To that end, much of the appeal of Get Back is in simply luxuriating in hearing the boys occupying the same creative space together.