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.
There’s a visceral glee in hearing John, Paul, and the rest break songs like “Two of Us” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” like watching a very stoned Michaelangelo paint the Sistene Chapel. They sing fill-in lyrics like, “Haunts me like a cauliflower,” or break the monotony to thrum through old classics of theirs (or other songs of the time they love from Bob Dylan and James Brown). In real-time, we get to watch Paul strum away idly on a guitar until, like chipping away at a piece of marble, he begins coming away with the central riff of “Get Back.”
It’s in these moments that all the tensions and arguments fade away and they reconnect with why they did this in the first place: the music. Jackson understands that these are the real gold nuggets he’s panned for in all this footage, restoring it to a vivid 4k life thanks to similar restoration techniques he used for his stellar WWI doc They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s remarkable to look at, even as the limitations of Lindsay-Hogg’s 16mm footage (acknowledged on-camera by Paul) led Jackson to tinker a bit too much with the old footage.
This leaves the proceedings looking somewhat smoothed out and fuzzy, like we’re watching deepfakes of the band superimposed on someone else. Still, the sound has been impeccably revived, and every new outtake of a classic Beatles track feels like Jackson recovering some kind of lost artifact.
Helter Skelter: But for as meditative, monotonous, and oftentimes repetitive as the studio sessions can be (you’ll get sick of “Two of Us” no matter how many funny voices Paul and John spin on it), Get Back rewards patient viewers with that unforgettable rooftop concert. It’s here that Jackson’s filmmaking opens up even further, veering from literalized documentation to a thrilling, split-screen ticking-clock thriller as the police attempt to make their way to the rooftop to stop the Beatles from disturbing the peace.
Jackson’s longtime editor Jabez Olssen has a blast dashing from the band’s verve-filled renditions on the roof, to the farcical attempts by the bobbies to get past Apple security, to man-on-the-street interviews during the concert that range from giddy schoolgirls to surly hausfraus (“It woke me up from my sleep and I don’t like it!”).
It’s cut almost like an action sequence, injecting some much-needed excitement into an event we all know is a foregone conclusion. But in Jackson and Olssen’s hands, it feels like an incredible heist our plucky heroes have just barely pulled off.
The Verdict: Honestly, Thanksgiving Day is likely the perfect release date for The Beatles: Get Back. It’s an eight-hour vibe session of joy and tedium in equal measure, one you can throw on in the background as you prepare your turkey dinner and drift in and out of as your heavy eyelids flutter with all the reverie of a tryptophan nap.
It’s less boring than it is relaxed, Jackson keeping us as flies on the wall for every step of the hypnotic process of creativity. There’s no need to keep rapt attention to all eight hours of it in one go; it’s best served by drifting in and out of its charming comforts, soaking in the proximity of pop music’s greatest titans in some of their most intimate moments together.
The Beatles: Get Back is as much archaeology as it is cinema, a docuseries committed not just to showing us new moments of the band that we’ve never seen before, but to crafting a broader picture of their oft-controversial dynamic. We’ve long had a picture of late-period Beatles as a quartet of squabbling, drug-addled egotists whose self-regard (along with the interference of an abrasive interloper in the form of Yoko) broke up one of the greatest bands in the world.
But in Get Back, the Beatles laugh off accusations of their animosity, giggling at headlines from The Daily Sketch’s Michael Housego that John and George had come to blows. Yes, they’d grown apart, and their priorities differed, and they’re more honest about their creative differences. But when it comes time to sit in a room together and just play, it’s like they never left those early gigs in Hamburg. And that’s the true treasure Jackson unlocks.
Where’s It Playing? The Beatles: Get Back takes the long and winding road to Disney+ just in time for turkey dinner in the States, November 25th.