‘The Beatles: Get Back’: Peter Jackson’s documentary is intimate, epic and emotional (review)
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Peter Jackson, it’s that he’s the opposite of a minimalist. The New Zealand director appears to love nothing more than telling a story at maximal length, notably in his “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy and the “Hobbit” trilogy. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that “The Beatles: Get Back,” in which Jackson and his team work with nearly 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio of The Beatles writing songs, leading up to what would be their final live performance as a band, clocks in at nearly eight hours.
“The Beatles: Get Back” is divided into three parts, the first of which is streaming on Disney Plus on Thanksgiving Day. The second part begins streaming on Friday, and the third begins streaming on Saturday.
(How to watch: Stream “The Beatles: Get Back” on Disney Plus. Access to Disney+ is $7.99 per month, or $79.99 per year. Also available is the Disney Bundle, which includes Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu. Choices include the Disney Bundle with ad-supported Hulu ($13.99 per month), or ad-free Hulu ($19.99 per month.)
Is it a long sit? Definitely. Are there moments when you wish the band would quit noodling around and amusing themselves by playing snippets of rock oldies or the Harry Lime theme from “The Third Man?” Absolutely. Will you feel impatient as you wait for more finished versions of such songs as “Get Back” to emerge? Sure.
All that said, Jackson’s film is something special. It’s so intimate that it feels as if we’re in the recording studio with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. The cinema-verite approach includes little obvious evidence of directorial shaping, though Jackson and his crew actually worked on “The Beatles: Get Back” for years.
Intellectually, we know Lennon and Harrison are gone, and that The Beatles officially broke up not long after these sessions were filmed. But watching “The Beatles: Get Back” brings the band back to life, as they work under a deadline to write and record new songs, bounce ideas off each other, negotiate tense moments, and goof around.
The footage that gets the long-play treatment in “The Beatles: Get Back” originally appeared in a much more condensed form in director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary, “Let It Be.” That film has been regarded as a fairly glum record of the tensions that culminated in the band breaking up.
When they gathered in January 1969, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr hadn’t performed together live for more than two years, having burned out on scream-filled stadium shows and finding new creative expression using the studio effects available for such albums as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The January sessions were intended as a return to live performance, with the band writing and rehearsing 14 new songs, to record for a live album. Lindsay-Hogg and his crew were on hand to make a documentary about the process, which was all supposed to climax with a TV special.
While there are signs of the disagreements that contributed to The Beatles’ splitting up – Lennon eagerly talking about Allen Klein, who he, Harrison, and Starr favored as a business manager, and who McCartney opposed, Harrison briefly quitting the band in frustration over Lennon and McCartney’s dominant roles – “The Beatles: Get Back” also illustrates The Beatles’ longtime friendship and collaboration.
Lennon and McCartney, for example, perform bits of songs they wrote back when they were teenagers. Harrison listens to Starr’s early, incomplete version of “Octopus’s Garden.” They smoke, drink tea, eat toast and, in moments that recall the movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” read ridiculous tabloid reports about The Beatles’ “oddball adventures.”
McCartney acts a little bossy, and comes off as the engine trying to drive them to complete their songs. Lennon veers between being sarcastically jokey and seeming to crave attention, as his companion, Yoko Ono, sits next to him, mostly staying quiet.
Through it all, The Beatles tend to communicate in shorthand, even as plans for the TV special dissolve. With the death of their former manager, Brian Epstein (they call him “Mr. Epstein”), McCartney notes that “Daddy’s gone away,” and they’re all alone at the holiday camp. The reality that The Beatles are a creative group, and not exactly cut out for making business decisions, is apparent.
At one point, Lindsay-Hogg says he’s no longer sure what story he’s telling. With no real plan for a live performance, he says, he’s got a movie about “smokers, nose-pickers and nail-biters.”
The energy noticeably picks up when musician Billy Preston arrives, initially just to say hi. But Preston stays around, to add his keyboard playing to some of the new Beatles tunes.
The documentary reaches its climax with the Jan. 30, 1969 unannounced daytime concert on the roof of the Apple Corps headquarters, in London. It was the last time The Beatles performed live as a band, and it’s exhilarating to see John, Paul, George and Ringo (with Billy Preston) playing, singing and rocking out.
In addition to The Beatles’ rooftop location, Lindsay-Hogg had cameras set up inside the Apple offices’ reception area, on the sidewalk, and on nearby roofs. In “The Beatles: Get Back,” we see split-screen images of the police responding to noise complaints, onlookers marveling at The Beatles performing out in the open, Lennon looking over at McCartney with a big smile, and ending the all-too-brief concert with his famous comment: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”
With mischief, fun, and boisterous musicality, The Beatles manage to simultaneously bring consternation to the establishment, and spread total joy. If that isn’t The Beatles at their best, I don’t know what is.
— Kristi Turnquist