Let’s get this out of the way quickly: no matter how boring, predictable, rote and maybe Dad-rock-y it may sound to some, The Beatles remain one of the greatest bands of all time. The group was a towering collection of musicians who wrote the blueprint for almost all of the modern rock and pop genre, bold experimentalists and one of the first bands to use the studio as an artistic instrument. They were incredible musicians on a performance level, marvelous songwriting craftsmen and technically, creatively and imaginatively sound on every level. Their music endures, and will continue to do so, for a reason.
However, filmmaker Peter Jackson’s enervating new three-part documentary series, “The Beatles: Get Back,”—culled from more than 80s hours of raw footage and 140 hours of audio taken from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary “Let It Be,” as the filmmaker will seemingly tell anyone who will listen, repeating this fact at the beginning of each episode—is mostly a drag and a bore. Over six hours in length, one can feel Jackson’s overwhelmed kid-in-a-candy-store awe early on, because for what other reason is a story that could be told in 90 minutes, six hours? Initially a movie that ballooned into a three-part series, it’s clear Jackson cannot help himself, enamored with all this footage and including as much of it as possible. For Beatlephiles, it is certainly an unbelievable treasure trove of remarkable unseen footage, an intimate look at the Beatles, unvarnished, truthful and depicting some outstanding performances. But for a regular audience who wants a narrative and a coherent story, it is a taxing, super baggy documentary series, wandering around for what seems like hours on end until it finally lands on a story beat that creates a little drama (take episode one which is borderline unwatchable until it snaps to attention at the end when, after 2.5 of watching the band jam, George Harrison quits the band and leaves the recording sessions).
The story in its shortest form is this (context that is explained up front in five minutes): The Beatles in 1969, following their retirement from playing live (1966) and some bruised feelings and tensions among their members, decide that playing live in front of an audience, and recording a back-to-basics album would be good for the band’s morale, especially since the rare live performance of “All You Need Is Love” (1967) in front of a studio audience seemed to really galvanize the group.
A plan—that turns out to be directionless and overly complicated—is hatched. The Beatles will rent out a warehouse space—incidentally, the same one where Ringo Starr will star in a new movie, “The Magician,’ that starts production at the end of December 1969—record a new album, have the recording of the album filmed with the intention of releasing a documentary TV special that will coincide with the release of the new record. The problem is this: Brian Epstein, the band’s longtime manager, has died (1967) and as Harrison aptly puts it, “nothing has ever been the same since.” The Beatles have decided to manage themselves (terrible decision), and the band is aimless and can’t decide on a thing. Harrison, the youngest Beatle, is still only 25 years old at the time, to give you context (Ringo is the oldest at 29), and the band are in desperate need of an adult in the room to tell them which ideas are good, which are bad, and which ones are just not practical or feasible.
The doc series is essentially the story about the evolution of an idea: how the notion of recording a TV special and performing in front of a live audience eventually got scrapped, and turned into a quick rooftop performance (their last live performance ever), and eventually 1970’s aforementioned “Let It Be” documentary which coincided with the release of their final album Let It Be (released a month after the band’s break up). Hogg’s “Let It Be” documentary is unwatchable and so bad it was soon taken out of circulation and has barely been seen since outside of VHS and bootleg circles.
Jackson’s ‘Get Back,’ is surely something of a corrective: trying to create something entertaining and engrossing out of all the amazing footage Hogg shot and the unprecedented access he was given to the band, the impetus for it is deeply understandable. And yet, Jackson’s doc series suffers from much of the same issues and often feels like watching raw YouTube behind-the-scenes footage.
Jackson’s narrative frameworks is essentially a calendar: they have a start date, and a looming deadline because soon, the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios where the band is recording will be taken over by Ringo’s movie. By the end of the shapeless and aimless first episode—the band not really having any new songs and watching them trying to will them into existence is far more painful than it sounds—Harrison’s had enough and bails. This gives episode two some purpose: will he or won’t he return to the group and can the rest of the Beatles convince him to rejoin?
He eventually relents, but demands that the band abandon the cavernous Twickenham airport hanger (completely not conducive to good acoustics, a horrible decision in the first place) and retreat to their Apple Studios to record the album there (this organization is so bloody disorganized that the Beatles’ own company does not have a working recording studio inside it and a makeshift one has to be created in the basement). Once in Apple Studios (about the middle of episode two, again, some two hours long), ‘Get Back’ finally starts to take shape. The band gets in better spirits, finds a bit more discipline and songs start to take form in a recognizable manner that is finally exciting to watch.
But Jackson cannot help but give you too much of a good thing (I swear we hear “Get Back” performed about 10 different times just within episode two) and the series again wanders and gets shaggy. Episode three is the road to the culminating final concert: the Beatles quickly and haphazardly decide to conduct their famous final concert atop of their Apple Studios before it’s eventually shut down by the bobbies (watch some footage here, you’ve surely seen it before). This finale—presented somewhat like the famous 1970 “Woodstock” documentary with several split screens taking in and depicting concurrent action, the band, the audiences milling about, the cops trying to shutter the concert—is largely thrilling, but by this part, you’ve endured about five hours of very loose fitting documentary and it starts to all come a little too late.
For Beatlephiles (like myself) there are definitely some cool revelations that will shine a little bit of light on the group and why they broke up (which the documentary is definitely not about, per se, but it does show how the recording of these sessions did pave the way for their demise, something that would have likely happened eventually, regardless). To that end, ‘Get Back’ dispels some popular myths about these recording sessions too, like the legend that Harrison insisted that keyboardist Billy Preston sit in on the sessions, which had the unintentional but helpful effect of making all the band members be on their best behavior, and get to work. While it’s clear that Preston’s warm presence is invigorating and enlivening, in the documentary he’s shown just to be a visitor that popped by for a hello (the group knew him from their Hamburg days), whom they insist stay and join the recording session (his electric piano, Hammond organ sounds and soulful sensibilities such a terrific addition to the music). Watching embryonic versions of songs played during the session that would later turn up on 1969’s Abbey Road, (their real final album, recorded after Let It Be, but released before it), tunes like, “Oh! Darling” and “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” is great fun for Beatles devotees, but would be better suited to watching out of context on YouTube.
Those looking for acrimony within the group have come to the wrong place and will have to stare deeply to catch the subtle moments of hurt feelings between the group members, their affable and reserved British personalities hardly ever reveal much bitterness and really the tensions are small and simmering. Much of it centers on McCartney just being a little too overbearing in his trying-to-be-a-leader role and Harrison, whose songs keep getting overlooked, just getting sick of it all. He hints at this later on—having the time, space and freedom to record solo records—while the Beatles still exist and he would laugh last (1970’s All Things Must Pass is a triple album [!!], just filled to the brim with material the Beatles gently snubbed, and to this day easily remains the best post-Beatles solo record ever, yes, even over John Lennon’s Imagine). Regardless, these conflicts are polite, understated and never boil over. One aside worth mentioning which feels like such an insane ethical breach: Hogg and company secretly recorded a private conversation between Lennon and McCartney following Harrison temporarily quitting the group, trying to decide what to do if he doesn’t come back, and then candidly themselves taking the blame for the way they hurt his feelings and pushed him around a little bit. If this sounds fascinating, it is in theory, but it isn’t fascinating to watch, which is the documentary itself in a nutshell: a film that doesn’t seem to understand the difference between being a fly on the wall, and just sitting there languidly, in real time, as events unfold.
Many seminal music rock documentaries have been made from the footage of lesser documentaries made by the bands themselves—See Martin Scorsese’s stupendous No Direction Home, Bob Dylan doc, much of it made from footage taken from Dylan’s own “Eat the Document”—and Jackson’s doc certainly follows in those footsteps with the same goal. But ‘Get Back’ is not even definitive as a documentary about the making of the Let It Be album. If anything, it’s the definitive volume of footage about it, but as a coherent, watchable story, this ain’t it. On a practical level, ‘Get Back’ also serves as a major cautionary tale about how lack of focus and disorganization can kill a family unit and if you’ve ever led a team or worked in an office, and cared an iota about process, the documentary can be a grueling lesson on what not to do when recording an album. Finally, Alfred Hitchcock once famously said, “movies are like life with the boring bits cut out,” and whoo boy, we urge Peter Jackson to reconsider that statement next time he decides to make a documentary about a special moment, but fails to resist the temptation to include all those tedious bits. [C]