The Beatles: Get Back
- Directed by: Peter Jackson
- Documentary | TV-14 | 7 hr 48 min (three parts)
- Streaming on Disney+
Pop culture icons like The Beatles come around once in a generation (if not more infrequently), and pieces of art that capture these icons’ creative process contemporaneously and accurately occupy another realm of scarcity. With The Beatles: Get Back, we’re gifted the latter, and the result is phenomenal, at least for those with even a tangential relationship to the Fab Four.
The three-part documentary catalogues some of The Beatles’ final recording sessions together at Twickenham Film Studios and the original Apple Studio in January 1969, dubbed the “Get Back Sessions,” that produced the group’s twelfth and final studio album, Let It Be. Originally intended as a lead-in to a live album and television special, the sessions morphed into a quasi-film production before culminating in a rooftop performance that would prove The Beatles’ last live performance.
Watching The Beatles in a (relatively) unaltered environment work toward completing an album is nothing short of mesmerizing. Their process is fascinating; the sheer number of songs, both original and inspirational, they run through is mind-boggling, and seeing new songs pop up out of the primordial musical ooze is a joy to watch. For example, there’s a moment where Paul, Ringo, and George are sitting around the studio, and Paul is unassumingly strumming his guitar while humming a tune. The tune begins to take firmer shape, sounds form into incomplete lyrics, Ringo and George join in, and bam, a song is born: none other than “Get Back,” the sessions’ namesake. There’s a reason these four individuals made up one of history’s greatest groups, and their immense talent and musical genius is undeniable in Get Back.
Comparisons to the Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance are inevitable, as both projects came out within a year of each other and document the last major success of an all-time great group. However, unlike The Last Dance, which was injected with frequent interviews and flashbacks, Get Back director Peter Jackson inserts himself as little as possible, choosing instead to let The Beatles speak for themselves, with noticeable filmmaking interjections only where necessary to orient the audience as to the ever-ticking countdown to the sessions’ end. After a brief montage of The Beatles’ career up to January 1969, the only flashback comes later in the series while the group discusses their time in India with the Maharishi; other than that, the documentary is a straight march forward in time from the first note of the first session to the final recordings the day after the rooftop performance. It speaks to the pure draw of The Beatles, and it was absolutely the correct choice.
The most striking thing throughout the doc, at least to me, is how young these guys still were. It’s easy to forget (at least for those who didn’t live through it) how much The Beatles accomplished in such a short time; they burst onto the scene in 1963 with Please Please Me and released their entire group discography through the next seven years. Ringo is the oldest, and he was only 28 during the sessions. However, the only one who truly acts his age is Lennon, who offers lovey-dovey interludes with Yoko Ono (a constant presence at the session) and sex jokes with equal regularity. The rest are all strikingly mature and focused, no doubt a product of their collective past seven years’ intense success and scrutiny.
The Beatles themselves leap off the screen. It’s almost as if they’re actors playing themselves in an music biopic; Paul is the musical savant with a tempo on the band’s pulse, pushing, pushing, pushing to get results; John is the freewheeling foil to Paul, just as genius, but in no hurry to get anywhere (and often with a mind that seems elsewhere); George is the odd man out desperately trying to find pathways to his own musical maturity and recognition; and Ringo is the steady heartbeat keeping things together. It not only captures the band as they were in that moment, but also as an echo of how their past decade together shaped them.
This period in Beatles history is associated with turmoil and conflict that eventually led to the group’s breakup, but, while some of those seeds are certainly present (like in a tense conversation between Paul and George about Paul’s criticism), the sessions are mostly lighthearted, and the four clearly still work well together. Stripped of all the media circus and dissection that gave rise to, and reinforced, the era’s perception (which the Beatles quote directly from time to time in the series), we’re left with four friendly coworkers who seem ready to work on their own projects going forward, not as a product of any acrimony, but rather of natural exhaustion and the passage of time.
This is where we have to talk about the length. Originally, Get Back was intended as a theatrical release to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Let It Be, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed its release to 2021. Jackson, an admitted Beatles fanatic, obviously took the opportunity to say “screw it” and get as much footage as possible into the final product. Somewhere, there’s a two-and-a-half hour cut of this film that’s zippy and more accessible, but that’s missing the point. Will a good number of people get incredibly bored and bow out after a couple hours? Almost certainly. Is that worth withholding five hours of pure Beatles recording footage? Absolutely not. Yes it’s probably too long, but too much Beatles is always better than too little.
Reed Ripley is a movie aficionado who in his spare time is a local attorney. You can find Ripley’s movie reviews on Instagram @mct.film.