Expectations around Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back were inevitably high among fans of the band, casual and obsessive alike. But the enthusiastic social media response to the eight-hour, three-part docuseries may indicate those expectations were surpassed. It’s built around material from the 1970 documentary Let It Be, which was filmed in fly-on-the-wall fashion as the Beatles wrote and recorded songs that would end up on their last two records, and which climaxed with their famous 1969 rooftop concert (the band’s final live performance together).

These events are well-known to fans, but 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio recorded for the doc were shelved for decades. Jackson and his crew combed through all of this, taking the best parts and meticulously restoring them, making the viewer an in-the-room witness to the creative process as it stumbles and sometimes glides along. Much of this has never been seen before; after so many years, there’s still fresh material to add to the official record of Beatle-dom.

Poster for The Beatles: Get Back

The crew’s intensive restoration process entailed digitally adjusting frame rates, removing visible splices, and sharpening and upscaling the footage. The result lacks the grain we expect from celluloid film and is soft around the edges. Some have decried it for making people look waxy, overly smooth, or somehow fake. If it is distracting (I didn’t think so), that’s only a footnote. That it gives the Beatles a luminous, almost otherworldly look actually works in the doc’s favor.

Get Back positions Let It Be as a film within a film, setting the stage by showing how the original director — the often parodically obnoxious Michael Lindsay-Hogg — planned to shoot a live album recording. Jackson employs a useful and elegant framing device: a January calendar marking out the days the Beatles have scheduled for use by the studios and film crew. A lot of the time they’re up against the wall, moving at such an ambitious clip that they look exhausted. When arguments and delays scupper the schedule, the rooftop gig almost doesn’t happen. (“I don’t wanna go on the roof,” George complains, though he is mercifully outvoted.)

The series’ eight hours are full of the Fab Four’s petty arguments, endless smoking, plucking at guitars and piano keys, dancing, and staring into space with cups of tea and toast. (There are various other substances at play as well, unseen but for the band’s glazed eyes. John was deep in the throes of heroin addiction at the time.) The band’s cohort is also part of the merry circus. There’s the nattily tailored producer George Martin, intimidatingly cool engineer Glyn Johns, legendary keyboardist Billy Preston, and longtime roadie and pal Mal Evans, who’s close enough to give Paul songwriting suggestions. Then there are the girls, Linda Eastman (soon to become Linda McCartney) and Yoko Ono, who go mostly unheard given the crew’s focus on the men’s activities. For all the fuss around her presence and the supposed rancor it caused, Ono mostly knits quietly or watches passively.

From The Beatles: Get Back

There are countless tiny details, both banal (Ringo: “I’ve farted, just thought I should let you know”) and remarkable, alternately tense, silly, or accidentally brilliant. John and Paul, for a long time believed to have been at loggerheads during these sessions, dance around the studio and goof around like teenagers. Linda’s little daughter Heather adorably imitates Yoko’s wail-croon. John sings gibberish halfway through “Don’t Let Me Down,” and while George and Ringo giggle, Paul shoots him a baleful side-eye. George wears a variety of ’69 Carnaby Street styles so eye-popping that you could compare him to Austin Powers … if he wasn’t George Harrison. Two London bobbies who try to shut down the rooftop concert are given a Keystone Cops-esque runaround by the staff of the Apple Corps building. (The frankly heroic receptionist Debbie pretends she has no idea where all the noise is coming from.)

A lot of this could uncharitably be called dead time, but only if you don’t have a pulse yourself. There’s an almost absurd Dewey Cox quality to George walking into a room saying, “Hey lads, listen to this song I wrote last night,” and playing a fledgling version of “Something.” It’s similarly surreal to watch the boys fiddle with writing lyrics that are now so burnished in the collective brain of pop culture. It may seem like not much is happening, and then Paul will pull the words of “Get Back” from the ether. Regardless of one’s age or level of Beatles obsession, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Complaints about the series’ running time or loose approach to narrative feel stingy considering all this. A conventional voiceover or the use of talking heads would only interrupt the pure flow of time. We see Lindsay-Hogg worry that he’s making a directionless film about “smokers, nose-pickers, and nail-biters” without realizing that therein lies the genius. (At one point he tries to get the band to play a concert at an amphitheater in Libya; their silent faces are response enough.) Jackson understands what Hogg missed. The way The Beatles: Get Back unfurls at length, it allows subtle interpersonal dynamics and the labor of songwriting to play out closer to real time. Watching the Beatles at work, seeing their personalities gel and clash, is where the magic is.

The Beatles: Get Back is available to stream on Disney+.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, another Benin bronze is returned to Nigeria, looking at the Black Arts Movement in the US South, Senegal’s vibrant new architecture, why films are more gray, and much more.

Jiha Moon’s Artistic Breakthrough

It is precisely Moon’s openness to using any source that makes her work flamboyant, captivating, odd, funny, smart, uncanny, comically monstrous, and unsettling. And, most of all, over the top.

Christina Newland

Christina Newland is an award-winning journalist on film, pop culture, and boxing at Sight & Sound, Little...

Leave a comment