Get Back: A Review
The biggest band in the world is imploding. The recording sessions near the end of the Beatles are scarred with marks of contempt and anger. History records that these penultimate sessions were venomous, that they were filled with what Peter Brown, a close friend of the band, called “hostile lethargy.” Even though legendary songs such as “Let It Be,” “Get Back,” and more were produced during these sessions, it was supposedly a toxic environment.
We’re lucky enough that the band decided to film these sessions for a later TV special they would make. This special was eventually scrapped, but filmmaker Michael Lindsay Hogg still decided to make the 1970 documentary: Let It Be out of the footage, showcasing the bitterness and hostility of the sessions for all to see. Sadly, it was a flop. You’d be lucky to find a copy of it anywhere today, and yet it cemented the legacy of these awful recording sessions, even in the minds of the Beatles themselves.
Fast forward to 2017, when filmmaker and massive Beatles fan Peter Jackson, writer and director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is making his critically acclaimed documentary about World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old. In the documentary, Jackson and his team painstakingly restore and add sound and color to hours of footage of World War I, giving life to these now lifeless soldiers in the most remarkable and unexpected way. So, when Jackson learns that over sixty hours of footage and one hundred fifty hours of audio of his favorite band recording in the studio were just sitting in a vault somewhere, unseen and unheard for half a decade, he asks for permission to view, restore, and make a new documentary out of it, using the same methods he used in They Shall Not Grow Old.
The outcome is incredible. The three-part, over eight-hour documentary that took four years to make completely rewrites history. The band I see fooling around with their instruments, widely smiling, is nothing like the horrendous narrative I’ve been led to believe over the years. Screaming tunes from way back when, practicing now-classic songs that devolve into hilarious screaming matches, and playing songs through their teeth. It’s just a blast to watch, for the most part.
The widening cracks in their unity still show at times, especially in the first episode filmed at an empty movie lot called Twickenham. In this first episode, things get so bad that by the end, George Harrison calls it quits, quietly announcing to the band in the most nonchalant way possible, “I’m leaving the band now” to which John Lennon asks “When?” and George responds “Now. Get a replacement.” They eventually get him back, but the cold and gloomy atmosphere of Twickenham makes for a rough first episode.
However, the first episode is filled with fascinating insights into the band. One scene in particular has stuck with me. It’s early in the morning, and, as George and Ringo quietly yawn, they watch Paul McCartney fiddle with his bass. But then, seemingly out of thin air, he starts to find a melody, and then a chorus, and then, in no time at all, he has a song: that song was “Get Back”, which would debut at number one four months later. It shows Paul working his magic right in front of your eyes, and it’s just incredible.
Another great bit that somehow went unnoticed for fifty years was a secretly recorded conversation about the breakup of the band between John and Paul. The camera crew had hidden a microphone in the flower pot on the table they were sitting at, and the audience can listen to their perspectives on the divorce of their musical family while it’s happening. It’s something I never thought I would get to hear, and it’s fascinating.
But it’s after the first episode, when they move into the more familiar space of Apple Studios, where things start getting fun. There’s a visible change in atmosphere, and the vibrance that was lacking at Twickenham is restored to the band. They jam, record now-classic songs, and show their creative process.
All of this culminates in the now infamous forty-two-minute rooftop concert, which is just as electric and fun as you would imagine. The English wind ruffles their long hair as they perform for the public for the first time in three years and what would turn out to be the last time. The films show the perspectives of the police, and of bystanders on the ground; it’s well-done filmmaking, and just more fun to enjoy.
The original 1970 documentary creates a false narrative. Perhaps this is a lesson that viewers need to look at the source material, or that they should never think they’re seeing the full picture. However, this documentary’s primary achievement is its recording of four best friends having fun and creating the music that would define a generation. I’d highly recommend this documentary to any Beatles fan, and to people interested in learning why they’re held in such high regard. Boys, you passed the audition.