Peter Jackson’s Disney+ Beatles documentary Get Back shines a new, clear light on the band’s story

·9-min read
 (Disney+)
(Disney+)

As departures go, the moment that George Harrison decides to leave The Beatles is anything but dramatic. In fact, it’s so prosaic, that you almost find yourself laughing. Halfway through the eighth day of filming for Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 Beatles documentary Let It Be, The Quiet One quietly makes it clear that he’s had enough. “I think I’ll be… I’m leaving,” he says. As he walks off – his eventual return by no means guaranteed – he adds, “I’ll see you in the clubs.” Watching this moment anew on Peter Jackson’s new three part re-telling of the Get Back story – painstakingly assembled using Hogg’s original footage – it’s hard not to sympathise. If anything, you wonder why it took so long for one of them to do it.

At times, it seems that Lindsay-Hogg himself isn’t altogether sure of what he’s chronicling. “There’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s no story,” he sighs at one point, as though that were someone else’s job. In fact, it takes Jackson’s extraordinary new eight-hour edit to reveal that the real issue with The Beatles’ Let It Be project was its original director’s vision for it. On paper, of course, you can see why Lindsay-Hogg thought it might work, and indeed why The Beatles came on board.

His track record was impressive. Having worked on Top of The Pops’ beat-boom precursor Ready Steady Go! and fresh from The Rolling Stones’ big-top extravaganza Rock ’n’ Roll Circus, the 28 year-old had also directed a few promo clips for The Beatles. There was some logic in his suggestion that the group let him film them for two weeks as they recorded an album’s worth of new songs before performing them at a suitably grand location.

With three years having elapsed since the Fabs’ last live shows and over a year since the death of their manager “Mr Epstein” (as the group, rather sweetly, still call him), Paul McCartney, in particular, seems to recognise that something is needed to recapture the spirit of their early days, but watching Get Back, it becomes apparent that the interests of film-making and music-making are at painful odds with each other. Decamping from the security of Abbey Road for Twickenham Studios is a terrible mistake.

Perhaps because of what you already know about this saga, the warning bells start to sound at the very beginning. There’s something painfully symbolic about watching the Beatles and long-serving roadie Mal Evans turn up on the first day and set up their amps and instruments as close to each other as possible. From afar, in a strange grey hangar on a January morning, they look like they’re on a raft out to sea, equipped with nothing but their instruments and each other. Also in these opening shots are the beginnings of an unfolding tale that radically deviates from the narrative of Lindsay-Hogg’s original film.

Yes, it’s kind of weird to see ever-present Yoko there variously staring at John or her knitting or into space – but it swiftly becomes apparent that she isn’t anything like the disruptive agent that fans and biographers have sought to portray. Indeed, when Paul addresses her presence, he plays it for laughs, describing his attempts to make her feel welcome by tailoring his songwriting to her presence: “I start writing a song about white walls because I think she would like that.” And then on her closeness to his best friend: “She really is alright. They just wanna be near each other.”

Get Back sheds new light on the band’s relationships during filming (Linda McCartney)
Get Back sheds new light on the band’s relationships during filming (Linda McCartney)

Whether or not he did it consciously, casting John and Yoko’s inseparability as the elephant in the room allowed Lindsay-Hogg to distract from the fact that the real (metaphorical) elephant might in fact be his film and the almost unmanageable strain it places upon its subjects. What really doesn’t help matters is his perplexing conviction that boarding a boat full of fans bound for Tripoli where they’ll play a gig is the shared objective that will bring everyone together. Suffice to say their irritation at the idea is a far more unifying force than the idea itself. The most famous section in the original Let It Be film also makes it into Get Back – that’s the bit where Paul is trying to teach George the guitar part for Two Of Us, much to George’s rising exasperation. “I’ll play whatever you want me to play,” says George, “Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”

The added pressure of having to resolve these moments in this setting is made manifest in Paul’s response. “I can’t do it on film,” he sighs, momentarily walking away, as John exhorts him to “forget about Candid Camera.” But it’s Paul’s next utterance – a measure of his exceptional emotional literacy – that slightly chokes you. “I’m scared of me being the boss… and I have been for a couple of years.” Frozen in that moment is the realisation that this band of equals probably won’t withstand Paul’s transition into leader, and yet that’s also what appears to be needed. Later on, the suggestion that The Beatles might actually split up, fills his eyes with tears.

So, in a film where the atmosphere deteriorates so much that George ups and leaves the band, seemingly for good (“See you in the clubs,” is his parting shot), why is Get Back being touted as such an uplifting corrective to the film whose creation it essentially chronicles? Well, firstly it’s instructive to note just how suddenly the atmosphere changes when, as per George’s stipulation, The Beatles decamp to Apple Studios, whose Savile Row rooftop will finally provide Lindsay-Hogg with the finale he needs. From hereon in, Lindsay-Hogg is barely a presence. Back in familiar territory, The Beatles effectively take over the project. One person relieved by the difference is a visiting George Martin who excitably exclaims, “You’re working so well together – you’re looking at each other, you’re seeing each other, you’re… just happening.”

Eventually Lindsay-Hogg got his big ending (Disney+)
Eventually Lindsay-Hogg got his big ending (Disney+)

What often makes Jackson’s edit so touching is the love that underpins both their tense exchanges and their tender ones. Especially revelatory is the way John delights in making Paul laugh – and indeed, the frequent hysterics to which John reduces him. In particular, I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching Paul’s reaction to a John’s inspired punchline to a surreal free-association about the Boy Scouts Association’s apparent ban on masturbation. The engine of the group’s bond hasn’t changed since the formative apprenticeship in Hamburg to which they so frequently refer. And it happens throughout Get Back. Almost every time they play music together, any sense that this bizarre experiment might get the better of them disappears. It’s their collective superpower, and you see it happening countless times: the day that Paul brings the basic idea for his song Get Back into the room, and from the half-formed melodic murk rises the song you’ve known your whole life; George asking John and Paul to help him on the second line of a new song which starts, “Something in the way she moves…”

If they could only keep playing together, everything would surely be ok, but of course, as John’s calloused fingers remind us, life isn’t like that. And already, in the final third of Get Back, there are chilling intimations of what lies around the corner. With the Machiavellian promises of would-be Beatles manager Allen Klein ringing in his ears, a smitten John tells a credulous Ringo, “I think he’s fantastic” – while the group’s spectacularly attired producer Glyn Johns bravely begs to differ, pointing out Klein’s habit of changing the subject if he doesn’t like your answer to a question.

In the end, a band is really just an interim family for the years between the one you grow up with and the one you go on to make for yourself. The arrival of keyboard wiz Billy Preston in the sessions offers a temporary distraction from the fact that love may not be enough to keep The Beatles together for much longer. In a way, he unwittingly has far more success achieving what Lindsay-Hogg fails to do. He’s the impartial witness, the all-seeing-eye that ensures everyone presents the best side of themselves. And perhaps even better than that, his Fender-Rhodes handiwork brings a thrilling new dimension to songs like Don’t Let Me Down and I’ve Got A Feeling.

In this new edit, Jackson uses split-screens on the rooftop concert section to effectively create a subplot in which the police are following up on local complaints to stop the concert. As delighted crowds of incredibly stylish (mostly) young women gather on the pavement below, the sense of collective release as The Beatles embrace what is now, undoubtedly, a happening is written across their gleeful faces. Down below, two police officers attempt to gain access to the scene of the “disturbance” while Apple staff try and stall them.

And so, all’s well that ends well. Lindsay-Hogg gets his big ending. But the story he planned isn’t the real story of what happened to The Beatles in January 1969. While we ought to be grateful that he shot the footage in the first place, it’s taken 50 years of hindsight, miles of newly unearthed footage and Peter Jackson to do that. Always wise for his years, the first to call it was George Harrison. Some way into the third episode, he ponders, “The things that have worked out best ever for us haven’t really been planned any more than this has. It’s just… like, you go into something and it does it [by] itself. Whatever it’s gonna be, [it] becomes that.”

And he’s absolutely right. None of us get to decide what our story is. We might think we’re the authors of our own narrative but we’re merely characters in it, and whatever happens, happens. Hey, maybe someone should write a song about that. Perhaps call it Let It Be.

Parts one to three of Get Back premiere on Disney+ on November 25, 26 and 27 respectively

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