Some have joked that Peter Jackson’s new documentary, The Beatles: Get Back reminds its viewers how long eight hours can be, but the film also reminds us just how fast fifty years can go by. It makes the moments of The Beatles’ last hurrahs contemporaneous as the past confronts the present.
In nearly eight hours worth of footage from The Beatles’ Get Back sessions in January of 1969, which produced the Let It Be album released in 1970, the public is given unprecedented access into not just the studio, but the people and friendships that wove together to craft the phenomenon that was and is The Beatles.
The original intention of the Get Back sessions was to “get back” to music basics. Work for the last Beatles release, 1968’s the White Album, or formally The Beatles, was fraught with division. Songs on the White Album did not always feature all four Beatles; John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison seemed to be on diverging songwriting trajectories. In the wake of this miserable experience, the quartet agreed to record a live album in order to strip away the production technologies that enabled them to musically drift from one another. On all of the songs for this upcoming project, The Beatles would go back to playing together, at the same time, in the same room. All of this was to culminate in a live performance, which came to fruition on the rooftop of Apple’s office building in London on January 30, 1969.
Jackson’s work is honest in its refusal to shy away from the tensions that wracked the Beatles prior to their breakup, which was to come only eight months after the rooftop concert. The audience is privy to arguments about the direction and future of the band. Most intimately, Jackson includes a private conversation recorded by a hidden microphone between Lennon and McCartney as they reflect on their leadership roles within the band. Just in part one, we watch Harrison leave the band. When Lennon doesn’t show up for work either, we watch McCartney look at Ringo Starr, holding back tears as he solemnly declares: “And then there were two.”
These raw glimpses into the vulnerabilities of The Beatles are important in debunking the myths and drama that surround the story of their eventual breakup. As McCartney himself predicts in the documentary, people still laugh fifty years later that The Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp. While the audience can see how Yoko’s presence is an awkward nuisance, Jackson’s depiction of underlying tensions and burgeoning separate paths condemns popular claims about the band’s split as sensationalist and oversimplified.
Nonetheless, Jackson is careful not to make the same mistakes as original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg in the 1970 documentary Let It Be. The audience feels the change in attitude once The Beatles move out of Twickenham to a place more comfortable. Jackson demonstrates the dedication of the people that made the musicians more comfortable, and thus more productive. People like Mal Evans and George Martin are ever-present throughout the documentary; without them, it seems, the Beatles never would have been at all. Even more tangible is the uplift brought to both the music and atmosphere by Billy Preston, whose talent dazzles the four Beatles as much as it does the ordinary viewer. Of course, the talent of The Beatles themselves is an honor to witness. One can only be amazed as McCartney seemingly pulls “Get Back” out of thin air or Harrison begins to fiddle with an early version of “Something”. Lennon seamlessly jumps into a jam session after showing up late to the studio, rejuvenating a song with just his rhythm guitar. Jackson makes a point to demonstrate that The Beatles are not only fantastic songwriters, but talented musicians.
Get Back is full of these jam sessions, to the extent that it seems the Beatles spent more time jamming than recording new music. It is obvious that “the memories are longer than the road that stretches out ahead” as the band frequently falls back on rock and roll songs from the 1950s and unreleased Lennon-McCartney tunes written back in Liverpool. They play old Beatles songs too, whether it be a joking rendition of “Help!” or a random riff from “I Feel Fine.” In these moments, the Beatles unlock the true spirit of what it means to “get back.” Remembering how it was to play together as teenagers helps them to create something new while having fun in the process.
There is still a sense of fresh joy and deep friendship in the new songs, too. McCartney bops along to his own new composition with Starr’s wife Maureen. Lennon plays with Linda McCartney’s daughter, Heather. When the band members speak to one another, their sentences are decorated with jokes and belly laughter. They are clearly having a good time making new music, and it is just as fun to observe how much they are enjoying themselves. When Lennon and McCartney smile at one another after perfecting a harmony, the audience witnesses and shares in the fifteen years of friendship and history between the two songwriting partners.
The best moments of Get Back are the displays of friendship and the sentiment of lighthearted fun that persist despite the imminence of the band’s eventual demise. The concept for Jackson’s documentary itself borrows from The Beatles’ own beliefs in the power of shared memory and mutual love. The Beatles insisted that the happiness of a memory can be transposed into real joy in the present. As a modern audience smiles at and dances along to footage and music recorded a half century ago, it becomes clear that they were right to insist.