Peter Jackson’s Mammoth Beatles Documentary Is A Feast For Fans
There is already a movie about the Beatles making Let It Be. It is called Let It Be. Throughout January 1969, a crew led by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg — who had helmed the Beatles’ music videos for “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” “Hey Jude,” and “Revolution” among other work at the center of 1960s rock — filmed the Fab Four rehearsing, recording, and ultimately giving their final public performance on the roof of their Apple Corps. headquarters in London. The Let It Be movie famously depicts a band in its death throes, racing against the clock to resolve their internal tensions, learn an album’s worth of new material, and plan and execute a live TV special that was ultimately aborted. Despite ending on a triumphant note with that rooftop concert, Lindsay-Hogg’s movie is essentially a funeral for a group that had descended into cross-purposes, bruised egos, and bickering. It was received as such upon its premiere in May 1970, just a month after the Beatles announced their breakup to the world. But the Beatles have never been fond of the movie, and as Keith Phipps noted out in a look back at Let It Be this week, it has been out of print since the early ’80s.
Now Peter Jackson has taken another crack at it. Best known as the director of the Lord Of The Rings movies, Jackson has built another sprawling trilogy out of Lindsay-Hogg’s material. Whereas Let It Be culled 57 hours of footage down to a tight 80 minutes, Jackson could not even constrain himself to feature length by modern blockbuster standards. His new The Beatles: Get Back was originally intended as a theatrical release, but when it became clear just how much gold there was to be mined out of Lindsay-Hogg’s archives, Jackson went ham, expanding the project into a three-part epic. Segments spanning 157, 173, and 138 minutes apiece will debut Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on Disney Plus for consumption along with your Thanksgiving feasts. Think of it as the super-mega-deluxe edition of the Let It Be film, or even, God help us, a sort of Snyder Cut for Beatlemaniacs. Jackson has rightly described it as “a documentary about a documentary.”
Get Back was the original title for the Let It Be album, so named for the Paul McCartney song that became its closing track and for the concept behind the sessions: a return to playing stripped-down, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll together in a room, just like in the good old days. Get back to where you once belonged. With only a month before Ringo Starr was due on set to act in the pre-Monty Python farce The Magic Christian, the band convened in an empty film studio in London, later relocating to their new Apple Studios to cut a new LP with their longtime producer George Martin and young stud engineer Glyn Johns. Also hanging around for most of the month were Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, the Beatles’ roadie and personal assistant Mal Evans, and, eventually, keyboardist Billy Preston, who sat in on the recording sessions per Harrison’s invitation and seemed primed to become a full-time member of the band.
Jackson’s film divides the proceedings like so: The first installment chronicles the Beatles’ somewhat tortured stint at Twickenham Film Studios, the second tracks their more upbeat recording sessions at Apple HQ, and the third revolves around the rooftop concert. It adds up to nearly eight hours of cinema vérité — arguably the most intimate look at the inner workings of the Beatles you’re ever likely to get. Some of its climactic moments were featured in Let It Be, like the Jan. 6 spat in which McCartney tells George Harrison, “I’m trying to help you but I always hear myself annoying you,” to which Harrison replies, “Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” Others are newly included, such as Harrison quitting the band for a few days and John Lennon suggesting they could replace him with Eric Clapton. But the extended runtime also allows for a lot of jamming and goofing off — often, the goofing off takes the form of jamming — and for stretches of downtime both reflective and mundane. By the end of it, you really do feel like you’ve spent a month up close and personal with the Beatles, with all the thrills and exhaustion such a prospect entails. But for the billions who love this band, it’s time well spent.
McCartney, Starr, Ono, and Harrison’s widow Olivia are producers on this project, and they intend for it to show the Get Back sessions were not as dour as Lindsay-Hogg’s movie implies. Fair enough; there’s quite a bit of joy and camaraderie to be seen, especially once Harrison rejoins the fold and the band relocates to Savile Row to commence the tracking, especially once Preston arrives to change the social and musical dynamic. (McCartney: “You’re giving us a lift, Bill.”) The band members frequently launch into wacky dancing; Lennon in particular courses with slapstick energy. Starr is a living cartoon character as always. At one point McCartney mockingly reads journalist Michael Housego’s exaggerated news report about the Beatles’ impending breakup over a wild jam session. In some ways these four clearly still enjoyed making music together, be it bashing out covers of their favorite oldies or zeroing in on the perfect arrangement for new originals.
But if anything, the film reinforces the prevailing narratives about the end of the Beatles. McCartney comes off as both the one keeping the train on the rails and a bit of a control freak. Harrison’s contempt at being so under-utilized is unmissable. Lennon rolls his eyes at some of McCartney’s hokier material. His bandmates seem annoyed by Ono’s constant presence — for instance, Lindsay-Hogg spends much of the movie campaigning for the Beatles to perform their televised concert at a waterfront amphitheater in Libya despite several band members’ disinterest in going abroad; when Eastman supports the director’s suggestion that doing it at Brighton Beach might be a good compromise, McCartney quips, “You stay out of this, Yoko!” At one point he laments that the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, has left the Beatles in disrepair: “It hasn’t been the same since Mr. Epstein passed away.”
The appeal of Get Back is not that it provides a fresh perspective on this phase of the band’s history. It’s the simple chance to immerse yourself in that moment, to be there as John, Paul, George, and Ringo sit facing each other, relating and creating. Jackson’s movie often meanders — sometimes by design, sometimes by default — but for the many who swear allegiance to this band, its pleasures are manifold. Your investment is rewarded within the first half-hour, as Lennon transforms “I’ve Got A Feeling” into “I’ve Got A Hard On” and McCartney complains that EMI has only offered them a four-track recording console, “but I know for a fact they got eight track out for the Beach Boys.” Stick around for the long haul and you’ll be privy to an experimental noise jam by Lennon, Ono, McCartney, and Preston.
With material this rich, you can see why Jackson, who notoriously tacked ending after ending on to The Return Of The King, felt compelled to leave so much in. Hearing the Beatles play through songs that would eventually emerge on their solo albums, like “Gimme Some Truth” and “All Things Must Pass,” is titillating. So is watching them work out vocal harmonies and guitar parts in real time. Due to the scope of their celebrity, every little personal interaction feels weighty. Although the setting is not all that visually striking, the cinematography is gorgeous — and thanks to Jackson’s CGI restoration of the 16mm footage, the reality of it all almost feels heightened at times, like you’re watching actors playing these characters in a hyper-detailed period piece. When you snap back to your senses and realize you’re up close and personal with the real Beatles as they navigate a pivotal sequence in their real lives together, you might find yourself overcome with gratitude this Thanksgiving.
The three installments of The Beatles: Get Back premiere this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on Disney Plus.