THE Beatles: Get Back is a musician’s wet dream, but for others it could be a long and winding slog.
Just shy of eight hours long, the fly-on-the-wall documentary by director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) follows the band as they write and rehearse material in 1969 for the album Let it Be and a TV special that never happend.
Chaos reigns as the band can’t agree on a direction for the TV special and struggle to be creative in the cavernous, freezing cold Twickenham film studios in England in January.
For the doco, Jackson was given access to 60 hours of mostly unseen footage of the rehearsals from Apple’s vaults.
Initially it’s a fascinating glimpse into The Fab Four’s creative process; we are a fly on the wall as they pitch new songs to each other like Get Back, I’ve Got a Feeling and Don’t Let me Down.
They also try out material that ended up on Abbey Road or their solo albums including All things Must Pass by George Harrison and Child of Nature, which eventually became Jealous Guy on John Lennon’s Imagine.
A lot of the numbers are in their most rudimentary form as they shout out chord changes and brainstorm ideas for arrangements.
Some come easy while others are jammed to death, and we begin to share the band’s pain as they rehearse Dig a Pony for the 100th time, proving that sometimes the creative process can be more perspiration than inspiration.
The footage was originally shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for the 80-minute doco Let It Be, shown in cinemas in 1970.
That film has hardly ever been released on home video or DVD, mainly because the remaining ex-Beatles were unhappy with the onscreen squabbling and the overriding sense of gloom as the band entered their final days.
To his credit, Jackson has not shied away from those moments and we still have the infamous argument between Paul McCartney and Harrison over how a guitar part should go, and Harrison walking out and temporarily leaving the group.
By this point it was clear The Beatles were four individuals, some with a wife and kids, and the camaraderie of The Cavern and Hamburg days were long gone.
We still get glimpes, but it feels forced. I was struck by how little input Ringo had in songs; most of the time he’s sitting glumly on his drum stool, awaiting instructions from the Fab Three.
There was clearly a hierarchy in the band – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and then poor old Ringo.
Released on Disney+, thankfully The Beatles: Get Back is no sanctimonious whitewash (according to Jackson, Disney wanted to remove any swearing, but he put his foot down) and we get lots of crude banter from Lennon, profanity, inane jabber as they goof around, and smoking, yes lots of smoking. Remember that?
It’s a fascinating 1960s time capsule (we hear the original “No Pakistanis” lyrics to Get Back, a satire of Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration stance) and there’s a wonderful array of supporting characters including Peter Sellers, George Martin, producer Glyn Johns, Linda McCartney and the ever-present Yoko Ono, glued to Lennon’s side.
The doco is split into three episodes with the first covering rehearsals at Twickenham Studios, but by the time we get to episode two and the band has relocated to Apple studios in London to record, I was starting to look at my watch and like them, felt claustrophobic and sick of each other, especially McCartney.
The doco ends with the band playing a surreal gig on the rooftop of Apple HQ, as they couldn’t really agree on a formal venue or concept for a live show. Ringo didn’t fancy the pyramids.
Jackson loves epic, but maybe a three-hour version would have been better. He could have still included the eight-hour marathon for Beatles diehards and musos.
Using the same film restoration technique as Jackson’s World War I doco They Shall Not Grow Old, The Beatles: Get Back looks absolutely stunning, with bright vibrant colours, like it was shot yesterday.
This gives the footage a slightly eerie and poignant quality as many of the talented people on screen, in their glowing prime in their 20s, full of energy and vim, are no longer with us.
The Beatles: Get Back is on the streaming service Disney+.
By Stephen Pollock