The 1970 Beatles album Let It Be and the depressing accompanying documentation have always been the nightmare of the former fabs. John Lennon dismissed the music as “poorly received shit”; Paul McCartney was so appalled by the album that he launched a new version in 2003 without the additions of Phil Spector, whom Lennon hired as a producer, without informing McCartney. None of the Beatles appeared at the premiere of the documentary; Ringo Starr objected that it was “very tight” and “no joy”.
Peter Jackson’s Get Back is a documentary series aimed at addressing Starr’s concerns. It shows a broader, seemingly happier picture of the band’s doomed project in 1969 to write a new album, rehearse the songs, and perform them live within two weeks. Whether the Get Back sessions hastened the fall of the Beatles remains to be seen, but a preponderance of footage with songs sung with funny voices, camera robberies and in-jokes can’t keep the first few sessions at Twickenham Studios from looking like miserable .
Harrison is alternately grumpy and irritable, as you might be if you brought in such a good song All things must stand and got a lukewarm reception. Lennon is visibly joyless stoned out of his pumpkin. McCartney bravely tries to move things forward, sliding into passive-aggressive courting time and again. The director of the original documentary, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, is of no further help, who insists that the band perform in an amphitheater in Tripoli – “Torchlit! Before 2,000 Arabs! ”- and heroically doesn’t get discouraged when various Beatles tell him where to keep his idea.
He’s still there when Harrison storms out and refuses to be persuaded, a move McCartney really seems to believe will signal the end of the band. When Macca sits bleakly in Twickenham with bulging eyes, Lindsay-Hogg seizes the moment: “I think we should have a good location …” The Beatles have apparently separated, but the dream of Tripoli and its torchlight Arabs lives on.
When the band moves to a studio at Apple headquarters, things get better – at least for the Beatles. For the viewer it is a different matter. Jackson isn’t a director known for his brevity – his version of King Kong is twice the length of the original; his Hobbit films turned a 310-page novel into eight hours of cinema – and it proves it here. The three episodes of Get Back last the largest part of eight hours. There are no doubt Beatle maniacs who think this is incredibly stingy – there’s a bootleg set of recordings from the Get Back sessions that fills 89 CDs – but for everyone else, the sheer length can feel like a slip.
There are fantastic moments. Lennon’s and McCartney’s eyes folded as they harmonize on Two of Us; producer Glyn Johns’ gentle, futile attempts to dissuade Lennon from the seemingly incontestable genius of Allen Klein, a crook whose involvement accelerated the fall of the Beatles and resulted in legal battle; Lennon’s delighted yell “Yoko!” When McCartney’s adopted six-year-old daughter, Heather, starts yelling into a microphone; and especially McCartney, who is looking for a new song, idly strumming his bass and singing nonsensical words, gradually getting involved in a rhythm and melody that transforms into Get Back.
In fact, it’s hard not to overestimate the productivity of the Beatles. Seemingly short of material at first, after a month they not only have the entire Let It Be album, but also more than half of Abbey Road and a selection of songs that landed on their early solo albums: Jealous Guy, Back Sitz of my car, give me some truth
But the moments of inspiration and interest lie amid acres of aimless chat (“aimless chatter,” as Lennon rightly puts it) and repetition. There comes a point, about five hours later, when the prospect of hearing another ailing version of Don’t Let Me Down becomes an active threat to the viewer’s minds. That is undoubtedly how it is to record an album, but for the viewer – to use the language of 1969 – it is a real burden. Yoko Ono has been widely reviled for her constant presence at the Beatles’ recording sessions, but afterwards one marvel at her strength to hold out.
With Lindsay-Hogg’s 2,000 torch-lit Arabs as a memento, it ends with the famous concert on the roof of Apple’s headquarters, which Jackson makes the most of by showing it on split screen, shared with footage of the street below and the police working with the reception desk of the Building arguments. It’s 40 minutes of pure joy, but it’s an inappropriately long and winding road to get there. You wonder how many viewers are holding out the distance and, if anything, other than the lunatics mentioned above, will take it more than once.
The Beatles: Get Back will air on November 25, 26, and 27 on Disney +