The Beatles: Get Back (review)

Long and winding documentary might bore casuals, but will tantalize devoted fans

Despite what the commercials might suggest, The Beatles: Get Back isn’t for everybody.  An eight-hour movie (now available at Disney+) about the Beatles writing and recording an album will likely come off as utterly boring to most people, especially those who are not devoted fans of the band.  However, those who are, and those who are intrigued by the song creation process in general, will find this film highly rewarding, especially after repeated watching.  

Director Peter Jackson was tasked with wading through 60 hours of video footage and 150 hours of audio that was originally used to make the Let It Be album and film, which the Beatles were never satisfied with.  Jacksons goal?  To paint a more honest picture of what happened during the filming and recording of January 1969.  

Did he succeed?  Absolutely.

The video and audio restoration is staggering – you feel like you’re in the studio with them.  You also get a real feel for the individual Beatles as people – their humor, their warmth, their quirks.  You also get to know the people surrounding them – especially Beatles’ roadie Mal Evans, who is at the band’s beck and call.  Yes, Yoko is ever present.  But, you see that she and John are truly in love.  Photographer Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) drops by to take pictures and is filmed snuggling with Paul. 

There’s a fantastic scene with Linda’s daughter Heather, who’s just a child, dancing and carrying on in the studio.  Yoko starts singing and Heather’s look in response is just priceless. The little girl floats from band member to band member, and it’s really cute.

The movie is broken down into three parts.  But, be forewarned: the first segment is unfortunately the hardest to get into.  This is the footage filmed on the Twickenham soundstage and it’s largely full of endless noodling, with some arguing and flashes of brilliance thrown in for good measure.  But, realizing that “All Things Must Pass,” from George Harrison, “Another Day” from Paul McCartney, and “Gimme Some Truth” and “Jealous Guy” from John Lennon, all originated during these Get Back sessions is really cool.  Part one closes with Harrison quitting the band.

Part two is where things really start cooking.  Harrison returns, and soon enlists Billy Preston to help out on keyboards.  This immediately lightens the mood, as does the change of venue, from the cold, cavernous Twickenham soundstage to the newly-built Apple Studios.  The Beatles rise to the occasion, and the results are really good music.

The real highlight of part two is a never-before-heard exchange between McCartney and Lennon while eating lunch (the filmmakers had somehow placed a hidden microphone on the table where they were dining).  In it, Lennon humbles McCartney, telling him that he’s being too bossy toward Harrison, and really everyone.  

Part three’s high point is the historic rooftop concert.  Here’s where the filmmakers really shine, utilizing numerous camera angles, footage from down on the street and in the Apple offices.  It’s a spine-tingling bit of cinematography.  Truly capturing that magical, final time the Beatles’ played live as a band.  

There’s so many little bits of things that go by so quickly in the movie, you might miss them the first time.  For instance, Lennon coming in one morning raving about seeing Fleetwood Mac on television the previous night and how the singer sang “soft.”  Or Harrison helping Starr finish his “Octopus’ Garden.” 

Lennon is definitely high at least some of the time, and there are parts where he’s too enraptured with Yoko to contribute, while Harrison is often bristly.  Ringo Starr is seen sleeping several times, while McCartney is undeniably in charge of the proceedings, coming off as bossy, but certainly backing it up by introducing a string of fantastic new songs.  Despite their differences, it’s incredible when they all come together and the music is clicking.  There’s also plenty of laughs between all four members dispelling the notion that there was nothing but animosity during these recordings.

I watched my copy of the original Let It Be movie (on Beta!) to compare.  Jackson purposely used different footage wherever possible, so as not to “step on Let It Be’s toes.”  Still, the original, 80-minute film, while somewhat bleak, stands up.  It’s obviously more to the point, but also more music-centric.  If there’s one fault with Get Back, it’s that whenever the guys are really cooking with a song, it always seems to get cut short.  While in Let It Be, they let the full versions of songs play.  There’s also renditions of “Besame Mucho” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” that didn’t make the 8-hour cut, along with a far-superior version of George’s “I Me Mine.”  

Word is that Let It Be will finally get reissued, in remastered form, when Get Back hits DVD status.

The real triumph of Get Back isn’t so much the music, we’ve all heard it over and over, it’s in the rare opportunity to really get to know the personalities of the Beatles, not as gods, but as human beings (human beings that smoke A LOT).  Get Back isn’t the kind of film to just veg to, you’ve really got to pay attention.  But, if you’re present, there’s a lot to love here.  —Tony Peters