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Watch a trailer for The Beatles: Get Back
“If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we get Clapton,” says a dispassionate John Lennon when George Harrison leaves the Fab Four on camera in The Beatles: Get Back (part 1 now streaming on Disney+).
It says something about a band if the replacement guitarist is Eric Clapton. It says something about the documentary that such a moment of candour remains in a documentary so closely curated and eagerly awaited.
Peter Jackson’s new 3-part, fly-on-wall journey through January 1969 allows us to spend six plus hours with The Beatles. If you have just arrived across the universe, the band are guitarist John Lennon, bassist Paul McCartney, emerging songwriter, guitarist and sitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr.
To set up the tale, Jackson takes us on a crash course through Beatles-ology: the founding of the band and subsequent conquering of Merseyside, London and then the world. Beatlemania was followed by movies, awards from the Queen, public controversy, and death threats.
We see the musicians artistic development, growing away from their earlier pop sound, advancing and experimenting with recording techniques. The band eventually giving up live performances altogether in 1966. In the documentary, this is where we meet The Beatles: fractious, unfocussed and fettered by fame and fortune.
Filmmaker Peter Jackson was requested by Apple Corps, the corporate face of The Beatles to reimagine nearly 60 hours of footage initially charting the creation of what became the album Let It Be. These ‘Get Back’ sessions formed the basis of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s austere documentary, Let It Be.
Released in 1970, the film has become controversial over the years. The band felt it accentuated the negative and it has been little seen in the last few decades. Jackson’s job was to add balance and context to some uncomfortable exchanges. Though Let It Be was released as the band’s last studio album, it was actually their penultimate long player.
The Beatles: Get Back captures the embryonic recordings for this and their subsequent, final vinyl release as a band, Abbey Road: the location of EMI’s recording studios where the band habitually worked under producer, George Martin.
For the Get Back sessions, they filmed in the cavernous recording stage of Twickenham Studios. This enabled ease of filming and was to have been the setting of a final, live show. Initially at least. Hogg has other plans and wants The Beatles to go bigger, repeatedly suggesting an amphitheatre in Libya. He wants them to address their global appeal. The gig is scheduled for the end of January and we begin in the new year. Time is ticking for the final concert.
We see the emerging tension between the writing team of Lennon and McCartney against the emerging solo talent of Harrison. To cap it all, by 1969, John had met Yoko Ono and Paul had met Linda Eastman. The band of brothers was maturing. They now had broader family of wider interests and responsibilities. The former ‘Mop Tops’ were still reeling from loss of their manager, Brian Epstein, at the age of 32. The film shows The Beatles acknowledge this lack of leadership.
The meandering musicians eventually leave Twickenham for the familiar intimacy of Apple Corp’s Savile Row HQ. It is far more intimate although needs to be properly kitted out. This is because the initial engineering work of the infamous ‘Magic Alex’ — a self-proclaimed tech wizard with no real technical qualifications — prove sonically unsound.
For Beatles fans, the glimpse of character from Beatle lore like Alex, and others — eventual Apple boss, Neil Aspinall, roadie Mal Evans and music publisher Dick James — make the film a visual trove. Peter Sellers, due to shoot The Magic Christian (1969) with budding actor, Ringo, makes a cameo appearance.
Jackson and his team have reinvigorated the previously grainy footage and brought to bloom the colour and vibrancy of the age. At times it is moving to see those youthful icons bemoaning their years: in their late twenties no less.
We hear them noodle with songs that would go on to become legendary. Not just Beatles tracks but on their subsequent solo albums: ‘Jealous Guy’ for John, ‘Another Day’ for Paul and ‘All Things Must Pass’ for George. It is particularly poignant when, after he has left the band, Harrison’s early version of ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ plays to his bereft band mates.
The remastering of the sound helps enormously. McCartney has noted, “You get the music, you get the playing, you get the chat, but you mainly are just eavesdropping in a very intimate way.” For all the bickering leading to the eventual break up a year later, for this film they are still The Beatles.
George Harrison returns. Ringo vetoes the Libya concert and they struggle to agree on a replacement location. Jackson was in awe, “I mean, these guys used to record an album in two months or three months. During these 22 days, they write and record the majority of the Let It Be album.”
The Beatles eventually find a venue: the rooftop of their Savile Row office. On a windy January 30, John, Paul, George, and Ringo along African-American keyboardist, Billy Preston, top the five-storey building and play a lunchtime concert.
Captured beautifully, the largely unchanged architecture resonates to the sound of rock. For the first time, the full concert is available to see in The Beatles: Get Back. The gig stops London and eventually the police have to stop the due to complaints.
Paul McCartney was proud, “It was a great period. We were a seriously good band.” John Lennon famously quipped on the day, finishing the last public gig of the greatest band in history, “I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves. And I hope we passed the audition!”
Initially a two-hour movie, this mammoth trip down memory lane is absolute treat for Beatles fans. In huge ways it is brave and unreconstructed: the inclusion of beginnings of the track, ‘Get Back’ as anti-racist anthem show the integrity of the project. This is no revisionary tale.
Peter Jackson has brought a truth to this long and winding road. Just seeing the band back together is emotional: You'll revel in seeing George, Ringo and especially John and Paul, simply having fun.
For those who are just beginning their Beatles journey, you will find much of value here too. In 2021, the world’s most enduring supergroup still showed us back then they were pioneers: for reality TV, for couples’ therapy, for family dysfunction, for creative risk-taking and mostly for timeless music, much imitated, but never bettered.
The Beatles: Get Back debuts exclusively on Disney+ on Nov. 25, 26, 27 2021