Ringo Starr (from left), Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison play on the rooftop of Apple Records in 1969 in footage from “The Beatles: Get Back.” | Apple Corps Ltd.
Paul takes charge, George takes a hike in director Peter Jackson’s instantly iconic musical epic, almost eight hours long.
Conventional wisdom says Yoko Ono was such an intrusive and disruptive figure during the Beatles’ recording sessions for “Let It Be” in early 1969 that it caused irreparable fractures between John Lennon and the rest of the group and was the primary reason for the Fab Four eventually going their separate ways.
Get back. Go back. That doesn’t seem to be the case as we’re in the room with the Beatles et al., in the Disney+ documentary series “The Beatles: Get Back.” To be sure, Yoko is a constant presence in the studio, but for the most part, she sits quietly by John’s side, knitting and reading. (On another occasion, we see her engaged in a friendly, intimate conversation with Paul McCartney’s then-girlfriend, Linda Eastman. Later, she dances with John during a break in a lovely, romantic moment.)
Never do we see Yoko interfering with the creative process. Granted, the other band members acknowledge Yoko’s increasing influence on John, as Paul observes, “If it came to a push between Yoko and the Beatles, it’s Yoko.” But he adds, “She’s great, she really is all right, they just want to be near each other. … It [would] be an incredible, comical thing in 50 years [if people said], ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.’ “
Golden moments like this are sprinkled throughout the omniscient, comprehensive and astonishingly vibrant prism that is Peter Jackson’s instantly iconic three-part Disney+ documentary series, “The Beatles: Get Back,” for which the “Lord of the Rings” filmmaker combed though some 60 hours of film footage and more than 150 hours of previously unheard audio to deliver one of the most entertaining, compelling and important chapters in filmed music history.
Parts of this story were previously told in the 1970 Michael Lindsay-Hogg film “Let It Be,” which painted a limited picture of events (the Beatles put restrictions on the content Lindsay Hogg could show), but Jackson and his New Zealand-based production wizards have restored the 16mm color footage to create incredibly pristine and crisp visuals, and have used modern digital audio techniques to separate and isolate guitar pieces, drums, vocals — and unvarnished conversations between the band as they spend January of 1969 rehearsing and recording songs.
Clocking in at a total of just under eight hours but never coming across as padded or anything less than fascinating, “Get Back” opens with a 10-minute montage that serves as a visual Wikipedia entry about the Beatles for the young or the uninformed, taking us through their early days in Liverpool through their meteoric ascendancy to top of the pops, through the hit movies and the controversies and the metamorphosis to more sophisticated and socially relevant music to their decision in 1966 to stop performing live. In late 1968, the group agrees they’ll invite an audience to see them perform what would be their penultimate album, and it will also be a TV special.
Then it’s time for the really good stuff, as Jackson delivers a classic fly-on-the-wall chronicle, making the wise decision not to include any voice-over narration or present-day interviews. Only a few well-timed, explanatory graphics are necessary, as we take a virtual seat in the studio as the boys, clad in their fur coats and mod fashions, start working out the basics to songs such as “Let It Be,” “Get Back,” “Something,” “I’ve Got a Feeling” and some tunes that eventually became solo, post-breakup tunes, e.g., Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth.”
The Beatles are in the cavernous Twickenham Film Studios (providing for a bounty of fantastic overhead shots) and crews are working on the rigs and sets for the TV special that will eventually be scrapped, but the band sits in a tight circle, with John, Paul and George seated and facing Ringo and his drum kit. It’s clear from the get-go Paul is in charge as he calls out the chord changes and orchestrates the pace — but the John Lennon we see here isn’t resentful or angry or contentious, he’s an amiable collaborator and sometimes impish clown who seems most interested in making the songs work and having a good time along the way.
Apple Corps Ltd.
The Beatles perform at Twickenham Film Studios during the making of a TV special, eventually scrapped.
George, on the other hand, grows increasingly frustrated as John and particularly Paul lord over him and ignore his concerns. (Paul: “You always get annoyed … I’m trying to help you.”) Suddenly, in his typical low-key fashion, George says, “I think I’ll be leaving the band now” — and he does just that. It takes two summit meetings at Ringo’s home before George returns as if nothing happened.
By the time the band relocates to a basement studio at the headquarters of Apple Records — where they’re practically on top of each other, with keyboardist Billy Preston, Yoko, Linda Eastman and her precocious daughter Heather and Ringo’s wife Maureen joining the proceedings — it feels like a family affair, with John teasing little Heather and George serving as the bartender, handing out drinks to his band mates.
The footage of the Beatles’ famous rooftop performances of “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” et al., is rendered in razor-sharp tones (George’s lime green pants, Ringo’s cherry red raincoat!), with Jackson and his editing team adding some “Woodstock”-type split-screen moments, and a lovely epilogue when the band and their significant others are back downstairs after the mini-concert, jamming to the newly recorded tracks.
We know the road ahead won’t be all that long and winding for the Beatles; they’ll record just one more album, “Abbey Road,” before permanently splitting up. A decade later, John Lennon would be murdered, and in 2001, we lost George Harrison — which makes it all the more bittersweet and moving when the Paul McCartney of 1969 acknowledges the very real differences and disputes between the band but says, “And when we’re all very old, we’ll all agree … and we’ll all sing together.”