NOW PLAYING | November 30, 2021
The Poignance and Pleasure of Get Back
Peter Jackson's nearly eight-hour-long Beatles documentary is an illuminating, often joyful behind-the-scenes look at a band nearing its breaking point. (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and George Harrison in 2021's Get Back.)
Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, and Al Pacino in 2021's House of Gucci.
s someone who almost always jumps at the chance to learn more about how the proverbial sausage is made, I wish something like Peter Jackson’s Get Back existed for all my favorite musical artists. This epic documentary, released on Disney+ in two-and-a-half-hour-ish chunks
across Thanksgiving weekend, is a nearly eight-hour-long behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. The film (miniseries?) specifically covers the three-week period in January, 1969, the Beatles took to cobble together some of the songs on their penultimate album, Abbey Road (1969), and all the ones later found on Let It Be (1970).
Get Back is basically an extended cut of the much-derided — and hard to find a copy of — 1970 documentary by Michael Lindsay-Hogg named after that last album. Lindsay-Hogg’s efforts to comprehensively chronicle that high-stress period — climaxing with the band’s unknowingly final public performance atop the rickety roof of Apple Corps. headquarters — culminated in about 60 hours of video footage and 150 hours of audio. Everything was meant to be in service to what was originally envisioned as a TV special tentatively released in tandem with the Beatles’ next album and much-anticipated return to live performance. (The band initially allotted itself just a few weeks for the whole process: drummer Ringo Starr was due to start production on a movie, The Magic Christian, toward the end of the month.)
Lindsay-Hogg ultimately pruned his footage down to a compelling 81 minutes. As most Beatles devotees will have you know, though, his product is edited a tad misleadingly — focused maybe too heavily on an in-group dissension that was certainly there (and festering with time) but not as terrible as the documentary’s relatively economic runtime had made it seem. (Let It Be is by and large a joyless movie, fun-to-watch musical breakthroughs notwithstanding.)
Like the majority of Beatles fans, Jackson was fascinated by what Lindsay-Hogg decided to leave on the cutting-room floor, nagged by how true those claims — that the Let It Be sessions weren’t so bad, despite John Lennon’s and George Harrison’s own overwrought complaints later on — were. But Jackson was in the minority among those fans in that he had the power to access and then sift through those miles of mythical footage, plus the crucial skill to make an intelligible piece of work from what he found.
he four-years-in-the-making Get Back doesn’t necessarily undermine what the Let It Be movie accomplished. It just offers a fuller snapshot of a band that was, although unmistakably evolving past its once-strong collaborative unity, still made up of best friends as prone to honest
disagreements as extended and jokey tangents that make you wonder when somebody in the control room is going to butt in and say, “OK, stop messing around!” (If anybody’s doing that butting-in, it’s most typically Paul McCartney, who spends a fair amount of time openly second-guessing whether he’s being, and has been, too controlling; he comes off, more than anything, like a nice guy wanting to avoid distracted stasis for too long.)
Everyone in the group is clearly a little more ambivalent about their collective future here than they would have been had you been around them a few years earlier. With maybe an exception in the laid-back, puppy-doggish Starr, there’s an unstated but obvious dissatisfaction creating while fretting over what’ll suit the whole. Harrison, who quits for a few days at the beginning of the Let It Be process when McCartney makes an offhand remark about a chord, is evidently most over it. Understandably having had enough of being taken for granted by the de-facto leaders of the group all these years — Harrison always got much less than a handful of his own songs per album, making him somewhat of a personified “special occasion” — he seems thirsty for a creative experience where he can come to the studio after working on something all night not expecting to have an idea summarily rejected. (Harrison would famously get the last laugh with 1970’s All Things Must Pass, his immediately beloved, first post-Beatles solo effort that is without a doubt a miles-away better album than Let It Be.)
But everyone is also plainly anxious about letting this institution officially die, despite early offhand wonderings of whether a musical divorce might be a good thing to consider. Get Back, both profoundly poignant and deeply touching, sets the stage for an ending that would arrive before the album that gave it its reason for existing could even be released.
Get Back feels more like a historical document than a movie. Eschewing the narrative-driven standards employed by most music documentaries, it struck me like unusually beautiful-looking surveillance footage released for mass consumption. Luckily, the slower-burning Get Back is a historical document that’ll likely happen to double as great entertainment for Beatles fans who like the group enough to spend about a month with them, embodying a fly on the wall that can’t find an exit when leaving the room seems like a good idea.
Get Back is, by design, prone to spells of tedium. But why wouldn’t it be, with Jackson never aiming to contrive a dramatically satisfying arc as much as say “here it is!” and then dump his findings on us? Get Back’s brand of tedium never landed in the paint-drying category for me. It’s a kind I instead found useful and even endearing, butting against how rampant mythologizing can make it difficult to picture how once-in-a-lifetime greatness can erupt from and coexist with even the most mundane moments life can offer. (Consider, for instance, that the foundational sketch of the "Get Back" song came mostly out of boredom, while McCartney was occupying himself with guitar strums and sing-mumbling waiting for a tardy Lennon. Sitting across from McCartney, Starr and Harrison yawn until registering that their bandmate might be onto something.)
Everyday mundanities in fact bring about many of Get Back’s biggest (and admittedly trivial) delights — alongside, of course, witnessing long-established classics like that latter-mentioned song in newborn form. They just might be the reason to watch for fans who remain on the fence about powering through
such a long documentary.
There’s McCartney’s 8-year-old soon-to-be stepdaughter Heather, coincidentally matching outfits with Starr, wreaking havoc in the studio one afternoon, oblivious to any stakes while giddily thwacking Starr’s hi-hats and shouting gibberish into turned-up microphones. Linda Eastman (soon McCartney), frequently sidling around the studio gripping a camera, remarking how at ease she feels around Starr (whom she calls “Ring”) when he’s out of earshot. Lennon and Harrison put on a fake fist-fight with jokily flared nostrils and whipped-around hair upon hearing that a recent news story claims their latest disagreement came to physical blows.
Amid all the charming fumbling around, I wondered, too, where I could cop those fuzzy floral boots Harrison wore to so many rehearsals, and whether I should think of them more like house slippers or something to wear in public life. I wanted to know what Linda and Yoko Ono were discussing so intently during an early rehearsal of “Let It Be” the song. And I was curious about where all the still-living people interviewed on the street during the rooftop show are now, and how the Beatles have continued marking their lives.
Get Back isn’t necessarily that essential a piece of work, considering how over-documented the group is as it stands and how many of the film’s revelations could simply be described satisfactorily. Still, I found Get Back exhilarating, personally essential as a lifelong fan, and often moving. It stands as an valuable glimpse not just at what this slowly deteriorating artistic partnership looked like, but also how alternately torturous and indescribably magical the creative process can be more broadly. I’d watch the remaining 52 hours of footage if I could. A