One hour into Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour miniseries The Beatles: Get Back, the band takes a break from lacklustre rehearsals to discuss the creative malaise. “The Beatles have been in the doldrums for at least a year,” George Harrison says. Paul McCartney adds that the band has been “very negative” since manager Brian Epstein passed away. “It’s discipline that we lack,” he surmises. Harrison proposes a divorce. John Lennon quips, “Who’d have the children?” Reclining in his chair, Ringo Starr doesn’t say a word.
It is a scene like so many others in Get Back (streaming on Disney+), an exhausting three-part documentary by superstar filmmaker Peter Jackson that uses more than 50 hours of intimate footage recorded by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for his 1970 documentary Let It Be. McCartney, all lecture and alpha beard, is frustrated by the collective’s missing drive. Jokester Lennon is in good spirits. Harrison is willing, but his input is often ignored. And Starr? Among the four Beatles, he’s something like the fifth.
Lindsay-Hogg’s original 90-minute film documented a squabble-filled recording of an album (and quickly abandoned television special) that had the working title Get Back. That album would become Let It Be. Lindsay-Hogg’s film of the same name has long been perceived as a documentation of a band’s breakup, even though the Beatles would go on to record another album, Abbey Road.
Jackson, the New Zealander famous for his epic fantasy-adventure trilogy The Lord of the Rings, is of the more-is-more school. To make the Get Back series, he balloons Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be doc to more than five times the original’s length, but basically keeps to the same fly-on-the wall approach. No talking heads and no interviews with the surviving Beatles, McCartney and Starr, are added.
Jackson did include an introductory segment that sprints through the band’s history, including the mention that the Beatles stopped touring in 1966. It’s important context in understanding the band’s Get Back project, in which a return to the stage was envisioned.
Jackson’s series is a day-by-day documentation of the Beatles rushing to write and rehearse a dozen or more new songs such as I’ve Got a Feeling and Don’t Let Me Down in a cavernous film studio for a vaguely conceived television special. “All you need, really, is a good acoustic place to be in,” says Beatles producer George Martin. “Which this place isn’t,” gripes McCartney.
Not only were the Beatles not in a good acoustic place, they weren’t in any good place at all. Lindsay-Hogg’s film is often a downer, and seen as a public exposing of the band’s bitter demise. Now, 50 years later, Jackson seems intent to rehabilitate the era by showing the sessions’ more lighthearted moments. To take a sad song, as it were, and make it better (to reference a McCartney lyric).
He succeeds in that respect. After the rehearsals break down in the film studio, the band retreats to the friendly confines of Apple Studio, where tensions are eased. We see the Beatles as we’d care to remember them – fab, amiable and creatively outstanding.
Jackson’s trickier rehabilitation had to do with the look of the film. Where Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be was grainy, Jackson’s Get Back is vibrant. In his 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson upgraded footage of First World War soldiers to contemporary standards. Clearly the director has a way with boys in the trenches.
As far as new narratives that develop over Jackson’s series, there are a few that emerge. The most fascinating study is of McCartney, as we watch him gradually lose control of the band. At one point, as he considers the breakup of the Beatles, his eyes tear up.
McCartney’s bickering with Harrison is among the most-remembered moments of Let It Be. In Get Back, we see Harrison as incredibly insecure. He auditions I Me Mine, but sheepishly – after which McCartney turns to Lennon and asks if he has any new songs. But by the end of the series, Harrison appears more confident and an equal creative member.
Watching the band build songs such as Get Back from scratch is fascinating – but also tedious after repeated listens as the song’s shape and lyrics take form. We also hear songs that would later end up on Abbey Road. Harrison plays All Things Must Pass. Lennon fans will recognize a melody that would eventually be used for his solo song Jealous Guy.
One long myth that diminishes is the one that portrays Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono as the villainess who broke up the Beatles. In Get Back, we see her knitting.
The final episode ends with the group playing on the rooftop of Apple Corps headquarters on Savile Row. It is glorious, and well worth the hours-long journey to get there. The police eventually shut it down because the noise and the crowds on the street constituted a breach of peace. One could say that Ono didn’t break up the Beatles – the bobbies did.
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