Who knew that watching nearly 8 hours of the Beatles noodling around in a studio could be so addictive?
Yes, Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary is long. It’s rambling and has very little “plot” to speak of. But as a window into the creative process of one of the greatest bands of all time, it’s absolutely amazing to watch hours and hours of footage unearthed during the making of the Let It Be album.
Watching the crystal-clear footage of the Fab Four and their friends unspool, I felt like I was watching a time machine portal open up in front of me. It’s immersive and both poignant and celebratory for Beatle-maniacs – which, to be clear, is an awful lot of us.
Let It Be isn’t even my favourite Beatles album by a long shot – I find it too polished with Phil Spector’s later orchestral additions, Paul McCartney’s sappy side a little too prevalent and John Lennon’s surreal wit and bite mostly missing in action. Eight hours on the making of Sgt. Pepper, good god, yes, but Let It Be? The album that took so long to put together that it came out after the band’s actual final album, Abbey Road?
I’ve still never seen the original Let It Be movie, a mere 80 minutes long, but I’ve seen enough segments from it to get the idea it’s viewed as a dour portrait of a band’s dissolution, the end of a dream. Jackson dove into the 60 hours or so of video taken at the time and crafted an entirely new take on the sessions. Contrary to some of the hype, Get Back doesn’t rewrite history – but it expands our view of it.
It’s being hyped hard by the Disney Corporate EmpireTM as entertainment for all, but Jackson has rather sneakily made what almost is a Beatles art film. Like one of Andy Warhol’s endless panoramas of the Empire State Building or people sleeping, Jackson’s slow, relaxed pace with Get Back forces us into its own rhythm, the world of jobbing musicians trying to find the right chord or lyric. For a society used to quick fixes and instantly accessible content, that might seem too plodding. Others of us welcome the chance to unplug a bit.
The problem with the making of the album Let It Be is clear from the start – the Beatles are wiped out, exhausted and grumpy, except for Paul, whose incessant cheerleading in the first episode never stops. The Beatles had already conquered the world a few times over. Lennon’s zoned out with Yoko, my favourite Beatle George is clearly filled with his own quiet anger, and Ringo is… well, he’s Ringo. Get Back starts with a dark time for the Beatles, but as it unfolds and the group starts to come together, you appreciate their rich history – these kids, still not even 30, had been through so much together already.
Get Back encourages us to slow down, to zone out like Yoko Ono reading magazines, to get lost in the minutiae of Paul and John working out lyrics, or Ringo smoking cigarettes. To take in fully the glorious fashions of Glyn Johns, the slow creep of George’s facial hair over the weeks it chronicles, the endless cups of tea and toast. Nobody is staring at their phone during the lulls in Get Back, obviously, which now more than ever makes it seem like a portal into a very different world. A musician’s life isn’t all drugs and parties and live gigs, and the leisurely stroll through a few weeks in the life of the Beatles demystifies them a bit. It rescues them from that gold-plated celebrity icon status a bit to see them reading the morning papers, having morning chit-chat about what they watched on the telly the night before.
And many times over Get Back‘s languorous eight hours, you have sudden moments of sheer magic, like watching a song you’ve known for practically your whole life come into the world for the very first time:
For Beatlemaniacs – and yea, we are legion – it’s akin to watching the holy grail be forged to see songs like “Get Back” or Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” slowly take shape out of a few strummed chords. Perhaps for me the most beautiful moment was watching Ringo shyly debut his goofy little “Octopus’ Garden” to George, and the two of them amicably noodling away, shaping it. They were mates, having a go at making some art. Or a scene where Paul’s adopted daughter Heather joins in with the band jamming, playing like any little kid would, but with THE BEATLES. Or any scene when Billy Preston bops into the room, bringing a welcome energy and fanboy’s good cheer. Or any one of the dozens of song fragments, covers and unfinished works that Get Back reveals.
Time haunts Get Back, right from the earworm title song’s chorus – “Get back to where you once belonged.” There is a wistfulness to it all, watching these vividly alive people and knowing how many of them died too young – Lennon and Mal Evans by gunfire, Harrison and Linda McCartney to cancer. The documentary is so immersive that when you lift your head out of it, you feel like you’ve lost something and some time that’s irreplaceable.
Get Back is long, maybe too long for many, but I could also have watched it forever from the vantage point of weird old 2021, hoping that somehow, from 50 years in the past, the Beatles might help everyone in the whole world get back to where they once belonged.