Film Reviews

The Beatles: Get Back – Documentary Review

When Peter Jackson‘s Beatles project was announced, it was intended to be one film of indeterminate length.  Once upon a time Jackson used to make regular sized projects: Heavenly Creatures was 109 minutes, even in his director’s cut; The Frighteners 110 minutes; and going back further, Bad Taste ran to a lean 92 minutes.

Since The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, he has become ever less acquainted with a tight running time, with The Lovely Bones and They Shall Not Grow Old being his only projects not to end up with an outsized running time (135 and 99 minutes, respectively).  So it was perhaps of little surprise when, earlier in 2021, Disney+ announced that The Beatles: Get Back would air on its service across three nights, with each instalment a feature-length entry.  This is not entirely a good thing, as with success has developed a filmmaker who has completely lost the meaning of ‘less is more’.

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Episode 1 runs to 157 minutes.  It begins with a masterful sequence, running to exactly 11 minutes, that takes us through the entire history of the Beatles to that point: from around 1956 when they form The Quarrymen, through the Hamburg period, early chart success, touring, press backlash (and ceasing to tour), and finally to late-1968, where a live session gave them the idea of recording their next album, as live, in front of an audience.  The film explains that they had long since ceased to record as a group, with each member of the band now taking a studio track each and recording their part separately.

Twickenham Studios is booked from 2nd January 1969, with a hard end-date of 24th, when the film The Magic Christian will need the soundstage.  They arrive with little more than general ideas, and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg there to film proceedings.  Our first episode covers days 1-7, and we are told that this meticulously restored footage (which is genuinely beautiful) is culled from over 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio recordings that were gathered for the original Lindsay-Hogg project – the resultant film Let It Be has been unavailable through legal channels since the 1980s.

© 2020 Apple Corps Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

They are to work on 14 new songs, leading to a dress rehearsal on the 18th, and live shows in the studio on the 19th and 20th (observed shows would probably be a better term, as they are not intended at that point to be ‘gigs’ in the traditional sense).  Perhaps the key take-away from this first episode is the growing tension between George Harrison and the group, particularly Paul – who, whatever the dynamic through the rest of the lifespan of the band, is very much in charge here – as George feels stymied creatively.  This does end with George quitting the band at the end of the episode, and we are left with the information that the first meeting at his home to resolve the situation failed.

The second episode is a whopping 173 minutes and deals with the attempts to get George back onside, the decision to leave Twickenham to return to their own studios in Saville Row, and the ongoing discussion as to what any live show would be.  Producer George Martin is more visible in this episode and hanging out with the band has its pleasures.  The sound quality is terrific, watching the fascinating dynamics of the band members, as the beginning of a really calm divorce appears to be taking place – against a backdrop of press reporting violent rows – is illuminating.  There is also great pleasure to be had in watching creatives at the peak of their powers develop songs from nothing to 80% there in merely minutes.

© 2020 Apple Corps Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The professionalism of a group that have clearly forgotten – in the absence of touring – how to be around each other and, therefore, find creativity more difficult to come across than once they did, makes this second episode the strongest of the three.  With Yoko Ono at John’s side and, later, Linda Eastman (McCartney) spending time in the studio, it is clear to see that the men have developed lives outside of the group such that they are no longer as committed to the Beatles, but also that these competing relationships have somewhat defocused their love for each other.  With a relative lack of editorialising, it is enjoyable for the viewers to be able to make these assessments for themselves.  It is, however, far, far too long.

The third episode contains the final preparations for the concert, which ends up being an impromptu gathering on the roof of the building in Saville Row.  Once the live music starts there are interviewers on the street getting public reaction to what they can hear but not see, and the quality of the footage – restored using the same techniques Jackson used on his World War I project – lends events such immediacy that it beggars belief that these are events of nearly 53 years ago.  For all that, this is another 159 minutes – making a grand total of 469 minutes: nearly 8 hours.

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For all its considerable insights, sound quality, incredible visual fidelity, and the clear openness with which the band approached the original project, this is a presentation from the same filmmaker that took a slight book for children in The Hobbit, and made it into a bloated, wearying trilogy; the same man who took the 100-minute-long King Kong and remade it at over 3 hours in duration.  By the time we are into double figures of takes for songs such as ‘Get Back’ or ‘Let It Be’, it really does become tiresome.

Peter Jackson is a deeply talented filmmaker, with a great understanding of the digital tools available to him, and an infectious passion for almost everything he ever attempts.  That passion has led to the creation of a wonderful historical document that will be consumed with relish by the more dedicated Beatles fan.  For the casual viewer, this is probably around 3 hours too long, and outstays its welcome considerably.  All of the salient points – the band’s interdynamics, leaving Twickenham, the changes of idea around the live show, George’s brief leaving of the group, and the creativity to create songs from so little could have been dealt with in a fraction of the time.  Had Jackson been clearer as to whether he intended this project as entertainment or historical artefact, the end result may have had more focus.

The Beatles: Get Back is out now on Disney+.

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