Why Disney’s Beatles Doc ‘Get Back’ Isn’t Just for Die-hard Fans

Peter Jackson’s wonderful three-part documentary on Disney+ captures the Fab Four at the end of their long and winding road

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The Beatles performing on the rooftop of Apple Corps on Savile Row, London, on January 30, 1969.
The Beatles performing on the rooftop of Apple Corps on Savile Row, London, on January 30, 1969. Credit: /AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
  • Series name:
    Get Back
  • Creator:
    Peter Jackson
  • Season:
  • Genre:
  • Country:
    New Zealand/USA
  • Episodes:
  • Network:
  • Rating: 5 StarsClick here to rate 1Click here to rate 2Click here to rate 3Click here to rate 4Click here to rate 5

It should come as no surprise to regular Peter Jackson followers that his new Disney+ documentary, “Get Back,” depicts the Beatles’ final concert on the rooftop of their Apple Corps building in London by turning the screen into a triptych.

That’s because the New Zealand filmmaker has a habit of splitting things into threes. First it was his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, then his “Hobbit” trilogy, and now his “Get Back” documentary on the making of the last Beatles LP to be released.

Bizarrely, the only subject Jackson didn’t deem worthy of trilogy treatment was the biggest subject of them all: his World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018), when he took more than 100 audio interviews with British and Allied soldiers and set them to remarkable, (often) colorized footage of British troops fighting the Germans on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.

It could be said he shows a different type of fighting in his new documentary – and “They Shall Not Grow Old” could have equally been the title for a series that captures the Beatles as perhaps we always like to picture them: charismatic, creative and together, albeit with that togetherness often under visible strain.

It’s staggering to remember as you watch that George Harrison was only 25, Paul McCartney 26, and Ringo Starr and John Lennon 28 when this documentary was shot in January 1969. They had already conquered the world and were pondering their next moves.

Jackson and his team of researchers and editors pored over 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of recordings, which Michael Lindsay-Hogg (himself only 28 at the time) had shot and recorded for his own film documentary, “Let It Be.”

Jackson’s original plan was to release a three-hour movie into cinemas right about now, but then he – and presumably the big cheeses at Disney – decided there was simply too much gold in the vault and the only way to do it justice would be a three-part series just under eight hours long. As a comparison, the entire Beatles oeuvre between 1962 and 1970 clocks in at about 10 hours.

It’s definitive, it’s exhaustive – but is it all too much for anyone but a Beatles diehard? Will the average Joe be saying “Get back – to the edit suite,” “Let it be over” or “I’ve got a feeling this will never end”? Or will they be screaming for more, like they have a bad case of Beatlemania?

Well, as a Beatles fan rather than fanatic, I’d say the latter. Ron Howard’s 2016 documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years” is a lovely snapshot of the band at its peak but was way too short, so “Get Back” is here as a corrective for that.

Sure, I didn’t really need to hear so many discussions on the placement of speakers or microphones, or that umpteenth take of “Don’t Let Me Down” or “I’ve Got a Feeling.” (By contrast, “Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine” are strangely underrepresented, with the brilliant “rock-out section” in the latter not even featured at all.)

A scene from Peter Jackson's three-part documentary "Get Back."Credit: Linda McCartney / (a) Apple Cor

Then there’s Ringo announcing to the room that he has just farted, and all that wailing by Yoko. But these extraneous moments probably add up to no more than 20 minutes, a small price to pay when everything else is so beguiling.

This is a fascinating, rare look into the creative process and what happens when egos grow at the same rate as the U.S. national debt. Similarly, what happens when a genuine friendship between four pals is complicated by the fact that two of them are widely regarded as demigods. You don’t need to be one of the Apple Scruffs to know I’m not talking about George or Ringo, though in many ways Harrison is the most fascinating character on show – the one who has reached the end of the long and winding road first.

As for Ringo, it’s the future Paul McCartney herself (Linda Eastman) who notes that Richard Starkey is the Beatle people feel most relaxed around, and it’s easy to see why.

In the lengthy explanatory notes at the beginning, Jackson states that “at all times, the filmmakers have attempted to present an accurate portrait of the events depicted and the people involved.” So, we have to take it as a given that when Lennon glowers at McCartney when Paul is offering advice on a performance during a rehearsal, it’s an accurate reflection of what was happening and not simply the type of mischievous editing we’re all too familiar with from reality TV. Conversely, the same goes for all the times when they’re laughing and joking in the studio, John never far from a pun à la British radio’s legendary “Goon Show” and Paul responding in kind.

The Fab Four confab in the Apple Studio basement on Savile Row.Credit: Disney+

Different approach

Before the release, Jackson stressed that the documentary would offer a different take on the “Let It Be” recordings than those presented in Lindsay-Hogg’s 80-minute film, which was released in cinemas in May 1970 to coincide with the album’s debut. (Despite being recorded after “Let It Be,” “Abbey Road” was released as the band’s penultimate studio album in September 1969, and plenty of that classic’s tracks, including “Something,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh! Darling” and “Golden Slumbers,” are heard in primitive form here.)

The film version of “Let It Be” came to be known for its depiction of a warring, burned-out band – a kind of “Bleat the Beatles,” if you will. But that’s not the way I saw it when rewatching it after “Get Back.” If “Let It Be” feels like the heavily sanitized version where the editorial power remains with the band or Apple, “Get Back” is clearly in the hands of a person who wants to reveal all, for better and worse. (Take a quick look at the promo artwork for “Get Back” and it almost looks like a bearded Peter Jackson has assumed Paul McCartney’s place in the band.)

All three episodes reveal numerous candid moments – some of which hilariously highlight the fact that even if you’re the most successful band in the world, you’re still never far from slipping into Spinal Tap territory.

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison in a scene from "Get Back." Credit: Disney+

Maybe it’s the similarity between hirsute Ringo and Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls that helped conjure up “the Tap” for me. But it’s also a series of conversations between the Beatles and Lindsay-Hogg on the possible staging of a TV special in a Roman amphitheater in Libya, in front of “2,000 Arabs,” as Lindsay-Hogg excitedly keeps on repeating as if that’s the key factor.

Other options spitballed include literally ferrying a crowd of Brits over to Libya onboard the QE2 ocean liner, or staging the TV concert in an English orphanage or hospital. It’s a wonder a mini-Stonehenge never appears at any point.

There is eye-opening footage of the four Beatles at work; Paul frequently cuts the most frustrated figure, struggling to establish himself as the grown-up in the room, while John seemingly just wants to superglue himself to Yoko, and vice versa. (There’s a particularly beautiful moment when she tells him her divorce has come through.) There is also jaw-dropping footage of the band in crisis.

Most striking is the moment where George announces that he’s quitting the group, but does so with all the emotion of someone saying he’s just popping to the bathroom. Despite this scene being captured on film, it’s telling that Lindsay-Hogg didn’t use it – or, most likely, simply wasn’t allowed to – in “Let It Be.”

There’s also a scene where Lindsay-Hogg sneakily hides a microphone in a plant pot to capture a crucial conversation between John and Paul on George’s sudden departure. It all makes for great television and is a wonderful example of two young men incapable of expressing their true feelings – and you know they would have found it much easier if they were asked to have the same conversation in lyric form while playing a piano or strumming a guitar.

“Let It Be” may not be a very good film – its director is heard telling the band several times that he has a lot of great footage but no story, no payoff – but the raw materials it produced ultimately have resulted in greatness. And “Get Back” highlights the impossible task Lindsay-Hogg faced trying to corral four Beatles into taking the same direction over any artistic choice.

As well as Lindsay-Hogg’s striving, there’s also recording engineer/co-producer Glyn Johns forever trying to impose some discipline on a band that was clearly still rudderless following the tragic death of its Svengali/manager, Brian Epstein, less than 18 months earlier. (He’s still referred to as “Mr. Epstein” by the boys.)

It was Lindsay-Hogg and Johns who came up with the idea of the gig on the Apple Corps rooftop, and there’s a lovely scene where Paul’s eyes light up when this plan is suggested to him after the idea of a live performance seems to be fading away.

Indeed, the beauty of “Get Back” is in all the little details: band members getting excited when John brings in a Stylophone (something us Gen-Xers can relate to), George’s luxury car getting a parking ticket after this modern-day minstrel casually leaves it parked on Savile Row, and a particularly stunning sequence where Paul’s description of their time with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India is set to footage that was shot at the time. It serves as a perfect example of how a throwaway 20-second scene in “Let It Be” is expanded into something beautiful, humorous and revelatory.

Naturally, the rooftop gig is the series’ big finale, and for 40 glorious minutes we see the Fab Four living up to their name for the very last time in public. Lindsay-Hogg used no fewer than 10 cameras to capture the moment, including five on the rooftop and three at street level to record the priceless comments by locals, workers and passersby – like the businessman who opines that it’s a “bloody stupid place to have a concert.”

Stupid but iconic, and to this day I find it impossible to walk down Savile Row without looking up toward that rooftop. And while the original film ended up there, with John’s quip about how he hoped the band had passed the audition, Jackson actually surpasses that and follows the visibly thrilled band back inside the building and shows them listening back to the tracks Johns and co-producer George Martin miraculously captured in the clearly blustery conditions.

It’s an exhilarating scene, one of dozens that more than compensate for the occasional longueurs. (And one of those less-than-essential moments even involves Paul being compared to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, so I can see why Jackson was so reluctant to leave so many tidbits out.)

And then of course there’s the music. As the boys shake, rattle and roll through numerous classics (some their own, others picked up during the touring years), they’re accompanied by “fifth Beatle” Billy Preston, who really dug the band out of a rut during the recording session. It’s like having the best seat in the house for the world’s most exclusive gig.

To paraphrase a certain Beatles song about marijuana, you’ve got to “Get Back” into your life.

“Get Back” is out now on Disney+.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: