Review: “The Beatles: Get Back”

Long before “Get Back,” four men from a town called Liverpool in a country called England formed a band called the Beatles. The band played a still relatively new type of music called “rock and roll,” and despite copious amounts of drug use, they were immensely successful. They were so successful, in fact, that I can’t even keep up the schtick of pretending like they are some local band made good. The success of the Beatles can only be described with words like “massive” and “total” and “overwhelming.” Everyone knows the Beatles. The songwriting duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney is, in fact, the most commercially successful songwriting duo of all time, and Lennon has been dead for almost 41 years now.

But the success came with drawbacks. Screaming fans made concerts difficult for everyone. The band couldn’t hear the music, the speakers weren’t loud enough to drown out the screaming, venues weren’t big enough, everywhere the band went they were hounded by relentless autograph seekers, groupies, and wannabe hangers-on, every statement any band member made was dissected and analyzed by world press, political motivations were assigned to certain actions taken by the band, and the limitations of technology at the time meant that the band could not flex their creative muscles as easily if they expected to play those cutting-edge songs to an audience.

And, of course, there’s the fact that these four working class men from a blue collar shipping town in England were millionaires and the most popular people on the planet by the time they were in their early twenties. This takes a toll. Expectations from family, friends, executives, and (most importantly) each other led to creative clashes, discontent, and a waning interest in being a band over time.

So in 1969 the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—decided to make an album and film the process. They project was tentatively called “Get Back,” but would go on to be known as Let it Be. Filming proved to be a challenge, tempers flared on occasion, guests invaded the recording studio, and ultimately the “Get Back” sessions document a band on the verge of divorce, even though they would go on to record one more album after that (Abbey Road). The footage for “Get Back” was largely kept locked away somewhere until Peter Jackson, acclaimed director of the Lord of the Rings movies, among others, decided he wanted to go through the over 60 hours of film and 140 hours of audio and create the documentary the band likely envisioned when they first came up with the idea to film themselves way back in 1969. After years of review and editing, The Beatles: Get Back was released on Disney Plus in three parts on November 25, 26, and 27, 2021.

Before we really get into it, I want to tell you that I am a huge, huge Beatles fan and that there was almost no chance I wasn’t going to love this project (which I did). I’ve read books, I’ve watched movies and TV shows, and I’ve essentially studied the Beatles about as extensively as a person who is not in the music business can. In fact, as long as this review is (and I believe it’s the longest one we’ve done here at Cosas Totum), I actually trimmed about 500 words from the first draft to this published version.

Premise

Let It Be (1970 film) cover.jpg

The premise of The Beatles: Get Back is a simple one, especially considering how complex everything else going on was. The idea was originally one formed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in the late-1960s. He wanted to produce a documentary film showing the Beatles’ creative process and recording of their twelfth album, which would go on to be called Let it Be. Lindsay-Hogg did eventually showed a roughly two-and-a-half-hour version of his movie to the band, but they did not like how it showed so much dirty laundry being aired, and they insisted he cut it down to make it a nicer movie. The final cut was about an hour shorter and was largely criticized upon its release in 1970. By then the Beatles had broken up and the public could tell that the footage in the movie was not really the “real” Beatles because very little of the strife that had by then become an open secret was actually shown.

For that reason, Let it Be the movie was not distributed widely. Turning the movie into VHS for distribution made the quality of both the audio and video suffer, and in fact Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film was never released on any medium more modern than Betamax. Then came Peter Jackson.

Peter Jackson wanted to essentially fulfill Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s wishes, or at the very least to show enough of Lindsay-Hogg’s footage to capture the spirit of the sessions as a whole. Originally the idea was for a documentary film, but with a combined 200 hours of audio and video to go through, the final product quickly turned into a series. The Beatles: Get Back is definitely more raw and open than the 1970 Let it Be version, and at times the audience does see some unattractive traits in the band. As a Beatles fan who more or less knew the story already, it was still amazing. So, let’s get to a summary.

Summary and Review

Summary

The Beatles arrived at Twickenham film studios in January 1969 to begin recording their forthcoming album and film the process simultaneously. From the beginning there were problems. The large film soundstage had poor acoustics compared to a studio built for music, and the band were fighting. Yoko Ono was at John Lennon’s side almost the entire time, which seemed to make the other members of the group uncomfortable. Paul McCartney was acting like a creativity dictator giving vague, condescending directions while also occasionally hamming it up for the cameras. George Harrison felt slighted because even though he had become a capable and excellent songwriter, Paul still treated him like the underage electrician’s apprentice he was when the Beatles first got together as the Quarrymen. And Ringo…well, Ringo just wanted to make music. He was on a schedule crunch because he was about to go film The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers, but really Ringo is the only person who never seems to be outwardly upset throughout the whole series.

After an argument with Paul, George Harrison quit the band (George had a rough time, having been shocked by a microphone at Twickenham prior to his departure). The other Beatles went to his house to talk with him but to no avail. After a day or two they tried again, convincing him to come back and promising to move the recording from the cavernous, cold Twickenham to the cozier, music-built studio at the headquarters of the band’s record label, Apple Corps. (Get the pun?).

The move to Apple eased tensions a bit. The band seemed more relaxed and occasionally even goofy. Soul singer and piano virtuoso Billy Preston joined the band for several days and not only jammed some rock classics with them but actually recorded the electric piano/organ parts of “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Let it Be,” “Dig a Pony,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “The One After 909,” and “The Long and Winding Road.”

Originally a concert was planned, but after failing to reach a consensus on the location of the concert, the band decided to just do it on the roof of the building. For forty-two minutes the Beatles and Billy Preston played a free show to residents and customers of Savile Row in Central London. Noise complaints soon followed, and London police worked their way up to the roof just in time to see the band end their show.

That was the last time the Beatles ever performed in public as a group.

Review

I loved this docuseries. Loved it. I have the Beatles’ Anthology soundtrack that includes a lot of outtakes and studio tomfoolery on it and I listen to it regularly, so the behind the scenes stuff in The Beatles: Get Back is right up my alley.

The Beatles: Get Back' Review: Addictive and Essential - Variety

The video and audio have both been amazingly remastered. The video quality is so good that it looks like it was filmed with a 4K camera today. I’m not going to pretend to know the first thing about filmmaking and editing, but I was impressed. The audio was crystal clear. One challenge Peter Jackson and his crew had was matching up audio with video in some circumstances. Occasionally there would be long stretches of dialogue audio playing over video that implied that conversation was being depicted on screen, but because the video would not show the mouths of the speakers, it was unclear whether the conversation being heard was the same as the conversation being seen. This, in my mind, was one of the very few drawbacks to the series, and it didn’t even happen that often. And for that matter, when it did happen it seemed like it was almost entirely at Twickenham Studios, so perhaps there were some issues there that were not present once the band moved over to Apple.

There was also almost no background really given, which I loved. There is no narrator, no talking head interviews, no retrospective material at all, really, except for a disclaimer about the audio. There was the occasional subtitle, but that was almost always just making sure the viewer knew what was going on in a given scene and really did not do much storytelling. I think that is my favorite thing about The Beatles: Get Back: the storytelling is done almost entirely through the footage that was recorded all those years ago and without too much input from the present.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the creative process revealed. At various points in the series, we see Ringo working on “Octopus’s Garden,” George Harrison working on “Old Brown Shoe,” and the group as a whole figuring out the chords, riffs, solos, and even words to “Get Back,” “Let it Be,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and the future George Harrison solo tune “All Things Must Pass.” It’s wonderful to watch creative people be creative. We get to see debate over what Loretta’s last name should be in “Get Back,” and what nonsense phrase could be used to rhyme with “dig a pony.” The group has tempo issues in some songs, riff issues in others, and length issues in still more, each of which is addressed and rectified. It’s fascinating. It’s like an episode of “How It’s Made” but for more ethereal artistic stuff.

The Beatles Got Started in Hamburg. There's a Reason for That. - JSTOR Daily

It’s also fun to see the Beatles…having fun. Once recording moved to Apple and Billy Preston decided to drop by, the fun levels went way up. The group jammed early rock & roll favorites like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” They also joked around and seemed for a while to not think about all of the awfulness that would cloud the band before and after the “Get Back” sessions were completed. For a few days they didn’t talk about breaking up or side projects or anything else. They were just four guys from Liverpool (and one guy from Houston by way of Los Angeles) being themselves. They looked like the band that had played together in awkward conditions in Hamburg, had endured idiotic questions from the press, and had started it all by playing together at church fetes. They looked like friends who happened to be in a band together, and that’s a nice thought.

Especially during the last episode, the group is shown fine-tuning the songs that by now were accepted as part of the eventual rooftop concert setlist. This brings me to one of the only other things about the series I did not like. I didn’t actually count, but I’m going to guess that I heard the song “Get Back” 5,000,000 times in the last episode alone. And look, I like that song a lot. It’s a great song with a fun groove and an interesting, imitable vocal from Paul McCartney. But I heard it sooooooo many times. It’s different for the people playing, producing, and editing the songs. They have to hear it a million times to make sure that everything is just so and the final product is representative of the best idea. Perhaps the many, many versions heard were meant to exhibit Paul McCartney’s perfectionism and showcase the hard work needed just to make one song. But if that is the case Peter Jackson could have made the same point just as effectively with about half the number of times “Get Back” was played.

The true pièce de résistance of The Beatles: Get Back is the rooftop concert. The series showed the concert in its entirety, with picture-in-picture displays of man-on-the-street interviews and police response to the concert. The group seemed loose, like they were having fun despite the cold weather. It is a truly beautiful piece of filmmaking. The police response and the reactions of random passers-by juxtaposed with the band continuing to work out the material while literally on a rooftop is just incredible. It takes several minutes before you realize that the concert has been on the screen the entire time. At first it doesn’t even really feel like you’re watching a concert, but by the time it’s all over and John Lennon quips that he hopes the band “passed the audition,” it feels like you have just watched a concert. It’s very strange, and I don’t know how Peter Jackson did it, but he did and it was awesome.

I suppose now is the time when I should actually assign a number to this. It’s a challene because it’s a docuseries like Last Chance U: Basketball, Titletown High, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, and Tiger, each of which we have reviewed, and it is difficult to compare them to other shows we have provided review scores for like The Wire and Breaking Bad. Docuseries are meant to be entertaining in ways much different that Seinfeld. I mean, how do you compare a documentary to a comedy? Doesn’t it depend on the mood you’re in?

Well, maybe not. These reviews are not necessarily intended for pure apples-to-apples comparisons. In my mind they are reflections of what percentage of potential greatness each show achieved. For example, as far as a police procedural goes, The Wire did things 9.7/10, or 97% of its potential.

So, how close did Peter Jackson come to being perfect? I think he did as well as the folks at HBO did with The Wire. Therefore, The Beatles: Get Back gets a 9.7. With that, here are the updated rankings:

Breaking Bad9.7
The Wire9.7
The Beatles: Get Back: 9.7
Seinfeld9.0
Downton Abbey8.8
The Grand Tour Presents . . . Lochdown8.7
Last Chance U: Basketball8.5
The Office (US): 8.4
The Queen’s Gambit8.2
Scrubs8.0 (which would be higher but that last season was so bad)
Parks and Recreation7.8
Operation Varsity Blues: 7.3
The Newsroom7.0
John Adams6.8
Tiger6.5
The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness6.0
Firefly Lane5.5
Last Man Standing5.0
Weeds4.5
How I Met Your Mother: 4.0
Two and a Half Men2.5
The Big Bang Theory0.3

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