Nearly eight-hour Get Back documentary is revelatory for fans
Like all Beatles fans, I was intrigued with the news that New Zealand film director Peter Jackson had convinced the Apple Records powers-that-be to let him recut the Let It Be movie, to provide a more complete view of what transpired in January 1969. The resulting three-part The Beatles: Get Back documentary takes seven hours and 48 minutes to view – exclusively on the streaming service Disney+. Debuted over the Thanksgiving weekend, Get Back offers plenty for those who can’t get enough of the band that for most followers of the rock era agree created an unmatched body of work – and in less than a decade.
Jackson starts off the three-parter with a 12-minute summary of the Beatles’ success from their days as teenagers, through Beatlemania, the decision to stop touring in 1966 and become a recording band, and other events, in order to provide a historical backdrop for the uninitiated. The Lord of the Rings-trilogy filmmaker then makes the smart organizational decision to divide the documentary into a day-by-day chronicle of the project, since the band knew they had only less than a month to write and record an album – with all of them playing together in front of cameras. Like the best rock documentaries (e.g., Gimme Shelter), Get Back offers a dramatic arc. In this instance, we already know it culminates in the rooftop concert at Apple headquarters, marking the last time the Beatles would perform together publicly.
The original 1970 Let It Be film, panned by critics and fans alike, feels almost like a truncated, 79-minute trailer full of jump cuts. With more than 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio captured for posterity by original director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s team, Jackson figured another, more complete film must have been hiding in all that footage. He wasn’t wrong. Still, Lindsay-Hogg deserves kudos for having the foresight to place highly sensitive microphones to pick up conversations, and at least eight cameras filming from every angle for a fly-on-the-wall perspective.
The original plan was them to perform the album for a worldwide telecast in front of an audience at some exotic location. A Roman amphitheater in Libya or a location at sea were considered, although the Beatles – with the exception of Paul McCartney – never fully endorsed the concept, though thanks to the new documentary, it’s revealed that John Lennon changes his mind. Lennon and George Harrison separately admit that since “Mr. Epstein’s” passing (the Beatles’ original manager who died in 1967), the once Fab Four were in need of leadership. Later on, McCartney notes he hates “being boss,” as had been the case for several years, but no one else had stepped up. Lennon doesn’t correct him. Harrison still secretly stews about having to play third fiddle, literally, behind the duo, and Ringo Starr is Switzerland (not “Russia,” his code name, we learn).
Get Back was the Beatles’ attempt to rebel against the strictness of their past laurels at the EMI-owned Abbey Road recording studio by playing live together. Although producer Martin painstakingly presided over the Beatles’ past glory, in Get Back he seems relieved that he needn’t explain to EMI’s bosses why the lads weren’t emanating their usual recording studio magic. Martin shows up occasionally at Twickenham Film Studios, where the production was shot, and hardly says a word in the new film. When they move to the Apple studio, Martin realizes EMI must bring in some professional audio equipment, such as a PA, to finish the project.
Even though the band’s previous sprawling studio outing, the White Album, was well received, bad feelings apparently festered with an every-man-for-himself experience in the making of the album, which they wrapped on Oct. 18, 1968. Lennon reportedly later questioned Martin’s studio trickery (Hello, “Revolution No. 9?”), which is why they were bent on doing no overdubs for the next time around.
On January 2, 1969, the Beatles exchange New Year’s pleasantries in a mostly empty soundstage at Twickenham, where they had made A Hard Day’s Night, Help, and the Hey Jude TV special the year before. Denis O’Dell, Apple’s head of films, secures the space, even though it wasn’t designed as a mobile recording studio. George Harrison lends his home rig for the project. Production at Twickenham was to commence later in the month on the O’Dell-produced The Magic Christian, co-starring Ringo Starr, which explains why his co-star Peter Sellers makes an appearance at a Get Back session.
Comparing Get Back with the bootleg VHS tape of Let It Be I watched in the early 1980s, for me, two pivotal scenes that last perhaps all of five minutes together gave me in retrospect an unfair view of what the Beatles were trying to accomplish with this back-to-their-roots project. Jackson adds context, instead of Lindsay-Hogg’s sound bites in the original film.
In the earlier version, Paul and John face each other in chairs. Paul vents on how George doesn’t want to make films or play concerts. John doesn’t say a word. I always thought that John’s silence meant that he was thinking, “You f*cking idiot [Paul], don’t you get that it’s over?” 52 years later, Jackson shows that it was actually a two-way conversation between Lennon and McCartney.
Jackson’s version repeats Lindsay-Hogg’s capture of a heated exchange between Harrison and McCartney, but goes a bit longer. Paul offers a suggestion on his guitar playing, but quickly adds that he thinks Harrison is taking it as an annoyance. “You don’t annoy me anymore,” George explains. “I’ll play whatever you want me to play … or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. I don’t think you know what you want.” George’s final aside debuts in Get Back.
Part One of the Jackson film ends with something of a cliffhanger: George quits and stays away for eight days. Will he return? With the cameras on, John suggests they recruit Eric Clapton, incidentally George’s best friend, to replace him. Later, John and Paul have an un-filmed lunch to discuss the George situation. A secret microphone picks up their several-minute conversation, in which they both empathize regarding how George must feel, but agree that no malice was ever intended on their part.
Tomorrow Never Knows
Again, without the cameras, all four Beatles meet at Ringo’s home in an effort to woo George back. It doesn’t go well. At a second meeting a few days later, Harrison agrees to return on the condition that they dump the live TV show event; they agree.
Prior to his temporary absence, Harrison questions the acoustics of the movie studio as not being ideal. They decide to leave Twickenham for the new recording studio at Apple’s HQ, built by “Magic Alex,” the Beatles’ electronics guru. George and the band are satisfied with the sound. But it’s probably not enough to cure them of the doldrums, their realization that things are not clicking. In published interviews, all four Beatles complained about the difficult vibe.
In an effort to break up the monotony while they wait for a muse to strike, Jackson, in several scenes, shows the Beatles reading the tabloid and fanzine press about the boys’ latest transgressions. I find John and Paul’s goofing around with vocals during this period irritating. Were they doing it for the cameras? Who knows? I wonder if George felt the same way.
Guests during the tedious sessions include inseparable Yoko Ono (soon to be married to John), and later Linda Eastman (soon to be married to Paul). Other visitors include Linda’s six-year-old daughter Heather, Ringo’s wife Maureen, and George’s wife Pattie. George invited two Hare Krishna friends to the early Twickenham days.
In Get Back, McCartney says he supports the John and Yoko union – when neither are there and George still AWOL – but jokes, “it’ll be comical 50 years later that [the Beatles] broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.”
Other similar moments make Get Back revelatory. For example, Starr can play piano, as he bangs out for Harrison a rudimentary version of “Octopus’s Garden,” which Martin witnesses. As Harrison makes arranging suggestions, it’s almost as if Martin realizes how short-shifted the guitarist must have felt being delegated to one or two songs per album, although potentially being every bit the musical genius as Lennon-McCartney.
More often than not, the sessions were jams, or covers of favorite rock and roll standards, instead of the fully-formed Beatles songs to which we had become accustomed. At the time, Harrison, John and probably Paul were clearly thinking, exit strategy, instead of the faked togetherness. They talk often about, “maybe we should divorce?”
Get Back, unlike the Let It Be movie, reveals the genesis of several tracks, particularly “Get Back,” which lyrically was initially something completely different, commenting on Pakistani immigration and which could have been easily misinterpreted. Some of the footage is priceless, such as learning it was John (not George) who played the blistering lead on “Get Back” and also performed the sublime steel guitar solo on Harrison’s “For You Blue.” Lennon clearly takes pride in his performances.
Lots of future Abbey Road fragments emerge, such as McCartney’s “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” “Carry That Weight,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”; Lennon’s “She’s So Heavy,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” and “Polythene Pam”; Harrison’s “Something,” and Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden.” Other not fully worked-out songs include Lennon’s “Road to Marrakesh,” to the tune of “Jealous Guy,” and an early version of “Gimme Some Truth.” Harrison plays “All Things Must Pass,” and admits he had been stockpiling songs for a solo album. He wrote “Wah Wah” after handing in his temporary notice.
For Get Back, they fixate on a dozen or so songs, trying out different tempos, arrangements, feels, ad nauseam. Lindsay-Hogg wants to know exactly what they’re going to play live, as time is running out. It can’t be overstated how much of a difference that bringing in Billy Preston on keyboards changed their collective moods, both at Twickenham and Apple, adding a much-needed other instrument, another aspect of the proceedings made obvious by Jackson’s version of what took place.
The Beatles all agree that the roof will be the location of their secret concert. Luckily they owned the building at 3 Saville Row, for which they paid £500,000 in 1968. There’s some concern whether the roof will hold the weight of the audio equipment, as Paul is seen jumping on the roof to test it as they investigate what’s up there. Lindsay-Hogg’s brilliant stroke was dispatching several cameras down on the street to capture peoples’ reactions, and he also mounted a secret camera at the foyer to record the inevitable visit from the two Metropolitan Police officers, who were responding to 30 complaints about the noise.
The Beatles ultimately turn out first-rate roof performances. Beatles road manager Mal Evans comes off as their most valuable player, fending off the police officers’ insistence of going up on the roof for at least 20 minutes, meanwhile getting in a few more takes for the entire 42-minute “concert,” even if they repeated some songs. Ten minutes later, a sergeant (no, not Pepper) investigates: why is the music still blasting, even after Mal assures the bobbies that they can lower the PA levels? A few minutes later on camera, Ringo, in mid-performance is the first band member to notice that Old Bill has come to visit, and then Paul sees them. They figure, quit while you’re ahead before anyone gets arrested.
I Should Have Known Better
The Beatles’ inclination to not release the album Get Back was correct, in case this really was the end. Instead, they went into the studio and make a proper Martin-produced album, which turned out to be the masterpiece Abbey Road. It was a fitting farewell, and should have been their last studio LP that they started recording in mid-April 1969.
In Part Two of the Disney+ film, Apple executive Peter Brown mentions to Lennon that Allen Klein, who aspires to manage the Beatles, will be coming by Apple during a Get Back session. Later in 1969 Klein wrested control of the band, with the blessing of Lennon, who convinced Harrison and Starr that Klein would be better than McCartney’s father-in-law to look out for Apple’s interests. In Get Back, Lennon tells Harrison about Klein’s genius, how he and Yoko spent all night talking with him, and how lucky they’ll be having him in their corner.
After the Beatles finished recording Abbey Road, Klein enlisted Phil Spector to produce and re-mix the Get Back sessions. Spector’s version included lush strings on McCartney’s “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Paul was livid.
In the 2000 Beatles Anthology book, Apple managing director Neil Aspinall stated that the Let It Be record was released to serve as a companion soundtrack to the movie in May 1970. Let It Be the album was released through Klein’s ABKCO label as a companion piece to the movie, since he now could dictate such a move. From Klein’s perspective, even if the Beatles weren’t a continuing entity, individually, three of their talents were a bankable investment, in which he would earn a piece of the sales action of their solo efforts, as well as posthumous releases. By 1972 Klein wasn’t managing any of the Beatles.
According to the 1995 book Bootleg Beatles, in 1969 an unauthorized record titled Kum Back contained a rough version of Get Back, and was put out under different titles by other bootleggers in subsequent years.
In my opinion, Let It Be as an LP should not have been released in May 1970. I think Beatles fans would have been satisfied in the spring of 1969 with a five-song EP of the best rooftop live versions of “Get Back” (played three times on the roof); “I’ve Got a Feeling” (twice) “Don’t Let Me Down” (twice), “One After 909,” and “Dig A Pony.” Putting out this EP would have beat the bootleggers. (George didn’t get his rooftop number in the movie, so what else is new?) Apple could have also issued a 45 rpm seven-inch single with George’s “For You Blue” on the A side backed with Paul’s “The Long and Winding Road.” A second single could have been Paul’s “Let It Be” b/w the extended take of John’s “Dig It.” A third single could have had Paul’s “Two of Us” on the A side and George’s “I Me Mine” on the B side.
Of course, to capitalize on all the attention of The Beatles: Get Back, a newly released Let It Be (Special Edition – Super Deluxe) four-LP + 12” EP sets you back $199.98, and it costs another $50 for the official hardcover book. For me, I’ll stick with a bootleg CD of Get Back, acquired in the late 1990s, containing the original mixes that Glyn Johns engineered during the Twickenham and Apple sessions. In recent years I didn’t hesitate buying the deluxe vinyl versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road, decisions to which I attribute solely on the quality of those albums’ music.
Since the early 1970s, the Beatles’ deep archives and imaginative packaging of new product, now under the auspices of the Universal Music Group, keeps baby boomers with disposable income (and their offspring who grew up on the music) shelling out big bucks for expensive physical media gift-giving in the digital age.
Of course, the Beatles’ music will be forever be played by other artists in all genres. In what turned out to be perfect timing on the Monday night after the Thanksgiving weekend, I thoroughly enjoyed Cellophane Flowers’ neo-classical spin on Beatles music, the brainchild of singer/songwriter Jeff Lake, at Manhattan’s The Cutting Room.
Here’s “A Day in the Life,” as performed by The Cellophane Flowers with Jeff Lake on guitar/vocals, Ally Jenkins (violin) and Tara Hanish (cello) at The Cutting Room, Nov. 29, 2021.
Their 2019 studio version:
Header image courtesy of Disney+. Photo by Linda McCartney. © 2020 Apple Corps Ltd. All rights reserved.