Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson’s Get Back film tries to finesse the Beatles’ break-up while fulfilling the audience’s dream of a fantasy reunion. When the original Let It Be film first appeared in theaters in the summer of 1970, the sight of McCartney and Harrison bickering seemed to confirm the tabloids’ reportage of the Beatles’ camaraderie gone sour, to the point where the band members themselves seem to have internalized this perception. After restoring 57 hours of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s grainy 16 mm footage, Jackson shifted from a feature film 2-1/2 hours long to an 8-hour streaming deal with Disney+. (This resembles the way the original 1969 concept changed midstream from TV show to feature film plus album.) Jackson has also steered press coverage towards Apple’s PR campaign: “I kept waiting for the bad parts to come, and they never came,” goes one of his oft-cited sound bites.
“To have intimate, behind the scenes, fly-on-the-wall coverage of the recording of an album from a band in the ’60s is one thing. But the fact that it’s the Beatles is mind-blowing, really.”
The foggy timeline causes both confusion and partisanship. Filmed in January of 1969 at two locations (a cavernous Twickenham soundstage, and then the Apple office’s Savile Row basement in London), the Beatles never felt these tracks worthy of their brand. They maintained this fierce ambivalence for over 50 years. Because the Let It Be album and film came out after Abbey Road (September 1969), this material got mistaken as a diagram of their breakup, as persistent as myth. Where Abbey Road survives as a polished final statement, the Let It Be stuff came out during the tabloid frenzy of suits and countersuits. While much of the film countered the oceans of good faith the band traded on, the album held up better, and gave the audience plenty of reasons to stay in denial about the split.
Only in 2016 did the remaining Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) hire Jackson for this rescue mission, and while they gave him lots of latitude, they sat as executive producers alongside their Apple directors, Jeff Jones and Ken Kamins. Jackson can claim “final cut” all he wants, but these figures always held the purse strings and veto power. Major offscreen manipulations and omissions prove essential for understanding why they show what they show.
To start with, the claim of its “documentary” status evaporates under scrutiny. The Beatles remain precociously aware of the cameras throughout, and mysterious subtexts swell even at the lighter moments. Once again, Epstein’s death in August, 1967 finds them scrambling in a similar survival mode that led to the botched Magical Mystery Tour. Management disarray has them forced to rehearse a TV show during office hours in an under-heated facility with no playback equipment. When George Harrison walks out on January 10, his ultimatum includes switching venues. (The state of his marriage this particular week never seems to hit anybody’s radar, but the Beatles seem mostly sympathetic about his situation.)
For his part, Lennon seems like the one who least wants to write and record on camera, and his glassy eyes and lack of songs imply harder drug use. When he teases Peter Sellers about “leaving his needles” on the bathroom floor, it’s a biting projection of his own sloppy habits. It’s curious that Jackson leaves this detail in while John Harris omits it from his transcriptions in the Get Back book. In various podcast interviews, Peter Jackson cops to having footage of a visit from Alan Williams, their first Liverpool manager, which would have really challenged Disney’s language standards.
Few reviewers bother to point out how this month fits into the larger context of the band’s larger album arc. After the twin summits of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and the White Album (Pepper‘s negative image, 1968), the most famous act in history could plausibly wonder, what next? But none of them or anyone on the set seem to have thought they might pluck something from their current hit records, “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” or “Birthday,” or cop any of 1968’s outtakes (except for “Across the Universe”). The White Album was topping the charts when they played the rooftop, and most would have expected material from that collection.
As Jackson explains, Lindsay-Hogg’s original cut followed the album release that Phil Spector had assembled in March of 1970. But that doesn’t explain all its oddities, discontinuities, and so-real-it’s-boring, Warhol-verité self-absorption. The style also flummoxed 1970 audiences, who flocked instead to Woodstock‘s hippie spectacle, its rock film rival. Let it Be, the album, soared onto album charts and Grammy awards while the film disappeared, making the rounds as an oddly reverse-charismatic cult item on campuses.
While the rooftop set magically pulled it all together for a soaring finale, the band set these tapes aside for a more tempting project, Abbey Road, completed in August of 1969. Abbey Road became their final record, a half-great farewell to one another and their audience, while the Let It Be songs languished. Then came the split, a Dickensian descent into lawsuits and press fights, and emergent solo careers that vied with an idealized past.
A more generous vantage on this footage comes from how insiders delight in this period: musicians, producers, and engineers all recognize the messy backstage creative meanderings from blazing talent unaccustomed to following schedules.
Curiously enough, the tension and conflict Jackson captures testifies to the band’s endurance and artistic ambition. With a walkout from Harrison, and continuous disagreements about what the project was (first a TV show, then a feature film and album, which needed some kind of performance “payoff”), John, Paul, George and Ringo all rallied both for these disrupted sessions and the future benchmarks they birthed: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from Lennon, which kick-starts the next album sessions the next month, “Something” (which George introduces with dummy lyrics, and seeks input), “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Oh! Darling” (done as a jocular Lennon-McCartney duet instead of the studiously earnest final take), “Octopus’s Garden” (Ringo’s song), “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and “Polythene Pam.” “Old Brown Shoe,” a Harrison number cinched by a nimble drum pattern, gets recorded right after “I Want You” in February as the B-side to “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in June. Even so, the conundrums circle back on themselves: why does much of the Let It Be album hold up better than the lacquered professionalism of Abbey Road? Would anybody choose “Maxwell” or “Octopus’s Garden” over “I’ve Got a Feeling”? Or “Don’t Let Me Down”? Or “Two of Us”?
Masquerading as sloppy procrastinators who rally with a playback facility and a keyboard player (Billy Preston), the Beatles resumed work and put their extra-musical tensions aside – their ensemble muse pulls them inexorably forward, and they trust it. To them, this period resembles a variant of normal: they have had bust-ups and walkouts and uncertainties and failures, and they always figure out a path forward. For Lindsay-Hogg, this all felt bewildering and fraught; to the Beatles in that moment, it mostly seemed about par—another hard curve on an unstoppable train.
If you’re not a musician (or writer or poet or painter), a lot of this rehearsing looks like messing about. And eight hours of freighted ambivalence and raw, undeveloped material, feels like a big ask. Several scenes stand out: McCartney closing his eyes and summoning “Get Back” while playing his Hofner bass like a makeshift guitar as Starr and Harrison watch; Yoko Ono’s knitting, reading, lettering, meditating, as performance art, a session inside a session; Harrison’s coaching the others on the arrangement to “Get Back,” which “doesn’t need a bridge,” and it doesn’t; Ringo’s unflappable lovability, which nearly upstages his invisible rhythmic finesse; Preston’s cosmic chemistry on his first track, “I’ve Got a Feeling,” where he sounds like his fingers have known this unfinished song forever; and producer George Martin’s colossal humility, letting engineer Glyn Johns run the sessions and see them through to final mix (until they get scrapped for Spector).
Amidst this feast of detail, some exasperations: after Harrison walks out, Lennon and McCartney go to the cafeteria for a peace summit about how to handle things, not realizing that Lindsay-Hogg had bugged their table. Jackson’s digital cleanse has now isolated both sides of this dialogue for a clean take, only some of which gets reprinted in John Harris’s Get Back coffee-table book with Ethan Russell’s photos. Journalists will blanch: McCartney may have signed off on releasing that private conversation, but did Yoko Ono? Even if she did, an illicit recording like this strays way outside accepted practice. Does it justify the practice? In historical terms, this conversation both clarifies the conflict and deepens the unknowable subtext. Completely aware of how they treat Harrison, and how his second-rate status as a songwriter has worn him down as a band member, Lennon and McCartney salvage the sessions by promising to extend some kind of olive branch. But of course, at the next band meeting, Ono does all of Lennon’s talking, as per his instructions. So, Lennon’s ambivalence tips into passive-aggressive antagonism. (And back again: he pipes up in Part Two of the series to defend Harrison’s work and encourage his solo ambition.)
The other heartbreaking omissions come from the music. McCartney’s scene-stealing bass counterpoint during the bridge in “Don’t Let Me Down” appears suddenly in one take, without ever revealing how it came about. One day the song doesn’t have it, the next day it does. Let’s hope Jackson has enough of a fan’s muscle to leak. The other musical detail that goes unremarked stems from Ringo’s sublime shuffle pattern for “Get Back,” before which the song simply doesn’t jell. That must have been a moment: when the relaxed propulsion of the groove began to take a shape that nobody had ever heard before. Starr has a poker face, even a hangdog demeanor, but his ears work overtime. Imagine “Get Back” drummed any other way and you hear something less imaginative, less pert, and less apt.
If the musical angle on Get Back proves the most satisfying; the business threads it touches on only hint at the onrushing havoc. A visit from Northern Songs’ publisher Dick James, the “suit” who brings paperwork during Harrison’s absence, looms far outside this frame. Producer George Martin found James and chartered the company in 1962, and Lennon and McCartney’s own interests in the firm amounted to 15 percent each, with James getting over 30. They had long since found this setup beyond rude and privately held James in contempt. But off-screen, McCartney had already asked assistant Peter Brown (mentioned in “Ballad of John and Yoko”) to buy up shares in the company to gain leverage. That April of 1969, James betrayed them by selling his controlling interest to a consortium of bankers, and when Lennon asked for an accounting, he discovered McCartney’s subterfuge. He never felt the same way about his partner again, even though they collaborated on some high-spirited duets (like “The Ballad of John and Yoko”) and completed Abbey Road together. McCartney’s civility with James contrasts Lennon’s utter disregard, and portends a defining wound in the breakup story. Yes, they rooted for profits as others recorded their songs (Vera Lynn, the WWII “Force’s Sweetheart,” who over-sweetens “Good Night”). But the ulterior machinations had already been set in motion; the cracks don’t show yet, but the doom rattles come from inside the house.
There is a moment in Part Two, the first day on the set when Harrison doesn’t show up, when they sit around talking, and McCartney suddenly goes quiet. The camera stays on him, and you can see him lock into a thousand-yard stare as he contemplates how it might just fall apart this time. He doesn’t quite tear up, but he does look as unguarded as he ever does, and uncertain about how to proceed. It’s a moving moment, one that takes the measure of the man and the project, how far they’ve come, and how high the stakes have grown.
In retrospect, the miracle is not that they finished Let It Be, but how these sessions served as the warmup for their final lap, Abbey Road. After upending expectations with the contrasting breakthroughs of Sgt. Pepper and the White Album, figuring out what to do next would have confounded lesser souls. That five-decade gap where fans waited for a refurbished Let It Be tells you a lot about how fraught January 1969 seemed to its four principals – and how deep those scars went.
Tim Riley holds weekly Twitter Spaces chats on Sundays at 8pm EST; just go to his Twitter handle at @timrileyauthor. Along with his Lennon biography (2011) and Tell Me Why (1988), he wrote What Goes On: the Beatles, Their Music In Their Time (Oxford, 2019), with Walter Everett. He has also written books on Bob Dylan, Madonna, and gender in rock history. See timrileyauthor.com.
Header image courtesy of Disney+. Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.