One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 63
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back premiered on streaming service Disney+ on November 25, Thanksgiving Day, and I’m as thankful as I’ve ever been for the release of an eight-hour, three-part film series.
The film presents three weeks in early 1969 when the Beatles convened to write, rehearse, and record a dozen-plus songs and planned their first live show in more than two years. The result of the group’s endeavors was the 1970 album Let It Be, which was first covered in filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary by the same name. Jackson’s film draws from some 50 hours of unused film footage and 120 hours of audio recordings from the Lindsay-Hogg production that had never been seen before.
The existence of the trove of additional material was first acknowledged by Apple Corps (the company which has handled the Beatles’ business affairs since 1969) back in 2000, and it took Beatles-loving filmmaker Jackson nearly a decade to negotiate a deal to restore all the film and audio footage and then move forward to create a film out of it. Playing like an addendum to the original 80-minute Let It Be, Jackson has described The Beatles: Get Back as “a documentary on a documentary.”
Eight hours is admittedly a daunting running time for a fly-on-the-wall documentary—a film consisting solely of period footage and absent of talking head testimonials or a narrative thread (save for shots of a calendar as it counts down 21 days). But the eight-hour The Beatles: Get Back, every minute of it, is as absorbing and fascinating as any fan of the Beatles, rock’n’roll history or the creative process could ever wish for.
So much so that Jackson has said his original cut of the project was 18 hours long and I pray that one day it will be released, as well.
Get Back brims with material that reveals John, Paul, George and Ringo on the eve of what was to be their dissolution as well as one of their most admired artistic triumphs.
There’s just so much here to dive into and delight in, beginning with the development and tinkering of dozens of Beatles tunes (including a handful that would later appear on Abbey Road, as well as older ones that pop up as they fiddle around). The creative interaction between the band members as they compose and play, especially between John and Paul, is wonderful to behold, as is the surprisingly benign presence of Yoko Ono in the studio (but oy, that singing!). And knowing that the stream of jams, jokes and jibes are masking the growing tensions that would result in the breakup of the band a year later is almost like watching a soon-to-be car crash in slow motion.
At one point following a particularly uncomfortable series of exchanges, Paul sighs to Lennon, “Probably when we’re all very old, we’ll all agree with each other and we’ll all sing together.” It was a comment that brought a tear to my eye, knowing that John would barely make it to 40.
That said, here are five memorable moments from The Beatles: Get Back as chosen by Reel Streaming for Insider readers—at last, as of this writing, I’m pretty sure if you check back tomorrow, we’ll have another five for you. And then five more after that.
Reel Streaming’s Best of “The Beatles: Get Back”
1) Paul McCartney crafts “Get Back”
Relatively early on in the film, Paul is seen giving birth to the Beatles number that gives the series its name. Strumming a riff on a guitar and humming a nonsensical lyric—both of which he seemingly pulls out of the air, in real time—Paul begins to create a song that would be released as a single a scant three months later and rise to the top of the charts around the world. It’s arguably the most magical and astounding moment in the entire series.
Later on, we see Paul and John fiddling with the lyrics, tweaking the line “Jo Jo Jackson left his home in Arizona” to “Jo Jo left his home in Tucson, Arizona.” Is Tucson in Arizona?,” asks John. “It’s is, yeah,” replies Paul. “It’s where they make High Chapparal.”
2) George Harrison announces he is leaving the Beatles
During an increasingly tense back-and-forth between Paul and George over Paul’s arrangement of the song “Two of Us,” George, who clearly feels like he’s been ostracized for most of the sessions (that’s what it looks like, at least), tersely states, “I think I’ll be leaving the band now.” “When?,” asks Lennon. “Now,” replies George. “Get a replacement. Write into the NME [New Musical Express, a British publication] and get a few people.” He adds that maybe he’ll see the boys “round the clubs,” before walking off-camera—and away from the band. George’s departure didn’t stick, of course—he returned a few days later after a couple of meetings with John and Paul—but it’s still remarkable to witness the band’s most infamous near-breakup.
3) Billy Preston arrives and plays with the band
Entering their second week at London’s Apple Studios, the band’s progress receives a serious boost with the arrival of keyboardist Billy Preston, who met the Beatles in the early Sixties when they were all touring Germany. Casually invited to sit in with the boys, Preston quickly energizes the session with his musicianship, professionalism and playful smile. He happily jams with the band for a couple of hours and adds an indispensable keyboard track to the still-evolving “I’ve Got a Feeling,” prompting John to declare to their newest almost-member, “You’re in the group!”
4) Heather McCartney gets some studio time
At one point during the third week of the sessions, Paul’s soon-to-be-wife Linda Eastman arrives with her six-year-old daughter Heather (from her first marriage) in tow. It’s lovely to see the adorable, perky youngster interact with the Beatles, particularly Ringo, who lends her a couple of drumsticks for a few spirited minutes of percussive collaboration. It also reminds us that though they were only in their late 20s, both Ringo and John already had children of their own at home. Paul formally adopted Heather as his daughter when he married Linda in March, 1969, two months after the sessions wrapped.
5) The Beatles’ rooftop concert on January 30, 1969
More than just a moment, the famous concert on the Apple Studios rooftop in London on January 30, 1969 marks the final public performance by the Beatles. A chunk of the 42-minute, nine-song set (technically only five songs, but with multiple takes on a few of them) was featured in the earlier Let It Be film, but here it’s presented in its entirety. It was filmed by Lindsay-Hogg using six cameras, as well as one on a rooftop across the road and a couple on Savile Row below to capture the responses of passersby and the arrival of the Metropolitan Police to investigate the “disturbance.”
The concert serves as the grand finale to The Beatles: Get Back, the wrap-up to seven hours of lead-in material that helps to reveal how The Beatles came to climb the stairs to the roof and deliver one of the most iconic performances in the history of rock’n’roll.
For the Beatles, it was the end, and for their subsequent careers, it proved to be a midpoint. But for the countless others who over the subsequent decades would discover and rediscover the sound and vision of the most influential band in the history of popular music, it was only the beginning.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.