Peter Jackson Takes Us Inside the Beatles’ Earth-Shattering Divorce
Filmmaker Peter Jackson’s (“The Lord of the Rings”) nearly eight-hour Disney+ docuseries “The Beatles: Get Back” chronicles the final days of the greatest band ever.
“OK, we’re the Beatles now,” John Lennon, hardly the whip-cracker of discipline, says to the three friends who are soon to be his ex-bandmates in Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour-long Get Back docuseries for Disney+, when the mucking about becomes too much even for the rascally Beatle.
The old gang from Liverpool has largely wasted another morning at the Twickenham film studio in corny imitations of past rock and rollers, cracking the sorts of jokes you make with buddies you’ve known forever, and it’s time for an infusion of class, to show what this band can still do.
The Get Back sessions—a nebulous project that was at various junctures part album, would-be TV show, live concert (which became the group’s famous lunch date with their roof), part mid-life crisis for a rock combo that was actually at its end—are the least wieldy of the Beatles’ career. Magical Mystery Tour is the only other serious contender, but a less protracted affair. Hardcore Beatles people are aware, to give you an idea, of a bootleg set of recordings that runs for over 100 hours, containing all of the music the band put on tape in January 1969. There’s a lot to get through, if one wishes to try.
Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg—a central character of the Jackson film, and looking like a dead ringer for Orson Welles—had been hired by the Beatles to fashion what ultimately became the rarely screened Let It Be film, which hasn’t been available on home video since the 1980s, disavowed by the Beatles who ostensibly didn’t want people living with the cinematic memory of their dissolution.
Jackson’s hill to climb seems insurmountable—conceptually—or an errand befitting Paul McCartney’s resident fool: to take dozens of hours of film from sessions on the slow road to nowhere and craft an epic of a documentary that will hold our attention beyond the novelty of saying, “Look! It’s the Beatles up close like we’re all hanging out and doesn’t this look nice!”
Get Back documents an attempt by the Beatles to tell a story, though none of them have any clue what that story might be. They’re hoping a narrative will gel naturally, take care of itself, which is how George Harrison at one point says their greatest triumphs have occurred, as with Sgt. Pepper, which is a long way from this affair. The Pepper vibe was one of community and freedom; the Get Back vibe is along the lines of “what the hell do we do now?” crossed with fear, and the eventual peace of acceptance.
Every high school senior knows that bittersweet feeling that descends when you realize it’s time to move on. The Beatles of this docuseries are akin to men reuniting with each other at their high school reunion, without having yet graduated—which is to say, left this band, the only true community these four friends/unofficial brothers have known for their adult lives.
Jackson’s technique is to first show us a newsreel-type montage—similar to the opening of Citizen Kane—to cover the band’s backstory of fame and glory, in case you didn’t know, and then utilize a graphic of a calendar for the month of January 1969 to set the scene for each day of the project, crossing off the days as they’re finished.
We start at Twickenham, with the Beatles playing in what looks like the center of an empty airport hangar. Any hour of the morning was too early for the likes of Lennon, and he and Harrison especially can look like grumpy schoolchildren just roused from bed and chased off to the bus. There’s no atmosphere, and a prevailing sterility, but McCartney—who is obviously the Beatle who has the hardest time letting go of this collective—tries to fire everyone up. Said firing takes the form—for George Harrison, anyway—of domination and disrespect.
Regardless, the Beatles try to create some laughter, and if you love the band and know their history intimately, you’re in for treats of minutiae. There are, for instance, a number of Jimmie Nicol jokes. Nicol was the drummer who replaced Ringo Starr briefly on a 1964 tour when Mr. Starkey had a bout with tonsillitis. The ambiguous thinking early on is that the Beatles will do a TV special, and conceivably go abroad to shoot a concert in an ancient amphitheater, which Starr wants no part of, prompting some badinage about ringing up Nicol.
It’s good stuff, and heartening, too, to see how much the Beatles are like everyone else, with their talk about the “old days.” They have sharp memories as well. All of the Beatles show their fandom for their 1964 TV special Around the Beatles, going on about both the set design and the quality of the sound, a rarity for an undertaking of that nature.
Time is killed in the reading aloud of a Beatles fanzine. The Beatles do lots of funny voices. Mangle lyrics. “I’ve got a feeling” becomes “I’ve got a hard on.” (Lennon loved this form of humor; during a 1965 session for Harrison’s “Think For Yourself,” he flashes back to an earlier Harrison effort and offers up the alternate lyric, “Do you want to hold a penis?”) One senses that they are stalling, the way a child does at bedtime. Rock and roll is a defense mechanism in Get Back, and sonic comfort food. An emotional safe space. These musicians are no different, in their way, than someone who feels like an outsider in school, coming home, putting on the headphones and cranking up the volume, though the Beatles are becoming outsiders unto the very concept of being a Beatle.
Is it hard or painful to watch? No, not particularly. Get Back isn’t a visual or musical dirge, even if certain musical realities are made plain. To name one: the Beatles didn’t have the songs anymore. Or not songs consistently at the level of their earlier work. The masterful songs are special exceptions. Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down”—which he says is too exhausting to sing—is an example, but it’s herky-jerky, rising from extreme harmonic heights to these vales, then back up again. Gone is the flow that Lennon had excelled at. As a writer, he has to more or less grunt his way through the song. That slog means a large outlay of emotion is required to put the song over, and that’s what makes “Don’t Let Me Down” special, but it’s not the piece—the writing—itself, and it was as writers that the Beatles were what they were. With a dip, they’re still better than anyone else, but now they have to get that across in different ways that drain their pooled energies.
McCartney remains the melody king, but the melodies are increasingly in service to slight songs, tuneful throwaways that are now deemed keepers and slotted where they might fit. One of them is “Golden Slumbers,” which will occupy a key position on the Abbey Road album, to be cut in the summer of this same year as a swan song for a phenomenon that transcends what we think a phenomenon can be. But it’s a fragment. Abbey Road—even at this juncture—emerges as something of a miracle. It’s debatably the Beatles’ best album, but they’re getting by on their Beatleness, if you will.
Fascinatingly, in Get Back we see Abbey Road’s “Carry that Weight”—which now resounds as the Beatles’ most autobiographical song—commenced by McCartney as a novelty number about a hangover for Starr to sing. It simply fell into its place in Beatle lore and history later on, one of those happy accidents that Harrison had so much faith in.
McCartney, by way of wishful thinking, suggests that the same was true for the recording of “Yer Blues” from the previous year, when they essentially cut the Lennon number in a closet. They try to rally themselves by citing the past. The Beatles talk about their previous work a ton. McCartney still has the setlist from 1966—the year the Beatles gave up touring—taped to his Hofner bass. Discussions about the possible live show lead to pitches for a setlist, with Harrison stumping for “Every Little Thing,” which the Beatles never performed in concert. Lennon warbles his 1965 song “Help!” from time to time, and in each instance, as you hear the first line, you think, “What the hell is that?” because it’s at such a different level that it takes you a second to identify it. Stone-cold classic.
They get nostalgic for Hamburg, the Cavern in Liverpool, the ballrooms they used to play. On the first day of shooting, we see a fellow sitting off to the side in Hare Krishna garb, who we later learn is Harrison’s friend, with Lennon asking who that little man is, riffing on the familiar refrain regarding Paul’s fictitious grandfather in the 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night, as McCartney, with impeccable timing, adds, “But he’s very clean,” capping the joke.
Even the Beatles are fans of the Beatles (McCartney casually states that he had listened to Sgt. Pepper the night before), and it’s less about anything meta than it is a looking back while limping forward. The four former mop tops retain their shaggy manes, but the hair is lank now, the body language slouchy. Starr is clearly vital to this band. He’s the most even-tempered of the four, a quintessential good egg, and beyond being their musical glue—something he doesn’t get enough credit for—he’s their emotional one as well. Everyone can talk to Ritchie, it appears. Still, we see his red-rimmed eyes, and he looks like a guy who wants the end of the day to arrive as fast as possible.
But it’s Harrison, even more than Lennon—with an entirely new life built around his relationship with Yoko Ono—who makes it harder for the band to carry on. That’s not a knock. People change, lives change, expectations change. I would say that Harrison overvalued the songs he had (or could write), but there were a lot of them, as his solo album All Things Must Pass will soon prove. He shot his songwriting load, though, with that release, and never got close to its quality again.
In January 1969, he wants equal footing with the two studs in Lennon and McCartney. The former comes off as more of a team player than I would have expected, but also a passive-aggressive one. His investment in the Beatles—never mind that he started the band, and McCartney, during a covertly taped “private” conversation (there’s a microphone hidden by Lindsay-Hogg and company in a cafeteria flower pot), refers to Lennon as the boss—isn’t what his partner’s is. “Macca” is the protagonist of Get Back. He’s the one who has to accept that the world he’s known and shared is changing. The others are already there. It’s just not yet official.
Harrison quits the band on account of McCartney, walking out on the Twickenham sessions. Two attempts are made to get him back—despite Lennon saying that if Harrison’s not in the fold by Tuesday, they should recruit Eric Clapton—with the second working so long as the Beatles ditch the whole TV special plan and leave Twickenham behind for their own Apple studio.
The Harrison walk-off is a scene that says so much about who the Beatles are and were. McCartney is the man with the energy, who doesn’t want to repeat what’s already been done. A striver. Sometimes a striver puts people off, without any idea that he’s doing so, and the bassist was doing more and more of it.
“I’m trying to help you here,” he tells a tetchy Harrison, when the “quiet Beatle” obviously wants no McCartney-based assistance on what he should play. McCartney adds that he feels like he annoys Harrison, to which Harrison responds, “You don’t annoy me anymore.” The line cuts. It’s not meant to cut, but it does, because it’s so telling.
Producer George Martin is on hand throughout, though he’s going to be dropped from what eventually becomes the Let It Be album, in favor of Lennon’s guy, Phil Spector. Martin and McCartney share a bond that the producer does not with the other three. They’re of a similar musical mind. You can’t overstate how naturally gifted McCartney is. What comes easily for him doesn’t come easily even for a genius like Lennon. Their skillsets are quite different, but complementary. We often say that the camera loves a given performer, a given face, but Peter Jackson obviously knew that the camera especially loves Lennon and McCartney together. The depth of their bond is all but feelable through the screen. They have an energy to their interactions that I’ve never seen with two other people. Harrison leaves—someone says that the issue is, here’s this guy with his own songs who has to compete for time and attention with the team of Lennon and McCartney. Lindsay-Hogg states that the duo doesn’t even write that much together any longer, and he’s quickly corrected by Martin, who remarks that they’re still a team.
He gets it. I’m not sure anyone else did, besides Harrison—hence the problem—and Starr. Lindsay-Hogg doesn’t get it. The Beatles had played this awesome version of “Get Back,” with Harrison doing these intensely rhythmic ghost notes. One of the highlights of the sessions. Mega-groove of syncopation. But after he’s gone, we have what may be the most revealing Beatle visual of all-time: McCartney is still working out the lyric to “Get Back,” next to Lennon, singing the same fragment of a line repeatedly. He needs a two-syllable word in front of “Arizona,” and can’t find it, and then all of a sudden lands on “Tucson.” Lennon doesn’t even know what Tucson is, but as soon as he hears that word he gives McCartney as clear a look as you will ever see for “that’s exactly it,” and the two move on, just like that. You simply were not going to be their equal in this band. Theirs is the wavelength inside of the larger wavelength. They have a romance, as Lennon jokes at one point—a romance of connection and creativity.
There’s an uptick in joy when keyboardist Billy Preston is brought in. The Beatles used to play with him in Hamburg, so McCartney serenades the ebullient Preston with a version of “A Taste of Honey,’ straight out of the Star-Club playbook of yore.
There are tender moments, because these people can’t help but be tender with each other. Harrison helps Starr—with George Martin looking on—in the writing of “Octopus’s Garden,” one of only two numbers the drummer composed with the band. Lennon is so sweet—and funny—with McCartney’s 6-year-old adopted daughter, Heather, who has some new cats and wants to tell Uncle John all about them. The band jam with Heather and Linda Eastman commiserates with Yoko Ono, both of whom don’t say much throughout. Ono screams a few times on mic during these heavy metal freak-outs, which really aren’t terrible, but they’re not what the Beatles do.
Jackson intercuts footage and snapshots. He signposts the way. There are intertitles, cutaways, captions, disclaimers, and it all has a certain rhythm. Sometimes he’ll let an entire performance unfurl; other times he’ll make a point with jump-cuts, or cutting from one verse of a song to a chorus of another. We might hear conversations while no one’s lips are moving. This is a snippet-y affair, but in that rhythm, and in the relationships of the Beatles themselves—especially for McCartney—a narrative coheres and grows. Harrison was right, 50-plus years after the fact. They had stumbled into something.
There’s this sequence when McCartney is off to the side at the Apple studio, while the others are hashing out what direction they might go in, feeling his way through the chords of “Let It Be.” As a piece of life advice, the Beatles gave us nothing finer than this church-y number of intense secularism. Control what you can control, the song says, and assess how things stand. Let them be what they are, then proceed accordingly. That’s how we advance. It’s the only way to move forward, and in the various versions of the song in Get Back, we become increasingly aware that as McCartney sings to all of us, half a century later, he’s also singing to himself, which is one reason he has these quiet, quasi-private moments with this number. People say that you forgive someone else in order to help yourself. The same is true with letting something be. It’s how we get to peace, eventually.
To me, the 1963 recordings that the Beatles made on the BBC are the closest we may come to knowing who they were, and who they were together when they wished to be together. That’s the purest Beatles experience available. This is the other end of that spectrum, but it still retains beauty, and a kind of hope—a belief in the next thing because of the preceding magic.
Lennon had largely checked out at this point, but he gives voice to what every Beatle was thinking during that month of January 1969, and what every viewer of this docuseries will as well.
“The whole point of it is communication,” he says.
The only reply is “thank you brothers, and amen,” and may we all move forward to where we belong.