Full disclosure: I’m more of a Stones guy than a Beatles guy, and some early Beatles (Love Me Do, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and the like) I can find incredibly irritating. Now, sometime around Revolver, I took a turn and most of their albums from then on I like quite a bit. Abbey Road, in particular, I consider to be a stone-cold masterpiece. Although I still think The White Album has way too much filler (Ob-La-Di, Rocky Raccoon, and so forth).
What I’m getting at here is that I didn’t come to Peter Jackson’s seven-plus hour, three-episode series for Disney on bended knee—quite the contrary. I came to Get Back not as a fanboy but as an interested critic.
So, with that preamble out of the way, let me just say, this is a fascinating piece of work. The first part of the initial episode gives the viewer a quick overview of “Beatlemania” before bringing us to what would be the Beatles’ sessions for the recording of their last studio album, Let It Be in 1969 (Abbey Road was actually recorded after Let It Be, but released before).
The Beatles that we meet, in what amounts to an airplane hangar in Twickenham, are not the Beatles of yesteryear. Gone are the bowl-cutted and matching-suited heartthrobs, replaced by four long-haired, scruffy men with dirty fingernails on the cusp of thirty (although George, the youngest, looks much older). Their ragged appearance and mismatched clothes are fitting, because these Beatles are barely a group anymore. They are a collection of individuals who are no longer on the exact same page.
The intention the band (or at least Paul McCartney) had in the recording of Let It Be was to turn away from the studio wizardry of their previous albums from Sgt. Pepper on (which often didn’t even require them to be in the same room together) and create an organic record, played live and without overdubs. Because the Beatles (and particularly Paul) were overly ambitious, they were intending to pair the album with a television special, a documentary, and a live concert—and all this was to be accomplished in just 22 days. Performing live for an audience was a particularly striking idea since the band stopped touring in 1966, essentially becoming creatures of the studio thereafter.
You get the sense that what Paul wanted was for the Beatles to be a band again. The trouble is, Paul clearly wants to steer the ship without much input from anyone else. It’s not long before you sense the underlying tensions in the band and how fragile their union has become. While most of the post-Beatles bitterness was between John and Paul (listen to John’s How Do You Sleep? from his Imagine album and know that the question is aimed at Paul), the greatest strain between band members during the recording of Let It Be is clearly with Paul and George.
While John and Paul were the driving creative forces behind much of the Beatles songwriting, George was developing his own tunes and not that many of them were making the albums. Worse yet, Paul is constantly telling George how to play, which makes George feel less like a band member than a hired hand.
At one point, an exasperated George says to Paul, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.”
What’s particularly frustrating about that moment is how obvious it is that while Paul might be hearing George, he’s not really listening. George drops many a hint that he feels like an outsider throughout episode one, even saying that their last album (likely referring to The White Album), is the only one he feels like he had much to do with.
These fissures between Paul and George come to a boil as John and Paul rehearse a song together with both of them playing guitar while George stands by, his guitar in hand, seeing no way in. Consequently, George quits the sessions and goes home, leaving not only the album, the TV show, the film, and the live performance in doubt, but also the future of the band itself.
What’s so fascinating about the first episode of Get Back (and much of the series as a whole) is that you don’t feel like you are watching a movie or a show; it’s more like a feeling of eavesdropping on a band of four mates who know they are at a crossroads. All four men are in serious romantic relationships. Paul has taken on the role of ringleader while John seems to be waxing and waning between being truly focused and ambivalent, and George feels unnecessary. Ringo is the only member of the band who seems content to just fit in and play.
It’s all very intimate, and occasionally cringe-inducing. Paul’s leadership is, at times, extremely obtuse. He appears oblivious to the impact his seemingly-polite dictatorship is having on the group dynamic. Not to mention, distractions abound. Yoko sits silently and ever-present next to John while the band works through songs, and, to the other three band members, she’s practically seen as nothing more than a semi-live mannequin on a stool. George has invited a Hare Krishna along, who sits in a corner of the cavernous Twickenham space. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is recording everything, and Producer George Martin and engineer Glyn Johns are just trying to make a record amidst all this weird energy. In no way does this seem like a great setup to create an album.
The only time the band truly seems to loosen up is when they horse around with other people’s songs (Chuck Berry, Dylan, The Animals among others). Every time they turn back to their originals, you can feel the (largely) unspoken animosity creep in. During one conversation between John and Paul, John (in sticking up for George) points out that Paul forces his opinion on the songs written by the other band members, but no one can say anything to Paul about the arrangements on his songs.
After George departs, the remaining band members can be seen listening to a recording of George’s Isn’t It A Pity (which would end up on Harrison’s solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass). It’s a telling moment, as you can almost see in Paul’s eyes the realization of what George means to the band and how much he has to offer.
Episode one concludes with a failed attempt to get George back into the studio and the other three wondering what to do with themselves. Earlier in the episode, George suggests (half-jokingly at best) that the band is headed for a divorce. It’s as if the band has reached a point where they are both too familiar with, and yet alien to, one another at the same time. They have reached the point of resentment. That’s the thing that kills marriages and ends bands. There is much that foreshadows the band’s demise.
What’s so surprising about Get Back is that the final two episodes don’t turn into a slog of bitterness. A second effort to get George back is successful, and a change of scenery to the far more intimate location of Apple Studios changes the vibe. All of a sudden, they are (as George Martin points out) playing together and really looking at one another. The joy is palpable. George goes from dour to active and inquisitive (he’s even caught smiling several times), John and Paul seem to really lock into each other’s songs, and Ringo is a delightful, stabilizing force.
That doesn’t mean the recording of Let It Be gets easy, but it does get easier. They are collaborating again, and you can practically see it on their faces that the four of them are remembering why they liked each other in the first place. There’s also the injection of a fifth player, Billy Preston, whose genius on electric piano is a welcome addition, as is his cheerful demeanor. At one point when Billy isn’t present, you can hear the band at least half-seriously considering asking Preston to join and become the true fifth Beatle. The mind reels at the thought of what the Beatles might have evolved into had they recorded more albums with Preston in tow. Thanks in part to Preston’s playing on the title track, portions of the song actually sound a little like Robbie Robertson and The Band.
For a brief stretch, the Beatles do become a band again, which makes knowing what happens next all the more painful. It’s a bit like re-watching Titanic and hoping for a different outcome: that the ship won’t hit the iceberg, split apart, and end in disaster.
As the band narrows its focus to just finishing the record and playing a set on the rooftop of the studio, the heartbreaking part is how close they all seem. The end of Get Back doesn’t feel like a band crumbling. If anything, it feels like a new beginning. After the rooftop performance, George Martin can be heard saying, “This is a good dry run for something else,” and the band seems to agree.
For a moment, that must have been true, but whatever magic they found at Apple Studios did not sustain them beyond Abbey Road—Let It Be became their last released studio album and the rooftop gig their last performance. Paul went on to write silly love songs. John had an oft-brilliant (if erratic) solo career, George produced the best solo album of them all and then drifted in and out of the music scene, and Ringo had a few hits of his own. But the truth is, they were all better together, and maybe, just maybe, they could have been better still had they stayed together.
I don’t want to linger too much on the tragedy of the band’s breakup, as they certainly produced plenty of great work over their eight-year recording career (13 LPs and numerous non-album singles), but even I, a person who is no Beatles apologist, felt wistful as the series closed out. My touch of sorrow was in part thinking of what we missed out on by their division, but also what they missed out on by fracturing their friendships. These were, after all, real people.
It should be noted that beyond all the history and sadness of “what could have been,” Get Back is a truly wonderful document about the often-grueling nature of creation. Many of the Beatles’ songs may sound like they must have come out of thin air—so light and ebullient are so many of their tunes—but Get Back shows just how hard it is to perfect (and Paul, at least, was certainly a perfectionist) and complete a great song. Let It Be is an album that contains far more Beatles classics than just the title track, including Dig A Pony, I Me Mine, Get Back, I’ve Got A Feeling, Two Of Us, Across the Universe, and The Long And Winding Road. (My favorite track from the sessions,, Don’t Let Me Down, didn’t even make the album, and was instead relegated to the B-side of the Get Back single). All of these songs are shown to be difficult births, but when the band finally locks all the tumblers into place, the joy of finding the song in full is absolutely levitational.
By my eyes and ears, The Long And Winding Road seemed to be the greatest struggle for the band to nail down. But nail it they did, in the end. Knowing what we do now, the sorrow isn’t just in the wistful notes and lyrics of the song, it is in knowing that the road is about to end for the Beatles.
As the song goes, “You left me standing here, a long long time ago.”
The Beatles: Get Back streams exclusively on Disney+.