A half-century ago, The Beatles reigned supreme in the heyday of AM radio and rec room hi-fi turntables. Like many youngsters who were another decade or so away from scoring a driver’s license, I lived and breathed in anticipation of hearing the newest release from the 20th century’s greatest musical group.
As a preteen listening to the album “Let It Be” — played ad nauseam in my bedroom in a cookie-cutter American suburb of Seattle, to be a fly on the wall of the studio where the original supergroup fashioned its iconic songs was my unattainable dream. The Beatles were superhuman and as mythical as Superman and Santa Claus.
These mythical characters were subject to the whims of mythmakers who had us believing a litany of half-truths and fantasies: Yoko Ono broke up the band — or was it Paul McCartney who callously left the group? The famously bonded members weren’t on speaking terms during the making of the “Get Back” album and recorded their contributions in separate studios.
None of that was true, as shown by the new, mesmerizing three-part, eight-hour docuseries, “Get Back,” now appearing on the Disney+ streaming channel. Director Peter Jackson’s stunning film dispels those suspicions while reacquainting millions of Beatles fans with the magic and charisma that drew them to the superband in the first place.
The series gives a more truthful and contextual retelling of the Beatles’ work composing, rehearsing and recording a dozen songs for their “Let It Be” album while at the same time serving as the protagonists of a cinema verite documentary originally shot by a two-camera crew under the direction of British filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Adding stress to the effort was the third leg of an overly ambitious project, all of which needed to be finished in a month: to perform their newly created songs in front of an audience for the first time in more than two years.
Jackson’s work was an unexpected revelation and offered Beatles devotees a joyous reunion with the rock group. While watching John Lennon and McCartney struggle to find the right wording for lines in “Get Back,” I found it akin to peering over the shoulder of William Shakespeare as he noodled over word placement while writing “Hamlet.”
To be fair, the docuseries would likely be an overindulgence for the casual Beatles fan and excruciatingly boring to a non-fan of a different generation. But it’s easy to see why the acclaimed director felt the need to expand his effort well beyond its planned two-hour running time. The source material, 60 hours of 16mm film, was too compelling to allow it to return, unaired, into the Apple vault for perhaps another 50 years.
Lindsay-Hogg’s “Let It Be” two-hour documentary, released in 1970 after The Beatles disbanded, was dour, dark and somber in its portrayal of the Fab Four’s rehearsal and recording sessions leading to the creation of the mega-band’s second-to-last album.
With just two hours, Lindsay-Hogg opted to play up the drama and emphasize the undercurrent of tension that existed within the Twickenham Film Studios and, later, in the small basement recording space at Apple Studios: most notably Paul’s tiff with George Harrison, who complains to the perfectionist McCartney that he’s doing the best he can to interpret Macca’s musical vision. The disagreement led to Harrison’s quiet withdrawal from the rehearsal and his temporary departure from the Beatles.
While drama abounds in Jackson’s series, the band members otherwise are in good cheer and predictably irreverent and funny (John names sound engineer Glyn Johns “Glynis” after British actress Glynis Johns). There are surprisingly few hissy fits and tantrums, considering the oppressive timeline they set for themselves to finish the joint album/concert project.
Based on a past urban legend, one might have imagined the four tripping over themselves in a drug-induced stupor. That’s not in evidence, although the boys are seen puffing on marijuana stogies throughout and pouring themselves an occasional scotch-and-Coke. And Ringo Starr is heard asking gofer Mal Evans to procure a couple of uppers for the evening as they leave the studio. Sadly, though, I viscerally reached out to the screen to knock Harrison’s omnipresent cigarette from his fingertips (a heavy smoker most of his life, he experienced an early death in 2001 from throat cancer).
Lindsay-Hogg’s 52-year-old film stock was painstakingly scanned frame-by-frame by Jackson’s New Zealand cinematic wizards, who cleaned and optimized the film, then reformatted it into spectacular digitally optimized high-definition footage. The Fab Four appear as vivid and alive in the restored film footage as they were in that turbulent decade. The few scenes showing their age included glimpses of Harrison’s funky neon-bright wardrobe and the now-antiquated four-track audio mixing equipment and recording system fit into the cramped Apple studio.
While it’s not evident that the supergroup is on the threshold of a breakup, observant viewers will see hints of the fractures that would soon divide them forever. The four possessed distinctly different personalities: Paul, the uniquely talented visionary with driving ambition and a singularly unyielding work ethic; John, renowned for his razor-sharp caustic wit, at turns humorous and silly in the footage, then withdrawn and uninvolved — but never the dour, nasty musician torturing his songwriting partner with curt, hurtful comments, as we’ve been led to believe. George is the intense musical tactician seen often frustrated with what he sees as Paul’s overbearing direction and John’s disinclination to champion his burgeoning songwriting talents. Then there’s Ringo: always affable, good-natured and the effortless master of the drum kit.
Behind the scenes, the erstwhile leader of the band — John — loosens his grip on the direction of the group through a combination of factors: his growing disinterest in the mechanics of songwriting and rehearsing, and his infatuation with Yoko Ono. And George’s newfound confidence in his talents is drawing him nearer to his own break from the band.
But on-camera, the fissures are opaque. Paul, long characterized during this time as overbearing, bossy, and interested only in advancing his own songs, instead is seen as playing the role of parental facilitator, gently prodding the boys to “get back” on task to compose new songs, refine lyrics and get them recorded.
John brightens when it comes time to record the group’s newly penned material. He is, after all, like the gifted athlete with an aversion to practicing who comes to life at gametime. Lennon isn’t the uninvolved, dour band member not on speaking terms with his songwriting partner. In Jackson’s docuseries, he is jovial, playful, silly and witty. His sarcastic wit is on display throughout and is often at Paul’s expense, although the barbs are gentle. When Glyn Johns, the studio engineer and erstwhile album producer, offers a back-handed compliment on “Dig A Pony,” George wryly offers, “We improve with time.” Then a smirking John chimes in with, “You’re not talking to Ricky & the Red Streaks, you know!”
Harrison was portrayed as distant and annoyed in the Lindsay-Hogg film, but he instead comes across in Jackson’s series as engaged, affable and involved — but conflicted. It’s evident he’s brimming with new music to share, but his frustration over failing to breach the Lennon-McCartney songwriting dam seems to have brought him near the boiling point.
Even the long-held, vaguely racist, misogynistic impression of Yoko as Lennon’s inscrutable, unsmiling Svengali gets a revision in the series. In Jackson’s film, Lennon’s dutiful lover is more observer than a disrupter. She’s a benign presence, more ignored than disdained by the others. She even animatedly chats up Linda Eastman, Paul’s girlfriend and future wife, about an unheard topic.
It’s at its most intense when a conversation between Lennon and McCartney is surreptitiously recorded by filmmakers, who positioned a hidden microphone in the cafeteria after the songwriting team excused themselves to hash out their differences and endeavor to bring Harrison back to the studio. There’s no shouting or recriminations; instead, they offer apologies and reflections on why their lead guitarist’s contributions had been minimized.
At the conclusion of the series, I found myself immensely drawn to these four titans of music history — especially for their humanity and love for one another. At its core, the series is a four-way love story. That love percolated during a formative time as they wrote music at each others’ homes, performed exhaustively throughout Britain, Europe and the world, and commiserated over assorted trials and tribulations on their way to stardom.
Most affecting is the obvious love shared between the songwriting team of Paul and John, two boys-turned-men who were spirit animals at heart. Paul wrote the song “Two of Us,” on the surface a tune about McCartney and girlfriend Linda. But in reality, it succinctly captures the songwriting team’s deep connection. The two awkwardly and embarrassingly rehearse the heartfelt ballad, with Paul affecting a German accent and John substituting word gibberish — seemingly to avoid disclosing their true feelings about their tight bond.
Like many love stories, this one has an ending that is foreshadowed in the series by a gnawing sense of heartbreak. That’s evidenced by a scene in which Paul and Ringo are slumped in chairs to ponder what the short departure of the disgruntled Harrison means to the group. Both men look shattered, and Paul is near tears during a poignant half-minute of silence.
Performing the music
For this Beatles devotee, the series truly shines when John, Paul, George and Ringo began recording. John’s unforgettable voice is riveting as he performs “Dig A Pony” and “Across the Universe.” His trademark nasal baritone is matched by Paul’s versatile, upper-register baritone on “Hey Jude,” “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be.” And George’s “I Me Mine” is stunning in its emotion and wordplay.
The series’ climatic ending featuring the iconic concert on the roof of Apple Studios is familiar territory for Beatles fans, but Jackson has included new footage taken on the street below and inside the Apple Studio lobby that adds context to the Fab Four’s performance.
The polite “Britishness” of the day is charmingly on display, especially by the London helmet-wearing bobbies who implored the office staff to “do something” so that the busy business district below the rooftop concert wouldn’t be further disturbed by the cacophony from above. One of the baby-faced police constables wondered aloud if the music couldn’t be dubbed in later for the film. A camera crew also captured the measured disapproval voiced by a couple of miffed, bowler-hat-wearing businessmen.
Little did they know, of course, that the rooftop concert would become an iconic symbol of an amazing decade of music and social change championed by that era’s seminal rock band.
Robert Smith is executive editor of the Kitsap News Group newspapers.