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'Get Back' Review: Peter Jackson opens up a glorious Beatles time portal

'Get Back' - Peter Jackson

For 50 long years, audiences, critics and The Beatles were led to believe that the rehearsals that led to Let It Be were the ones that ended the band. In the intervening years, all four members recalled the difficulties they experienced during the making of the film, whether it was George Harrison’s attempts to acquiesce to Paul McCartney’s designs, or whether it was John Lennon recalling his disgust at the shabby treatment his beloved Yoko Ono endured during the recording of the band’s final album.

But alongside the myths that rose from the recording sessions came an altogether more insidious story about Lennon and his predilection for happiness, haughtiness and heroin. In his book on the songwriting guitarist, Albert Goldman pictured Lennon as a self-serving egotist incapable of appreciating the musical genius McCartney had in spades. And then there’s Ringo Starr, a man who supposedly watched his three best friends rip each other alive, hopelessly holding onto the emblems of The Beatles’ rocket. This has, perhaps unsurprisingly, become shorthand with the intricacies that held the band afloat, but fuelled by their anger, authors spun another truth that simplified the group’s creative process into a convoy of explanations and tidy answers. Lennon, it seems, played lead guitar on ‘Get Back’ because Harrison refused to attend a week of rehearsals. McCartney, we’re told, drove the band bananas by constantly over-rehearsing songs he wasn’t overly fond of himself. And then there was Starr, praying that the arguments might end, and he could go back to drumming. 

And yet, when The Beatles reissued Let It Be under the tidier name ‘Naked’ in 2003, they enclosed an additional disc of chatter, dispelling many of the rumours that the band weren’t getting along during this period. From that moment, more petitions emerged, begging the two surviving Beatles to reconsider the footage that lay within their vaults. Finally, they gave Peter Jackson (now enjoying a creative wind, having lovingly restored footage of World War I soldiers in the excellent They Shall Not Get Old) the green light to sift through the hours of footage to piece together a companion piece to the altogether misunderstood 1970 cut. 

For what Jackson brings isn’t necessarily context or closure, but nuance and clarity, delving into a portrait that is ripe with energy and bursting with potential. We are, as Lindsay-Hogg points out (the original director appears onscreen many times throughout the series), delving with four 28-year-olds (“Baby George”, Starr chuckles), three of them acting as fathers offscreen. When they arrive at Twickenham Studios, the band walk in separately, and by the time McCartney – sporting a tasty beard – arrives, the other three are engaged in a rollicking jam. After a few moments of laughter – as there is much laughter throughout the three episodes – the band decide to talk to Lindsay-Hogg as to how they proceed during the next two weeks. 

Lindsay-Hogg hopes they will play in Libya, as he recognises the cinematic potential that a torchlit gig in front of “two thousand Arabs” holds. McCartney seems less sure but feels that the band had better keep working while they are renting out a hall space. Harrison throws in some suggestions – demonstrating the lick to Beatles For Sale highlight ‘Every Little Thing’ – before offering a couple of vignettes of his own. And then we arrive at that fracas: “I’ll play what you want me to play”. It isn’t the sight of two bickering artists but four hungry men, aching to leave the sessions on a more pleasant note. Indeed, the first episode is all about boredom, beatdowns and burnout, as the episode ends with Harrison walking out on the band. His resignation is captured on screen, although the camera crew are gracious enough to switch the equipment off as he leaves the stage. 

The second episode opens on a more sombre note, as McCartney, engaged in conversation with Lindsay-Hogg, ruminates on the possible end of the group. Harrison, it seems, is uneager to come back, and Lennon appears to enjoy the company of Ono to that of his bandmates. It’s to McCartney’s credit that he does point out “she’s great”, yet the sadness emerges in a single tear, resting behind those brown, puppy dog eyes. When Lennon does show up, he’s in buoyant form, and the trio decides to work on ‘Get Back’, a rock number they have written specifically for the stage. Although possibly under the influence of a drug more potent than cannabis, Lennon is lucid and very, very funny, even upstaging Peter Sellers when the Pink Panther star drops in for a chat. Invariably, the three men realise that without their fourth comrade, they might as well pack it in, and the quartet decide to decamp to Apple Studios, where they have invested in equipment, infrastructure and waiting staff. 

The Beatles in the studio. (Credit: Get Back / Disney)

What the studio brings isn’t just familiarity but unity, as the band rehearse with greater vigour than before. They sound more relaxed, and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, Lennon’s unvarnished expression of liberation and love, finally falls into place. Even the curmudgeonly Harrison agrees that the change of venue works better for them, and he feels an improvement in his guitar playing: “My hand is getting looser,” he comments. Although Lindsay-Hogg won’t get the “2,000 Arabs” he was hoping for, he does suggest another finale to McCartney, and it’s one the band (yes, even Harrison) are in favour of: the rooftop of Apple Studios.  

All goes well until McCartney begins to prevaricate. They have, it seems, spent three weeks recording, and only a handful of numbers have been prepared. Should they postpone? Responding with heroic gumption, Starr says he wants to play, and the band falls into line. Once the drums kick in and the guitars chime, McCartney feels sufficiently relaxed to sing ‘Get Back’ to the crowd underneath. 

While McCartney flits between anxiety and elation, Lennon is strangely more relaxed, frequently mimicking the voices of his dissenters, in piercing, almost Pythonesque, voices. Harrison, meanwhile, suggests that he might be interested in recording a solo album, feeling that it might strengthen their collective bond if they work on solo projects, as well as band albums. Yet it is Starr who comes across best of all. In the 50 years since he left the band, he’s been cruelly painted as a yes man, lucky enough to play the drums for Lennon and McCartney. Instead, he emerges from the documentary as a well-rounded individual, carefully measuring the beat to every song, silently walking away from the more difficult conversations to construct a rational answer. Like the other Beatles, he has a life outside of the orbit and hopes to work on a comedy, The Magic Christian, in the weeks after The Beatles have completed what they think is going to be a television special. Unlike McCartney, he doesn’t care whether or not the material will hold up with past achievements – he just wants to play. And when they do go up to perform, Lennon peers back at the drummer to count him in for the impending vocal. 

Complete with crystal clear footage, the remastered shots breathe new life into a period many later conceded as lifeless. In many ways, the footage holds up precisely because we know what happens next: Ono and Lennon hug to the news of her divorce, giving them the chance to marry; McCartney brings his stepdaughter Heather into rehearsals, regaling her with songs and embraces; while Harrison works on the words to ‘Something’, which would go on to become the most fondly remembered tune in his canon. 

Emerging from these panels isn’t the sight of four men giving up but growing up, as each goes on to realise that there’s more to life than The Beatles. But tellingly missing from their lives is the presence of a father figure, or an objective adult, guiding them to this point of realisation. In the absence of Brian Epstein (the band’s manager, who died in 1967), the band find themselves growing further apart, and McCartney, in particular, aches for a role model to tell him where to go next. It doesn’t help that the band can’t decide who is producing the album, however. At the time, Glyn Johns and George Martin were acting as co-producers, although Phil Spector would also contribute, altering many of the songs in post-production. Nor does it help that the band don’t quite understand the purpose of the rehearsals. 

As always, the band cobbled together a body of rejected work that makes up McCartney, All Things Must Pass and Imagine, albums that typified their standings in the 1970s. For the moment they leave each other’s grasp, the artists (notably Lennon) begin to flounder creatively, none of them reaching the heights they climbed together. The minute Lennon left for America, much of his fire dissipated, as was heard on the meandering nothingness of Mind Games. The minute The Beatles broke up, McCartney struggled to regain his lyrical muse, as was heard on the unfocused meanderings of Red Rose Speedway. And when Harrison finally found the courage to return to the live stage, it was under duress and not even the presence of Billy Preston – the keyboardist who joined The Beatles on ‘Get Back’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – helped soften the blows levelled at him from the American press. Like Starr, they all felt better when they were playing in The Beatles-even if it meant playing a ram-shackled set on the top of a recording studio in London. 

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