As he’s been making the promotional rounds for The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson has been careful to stress that the documentary is just that: a portrait of real life. Still, the series can’t help but take on narrative qualities, whether it’s through how the editing shows off the individuals involved and their personalities or by the direct words said.
Ultimately, Get Back plays off like a great fictional soap opera, even though the events are happening in real life. There are different arcs, different narratives, and different conflicts that drive the “plot”: get an album, a TV show, and a live performance written and recorded in one month. The structure gives each of The Beatles a different character to play. Paul McCartney becomes the no-nonsense leader, John Lennon becomes the aloof dissenter, George Harrison becomes the put upon younger brother searching for his own voice, and Ringo Starr becomes the calm presence trying to hold it all together.
In life, there are no true “winners” and “losers”. But in narratives there sure are, and for all its attempts to focus on the objective truth, Get Back can’t help but fall into a narrative that eventually comes out with winners and losers. So we’ve taken a look at who looks the best and who comes off the worst at the end of the nearly eight-hour long docu-series.
Here are the winners and losers of The Beatles: Get Back:
Winner: The Beatles
This isn’t crowning any of the individual Beatles themselves, but rather the greater cultural monolith that is The Beatles. It’s hard to get any bigger than the Fab Four, but the Get Back series once again repositions the band at the centre of the pop culture universe.
With memes, clips, and quotes flying across social media, and a generally positive reception for the project, The Beatles are once again the most important musicians in the world. Waves of nostalgia always tend to loop back to The Beatles, but with Get Back, the band are likely kickstarting another revival of interest in their legendary discography.
In its original form, Get Back was going to be a two-hour documentary that was going to have to make tough decisions about what to include and what to leave on the cutting room floor. Instead, Peter Jackson decided to multiply the runtime by four, cut it into three pieces, and distribute it as a mini-series instead.
This is a loss for editing as a concept since there are long stretches of the series where almost literally nothing happens for minutes on end, but a win for the rest of us because we get to see as much of The Beatles and their creative process as we’ve ever seen. Get Back would certainly have been a better casual viewing experience with additional cuts, but the project benefits as a whole thanks to Jackson’s maximalist approach.
Winner: Let It Be the album
The standing of the Let It Be album within the discography of The Beatles has always been a somewhat sour issue. With production overdubs by Phil Spector and infamous dissension to the final product by Paul McCartney, Let It Be was often met with critical disdain and sharp disapproval from some corners of the band’s fandom for a number of years.
Get Back serves the album well simply by spending so much time with it: you grow an appreciation for ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ after hearing the band struggle through it over and over, and the acoustic breakthrough of ‘Two of Us’ gives off the same feeling as a last-second win by a sports team. Let It Be is more rugged and difficult than most of the band’s albums (minus The White Album), but Get Back makes a solid case for it as an underrated gem.
Winner: George Harrison’s treasure trove
One of the main narratives of the series involves George Harrison’s evolution as a songwriting equal with his bandmates. The only problem is that John Lennon and Paul McCartney rarely give songs like ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ any real attention, content to throw their own half baked ideas out and ignoring the deep list of newly penned Harrison classics.
The most egregious part of the entire production is Lennon’s admission that they’re hitting “a crisis point” where neither he nor McCartney have enough songs. Meanwhile, George floats the idea of putting out a solo record while staying in The Beatles, sadly confirming the notion that his contributions always came with a cap no matter the quality or quantity.
Loser: John Lennon’s indifference
Throughout the documentary, occasional glimpses of the legendary John Lennon that the world knows comes out: the humour and quick wit, the rock star performer on the roof, the impassioned songwriter of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. But more often than not it’s Lennon’s absence, both physical and mental, that defines him throughout the series.
When he’s late, McCartney writes ‘Get Back’. When he’s there, he’s barely paying attention and ripping off early rock and roll numbers rather than improving his own material. Lennon was going through drug addiction and personal upheaval during this time, but his lack of interest in anything involving the band is the most frustrating part of the series.
Winner: Paul McCartney’s Type-A personality
If anyone was in danger of coming off as the villain within the band during Get Back, it was Paul McCartney. He was the captain of the ship going into waters that no one else really wanted to go into, but the film actually does more to highlight the necessity of having someone like McCartney at the helm.
He’s respectful of Yoko Ono, willing to indulge in the listless experiments and jams, and the only member of the band offering up solutions to their problems. He’s not always right, and it’s easy to sympathise with Harrison when he gets chippy, but ultimately it’s clear that McCartney’s slightly domineering personality kept the band afloat.
Winner: ‘Octopus’s Garden’
Part of the joy of watching Get Back is that you not only see the creation of the Let It Be album, but also the creation of most of the follow-up, Abbey Road, as well. ‘Something’, ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’, ‘Carry That Weight’ and ‘Oh! Darling’ are all featured in their nascent stages throughout the documentary.
However, the best early glimpse of a song in progress is seeing Ringo Starr showing the band his new song, ‘Octopus’s Garden’. The scene where Starr and Harrison work on the song’s chord structure might actually be the greatest example of productivity and collaboration throughout the entire series.
Loser: Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Michael Lindsay-Hogg is the reason why we have any of this footage in the first place, and he should be commended for being the Paul McCartney of the film crew: trying desperately to scrape together some level of commitment to a live performance.
But the clear disdain for the director from nearly everyone in the room with him only adds to the already tense atmosphere, and his inability to place even a single camera on Billy Preston during the band’s rooftop performance is inexcusable.
Winner: George Martin
Let It Be wound up having three producers attached to it: Glyn Johns was the original man behind the mixing desk, while Phil Spector came in later to solidify the release. But it’s George Martin’s presence – or like Lennon his lack of presence – that ultimately speaks volumes.
Always on the periphery ready to help, Martin ships the band equipment and guides the band’s working style, giving his opinion on the song’s arrangements when asked, even though the band are purposefully trying to create without him. The idea that Martin was the man most directly responsible for The Beatles music outside of the four members themselves is confirmed by Get Back, as the band look completely lost without his guidance.
Loser: Hare Krishna
George Harrison looks to be the most well-balanced of the three guitar players, but his insistence on letting members of the Hare Krishna movement silently sit in on the band’s Twickenham rehearsals is one of the stranger and less comfortable elements that ultimately add to the negative vibes that Harrison keeps going on about. Shooting yourself in the foot a bit there, George.
Loser: Peter Sellers
It’s understandable that Starr’s co-star in The Magic Christian probably caught the band during a low-ebb, but the fact that Peter Sellers seems absolutely bored out of his mind when he’s hanging out with The Beatles is mind-boggling.
Even at their worst, all the people involved in the production understand how monumental it is to be around the band at this point in time. Sellers is the only one who doesn’t seem to see what all the fuss is about, and that’s his loss because even being around The Beatles while they’re shooting the shit is a dream held by roughly 90% of the global populace. Sellers makes it seem like a chore.
Winner: Billy Preston
The prevailing idea that had surrounded Let It Be for a number of years was that Billy Preston simply walked in the room and magically changed everything for the better. What Get Back shows is that… this is precisely the truth.
Even if you were well-read on Preston’s monster musicianship and gregarious nature prior to the series, it’s hard to overstate just how sizable his impact is on the recording sessions. He pretty much single-handedly rescued the project and probably deserved that place in the band that Lennon seemed eager to give him.
Winner: Marmite and Toast
Who would have thought that the secret to keeping The Beatles running was excessive amounts of bread and butter? That, plus dozens of cups of tea and about a million cigarette breaks.