The Beatles: Get Back and the magic of seeing chords turn into hymns
FILMED in January 1969, the documentary Let It Be follows the Beatles rehearsing and recording songs for their 12th studio album of the same name. It also includes footage from the group’s legendary rooftop concert, which would be their last public performance together.
The reaction to the film was lukewarm at the time. The British Film Institute’s Monthly Cinema Bulletin considered it “rather tedious” and the response to the backing album did not work out any better. Writing on the New Musical Express, journalist Alan Smith said the record would be a “cheap epitaph, a cardboard gravestone, a sad and faded end” to a sparkling and landmark musical career.
But now, a new documentary series from director Peter Jackson has reimagined the film in three long, detailed segments. Thanks to a multitude of never-before-seen footage, Mr. Jackson’s film sheds new light on this period and the group.
Pre-advertisement for the To recover The project focused on the work that had gone into restoring the original images.
The kinds of painstaking technical processes that WingNut (Mr. Jackson’s production company) go through are typical of remastered movies and music. These techniques are a key way to market old equipment reconditioning. With an autonomy of eight hours, the immense extent of To recover conforms to the contemporary penchant for extremely long movies, forgiving director cuts, and expanded LP box sets containing multiple song versions.
In all of these areas, “more” is synonymous with “better”. However, with Get Back, the initially impressive brilliance of the restoration project quickly fades as the real fascination lies in the raw and intimate images of the original project.
We can see So be it in the continuity of the beautiful tradition of the cinema verite, of documentaries which sought to represent the truth as objectively as possible. With music documentaries, this tradition began with DA Pennebaker’s 1967 film Bob Dylan. Do not look back followed by Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers and Michael Wadleigh Woodstock (both in 1970).
In To recover, the whistle preamble provided by Mr. Jackson, the labeling of every song played (even the ephemeral), and the contextual historical information that frames the band for a modern audience are all nice touches. But it’s the raw excitement of the original footage that really makes the movie soar.
That’s because this side of the story also sheds new light on what was initially remembered as a depressing watch – the Beatles bickering and stammering toward a final breakup. As he watched hours of filmed footage, Mr. Jackson saw a more positive and warm image of the group emerge. This is reflected in the never-before-seen sequences where the band laughs and laughs and good humor and encouragement, rather than arguments, shape the mood.
The So be it album project (also originally titled Get Back) arose in early 1969 from the ashes of the recent White album. As writers Roy Carr and Tony Tyler noted, the White album “Indicated the Beatles’ demise as a band… on this LP they act like each other’s session men. “
This idea of the Beatles fading away as a cohesive unit and writing more as individuals is something I also explore in my own book on the LP. But it would seem that the desire with the original Get Back was to go back to a more common way of creating songs, jamming, and improvising towards a final version that wasn’t encumbered by the deception of recording studios.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Get Back is the magical evolution of a song from a few chords and snippets of lyrics to a complex arrangement. The song “Get Back” itself is a prime example. Developing a few chords on bass from Paul McCartney, the song’s journey through the film culminates in a full-fledged triumphal version in the famous Rooftop Sequence that concludes both films. For Beatles obsessives and less devoted viewers alike, the chance to spy on how pop songs are actually made – a normally secret and mysterious process – is eye-opening.
Get Back, although divided into three episodes, is eight hours long, which can be intimidating for many viewers. While it would have been nice to see this documentary on the big screen, the streaming allowed Mr. Jackson this length. I think it was a deliberate choice by Mr. Jackson to completely immerse the viewer in the slowness of the production of great pop songs.
The famous rooftop concert, seen from any angle, is truly magnificent, a “brilliant hour of absolute extreme excitement” as Beatles publicist Derek Taylor put it. Publicists tend to exaggerate, but in this case the description is right, the mundane nature of the performance (especially after all the great talk about concerts in Arabian deserts and on cruise ships) demonstrating that these are often things simple which can mean so much.
The purpose of the album was to allow The Beatles to “go back” to their deep roots as a performing band. As this dream faded, it became “let it be” – an expression of resignation and closure. Now, with Mr. Jackson’s version, Get Back means something different again; a return to the original project but also to the Beatles and their legacy, which, well in the 21st century and with the help of this film, still seems firmly assured.
Mark Goodall is Senior Lecturer in Film and Media, University of Bradford