Photo Credit: Disney+
In 1963, the same year that the Beatles first became a phenomenon in the UK and Europe, Kurt Vonnegut published the novel Cat’s Cradle. In the book, the protagonist ultimately discovers that the founder of the religion that he follows devoutly is, and always was, just a man. This is sort of the feeling that one gets while watching The Beatles: Get Back, the three-part, eight-hour-plus documentary that debuted on the Disney+ streaming service in late November. Set almost entirely in rehearsal and recording studios, we watch (and listen) at length as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr strive and even struggle to create songs little by little, having to endure disagreements, setbacks, and other frustrations along the way. While the results (the songs themselves) couldn’t have been anyone but the Beatles, the four of them sitting in a circle with their instruments hour after hour trying to come up with something “good” could have been just about any group of musicians.
As the series opens in January of 1969, it’s been several years since the Beatles have ceased touring. Working almost exclusively in the recording studio has allowed them to create some of the most indispensable music of their careers (or anyone’s), but also leads to feelings that they’ve lost touch with their roots (particularly as their previous LP, known as The White Album, had been done largely with each member isolated from the others in the studio). They set out to remedy this with a series of new songs to be all recorded live with no overdubs or studio effects.
The specific goal is to write fourteen new songs that will be ready in time for a TV special, on which they’ll star, just two weeks later. Early in the first episode Get Back labels this a “daunting task,” which proves accurate: unable to come up with that much material in such a short time, the Beatles revisit some songs that they had written many years earlier before they even had a record deal. There’s even talk of resorting to cover tunes, which has Harrison commenting: “Some other people’s songs are much better than ours” (an assessment which only an actual Beatle would be permitted to make).
The Beatles also commission a film crew, intending to use the footage for the special. After the TV project is postponed and then ultimately abandoned, a feature film tentatively becomes the new aim. The resulting movie, Let It Be, would be released theatrically in 1970 to a mostly negative response. Following brief availability on home video formats in the early ’80s, the film would end up as the Beatle equivalent of The Star Wars Holiday Special, available widely but only as a bootleg (in the 2000s the two surviving members of the band were even rumored to have blocked its official re-release, although McCartney has denied this). Not to mention that at Let It Be’s scant eighty minutes, Get Back is testimony to the movie only utilizing a fraction of the available footage.
Several occurrences in Get Back, while hardly revelations to Beatles fans, could have been major twists right out of a twenty-first-century reality show: Harrison quits the band at the end of episode one, and there’s talk of replacing him with Eric Clapton (who never appears; Harrison returns just days later). Keyboardist Billy Preston is called into the studio under the pretense of just hanging out and then is asked to play on the sessions, which in turn leads to a discussion of asking him to join the group as a full-fledged Beatle (an idea ultimately rejected).
Yet quite in contrast to modern reality TV, the potentially most sensationalist aspects of the whole thing never transpire. Although she rarely leaves John’s side in Get Back, Yoko Ono seems nowhere near as intrusive as history has typically painted her. At one point the band laughs over a newspaper article claiming – inaccurately – that arguments between the Beatles have ended in fisticuffs. While conventional wisdom says that Lennon and McCartney were barely speaking by this point, they’re frequently seen joking, carousing, and generally getting on like they were still the best mates that they first became as teenagers in Liverpool. However, Get Back definitely delivers on a climax, which in this case comes in the form of the legendary unannounced rooftop performance that the band gave in London on January 30, 1969.
Get Back was put together from the extensive fifty-two-year-old footage by Oscar-winning New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson, who’s known for elongating properties that don’t necessarily need it (i.e. remaking King Kong at double the length of the original or turning the 300-ish page children’s book The Hobbit into three movies totaling more than seven hours). And there are times when Get Back might seem like too much of a good thing. Nearly all two-and-a-half hours of the first installment are set in the small studio space, giving the episode an almost My Dinner with Andre-like feel. Then there are those scenes like a business meeting with the group’s music publisher, which will only be of interest to hardcore Beatles fans.
But that description doesn’t exclude very many people, which is why Jackson is said to be prepping an eighteen-hour version (and then we still might not be finished, as sixty hours of footage are said to exist). But with this current version of Get Back alone we might never look at the Beatles the same way again… and that’s a good thing. Another science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, once said that magic is just science we don’t yet understand. After watching Get Back, we all understand the Beatles – more than half a century after their breakup – a bit better, but the magic hasn’t waned in the slightest.