‘The Beatles: Get Back’ Captures the Fab Four’s Final Days in New Intimate Detail
Director Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” captures some of the Beatles’ final moments as a band in more vivid detail than ever seen before. Jackson originally intended to make a documentary film, but found his efforts delayed by the pandemic, and eventually turned the project into a three-part docuseries that spans nearly eight hours. While that might seem like a hefty running time, the final cut was distilled from a staggering 60 hours of restored, unseen footage shot in January 1969 by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, along with 150 hours of unheard audio. The selected footage chronicles the 21 days in which the band recorded their final album, “Let It Be,” with each episode covering a week. The first installment, “Part 1: Days 1-7,” premieres on Thanksgiving day and runs 157 minutes. The second episode, “Part 2: Days 8-14,” arrives Nov. 26 and clocks in at 173 minutes. And, the final component, which begins streaming Nov. 27, is a modest 138 minutes and culminates in the Beatles’ last live performance as a group on the rooftop of London’s Savile Row, captured for the first time in its entirety. Paul, Ringo, John’s wife, Yoko Ono, and George’s wife, Olivia Harrison, are all credited as producers, lending a meaningful stamp of approval to this unprecedentedly intimate portrait of the band’s final days. The primary appeal of the docuseries lies in its candid, unhurried portrait of the band at a stage that has long been misunderstood. Left to their own devices, with the cameras running, the Fab Four work through new songs while finding solace in their earliest material, and reveal growing tensions while more often than not subverting them through a collective joy found in the music.
The first episode begins with an intro sequence that begins with black and white photos of the band’s skiffle beginnings, quickly skips to the peak of Beatlemania, with moptops and packed stadiums of hysterical girls, on to the psychedelic era, with pilgrimages to India and all the works. In a flash, it all cuts squarely to the studio where we remain for roughly seven hours, before moving to the rooftop of the band’s final concert. From the onset, the footage is invaluable simply for how well it captures the moment. The wardrobe and lighting couldn’t scream more of 1969, and for once, the sustained exposure to the band and crew allows the imagery of the era to come to life. The band members quickly establish their distinct personalities, in a way that largely confirms to fable, but rounds off and redresses it. Paul is, at this point, easily the dominant figure among the four, affably but decisively leading the way throughout the recorded sessions. John is very much at the forefront, but noticeably departed in spirit, although a glow frequently comes over him as he works his way through arrangements with Paul. George resides at the fringe, with a slightly troubled, fragile aura, while Ringo is every bit the jovial, conciliatory presence that provided regular comic relief in films like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”
Meanwhile, Yoko sits still and sullen behind a wall of hair, amusing herself in various ways, eating chicken, knitting, occasionally dancing to the music. One touching moment finds her joining John in a slow dance as George presents his template for “I Me Mine.” It’s notable that her presence, while curious, never comes across as abrasive, and makes one reconsider the legend of the band’s breakup. Among the other colorful characters that make their way into the film is Mukunda Goswami, the band’s spiritual advisor, who can be seen meditating while the band plays in the first episode. Peter Sellers appears, chatting with the band and crew in between takes, in the second installment. Linda Eastman, who would marry Paul, is present for a fair share of the footage, and her daughter Heather steals the show for a portion of the final episode, singing into mics in a baby voice and playing the drums with Ringo. Virtuoso keyboardist Billy Preston joins the band in the final sessions and palpably livens the overall mood.
“Get Back” gives an inner look into the discord that characterized the band at this stage, but provides a far more well-rounded picture than fans have come to expect. A key moment occurs when the band is practicing “Get Back,” and Paul criticizes a particular chord. He asks John where they originally found it, and John readily responds with Booker T & the MGs’ “Green Onions.” Paul says the chord passé and calls to change it, to George’s protest. The following day, George quits the band. We find Paul openly addressing the crew, reflecting on the band’s tenuous state. He preemptively dismisses the emergent narrative surrounding Yoko’s disruptive influence, and emphasizes the need for all parties to be willing to compromise. We are treated to audio from a hidden mic, capturing a conversation between John and Paul that afternoon. The tone is bittersweet and fractured, but still driven by good will and shared passion.
The true highlights of the footage come from the moments of levity when the band is performing. Fortunately, these moments are so abundant that they ultimately eclipse the rifts that appear elsewhere, and leave a lasting impression of joyful musical camaraderie. The amount of footage that finds the band working through “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Two of Us” is a bit exhausting, although it’s full of enjoyable moments. The band’s first attempts at the former song are surprisingly uncertain, and quickly devolve into tomfoolery, with Paul and John modifying the lyrics to “Everybody had a hard-on.” A few bits like this made their way into the “Anthology,” particularly its second volume, in extended sessions of songs like “You Know My Name,” but never has the extent to which the Beatles fooled around in session been properly captured. There’s a take of “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” in which Paul and John ad-lib in the spoken word section, and crack each other up. “Two of Us” is delivered in countless comical voices and accents. We see Paul struggle to make the line “I am in love for the first time of my life,” from “Oh My Love,” sound “less corny.” Whenever the music gets particularly jazzy, Ringo springs up and breaks into dance. At one point, Paul reflects seriously about how one can see the full spectrum of written music within the keys of a piano, then breaks into the intro of “Martha My Dear,” only for Ringo to join him with a surprise, jokey piano addition. Finally, we see the band repeatedly return to the old rock ‘n’ roll numbers that characterized their earliest output — songs like “One After 909,” Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” and Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” — laughing and smiling all the way through the tunes.
The docuseries culminates in the Beatles’ full final rooftop concert. It’s thrilling to hear the band confidently run through their new arrangements after laboring over them for hours. You can see them look at each other in elation at certain moments, especially during “I’ve Got a Feeling.” After all of the buildup, there could hardly be a better final triumph than the complete footage of the Fab Four’s last performance. A good portion of the concert footage is presented in split screens with other cameras capturing the reactions of the unsuspecting pedestrians below. Their sentiments generally range from mild amusement to downright annoyance, with a fair share of bewilderment directed to the band’s choice to perform on a rooftop. In the end, the lukewarm reception validates the ambivalence that characterized the near eight hours of footage, suggesting that perhaps the Beatles were finally beyond their prime. At any rate, they went out on a high note, literally beaming from rooftops, and “The Beatles: Get Back” captures these final moments in all of their drama, passion, mirth and mystique.
“The Beatles: Get Back” Episode 1 begins streaming Nov. 25, Episode 2 begins streaming Nov. 26 and Episode 3 begins streaming Nov. 27 on Disney+.