TV Review: The Beatles: Get Back

Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, has finally launched in Hong Kong and just in time for local Beatles fans too. Peter Jackson’s three-part, nearly eight-hour documentary series on the Fab Four’s 1969 studio sessions and rooftop concert that resulted in the Abbey Road and Let It Be albums dropped at the same time — no small coincidence, I’m sure. Like the director’s previous documentary, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, THE BEATLES: GET BACK is nothing short of stupendous.

Taken from 60 hours of film footage and over 150 hours of audio tapes recorded by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in January 1969, most of which sat in a vault unseen for 50 years, Jackson has given audiences a front-row seat to watch the Beatles create, refine and perform some of their biggest hits including the eponymous “Get Back”, “The Long and Winding Road”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Dig a Pony”, “Across the Universe” and “Let It Be”. Following the group’s internal strife during the production of their White Album, Paul came up with the idea to create a television documentary of them writing and recording a new album which would be capped off with a live performance somewhere — something the group hadn’t done in a few years. Lindsay-Hogg, who had directed music videos for both them and the Rolling Stones, was hired to film the project. The sessions began at Twickenham Film Studios right after the new year but problems started rearing their heads almost immediately. The studio was cavernous, which made for lousy acoustics, but more importantly, there was palpable passive-aggressive tension between the lads — particularly between Paul on one side and John and George on the other. Only Ringo remained a cool cucumber throughout. John, who was now married to Yoko, wasn’t contributing to the writing process as much as he had done in the past, leaving Paul to pick up the slack, and George and Ringo’s compositions, “Something” and “Octopus’s Garden” respectively, were quickly dismissed by Paul, who offered them no creative input. As George confided privately to John, he had about 20 songs ready to go. If he would only be allowed his usual two songs per album, it would be at least ten years before they would all be released. He suggested to John that perhaps they should all be allowed to record their own albums and then come back together as the Beatles from time to time. Though John agreed, this was something that Paul was against, though now he says that in retrospect this was a good idea. Just 15 months after these sessions, the Beatles were no more.

Lindsay-Hogg’s film, called LET IT BE, was released in May 1970, just after that album’s release, and it was mostly met with negative reviews even though it later won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. It was essentially a string of the group performing their songs from the album with heavy camera emphasis placed on Paul’s bearded face. (One has to wonder if Lindsay-Hogg was secretly infatuated with Paul.) It also seemed to support the commonly held belief that Yoko broke up the band as she attended the sessions everyday sitting inches away from John. The film ended with their lunchtime concert on the rooftop of Apple’s office on Savile Row in London.

Jackson’s version provides audiences with a day-by-day account of those sessions, which included plenty of banter — most, but not all, of it good-natured, why they decided to shift venues from Twickenham to Apple’s studio, how keyboardist Billy Preston came to be in their sessions, their uncertainty over where or even if the concert would take place, and Yoko’s presence, which was pretty much shrugged off by the others. Yes, it’s weird that she was there everyday, especially as there is also plenty of footage of Linda Eastman (who was not yet married to Paul at the time) sitting on the sidelines, but John and Yoko were in love and they wanted to be near each other as much as possible. What may be the most interesting for viewers is watching the group’s creative process at work. “Get Back” starts out as a musical riff in Paul’s head. He plays it for the guys who then join in. Not having any lyrics at this point, he “la-la-las” the melody and all the notes can be heard before the words “Get back” pop out of his mouth. Paul then thinks that the song can be a satire on the political situation in the UK regarding South Asian immigrants and, with that, the rest of the lyrics start to gel. When they were trying to figure out what word to place before “Arizona”, I was screaming at my screen, “Tucson! It’s Tucson!” This documentary is very immersive! You may, however, wish you never hear “Get Back” again by the time it’s all over.

Equally interesting for viewers is the rooftop concert, and Jackson provides audiences with all 42 minutes of it. Lindsay-Hogg only provided audiences with three songs, leading everyone who either wasn’t on the roof or wasn’t looking up from the street that day to believe that the concert only lasted a few minutes. Jackson also devotes quite a bit of time on the four policemen who were called to the scene following noise complaints from the neighbouring offices. Using the audio from the microphones that Lindsay-Hogg hid all throughout the building, we now know who said what and much of it is quite amusing as the staff at Apple Corps try to keep the police from shutting the concert down.

Like THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, THE BEATLES: GET BACK is a technical achievement. The footage is so stunningly crisp that it’s hard to believe it’s over 50 years old. It’s as if the Beatles never got old or, sadly, never died so young. If you’ve seen LET IT BE, you know how dark and fuzzy the images are. (Word is that this film will be remastered as well.) The sound quality is just as impressive. Jackson has said in a few interviews that his team created an algorithm to learn what a guitar sounds like and what drums sound like so they could strip these sounds away from the audio, leaving just the voices. It’s absolute genius! As Disney has classified the documentary as a TV series and not a movie, it will no doubt be nominated for a number of Emmys, and Jackson will be able to add a few of those statuettes to his cache of three Oscars.

Final word — Keep your eyes out for Alan Parsons, who worked as an assistant engineer on both albums. ’70s and’ 80s music fans will surely remember the Alan Parsons Project and their biggest hit, “Eye In the Sky”. That’s him. Peter Sellers (THE PINK PANTHER films) also makes a brief appearance at Twickenham.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK is available now on Disney+. It’s a must-see, and not just for Beatles fans.

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