The acrimonious end to The Beatles is one of the most-documented areas of rock ‘n roll history with endless books, articles and documentaries dedicated to the Fab Four in the late 1960s. The traditional narrative is that the bond that had once united the lads from Liverpool to become the biggest band in the world had begun to fray, and indeed during this period had become so damaged that there was an inevitability about the band’s break-up.
This portrait of troubled times in the group was captured by the release of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film Let It Be, which chronicled through fly-on-the-wall footage the making of the band’s album of the same name and includes video of the famous final concert atop the Apple Building in London.
So it’s perhaps a surprise when you watch Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, which is made from footage from the same session and includes edits from 50-plus hours of previously unseen film of the band as they prepare for a live show and to record a new album. Although this three-part epic of a documentary includes tension and friction, an inseparable John and Yoko, walk-outs and bickering that we would expect from the era, the underlying feeling is one of a group of young men and friends doing what they do best – making music.
Peter Jackson, the man who filmed the unfilmable by bringing Lord of the Rings to life on cinema screens and more recently brought the soldiers of the First World War into our living rooms in technicolour with the astounding 2018 film They Shall Not Grow Old, has worked his magic again – not just documenting a period in time, but immersing the viewer in the era.
You have never seen The Beatles like this. This film makes you feel as if you are in the room with the band 50 years ago, as it was then – they’re in their 20s smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, making jokes, swearing, discussing their future and making small talk. As a viewer you’re not sure whether to feel like you are intruding on conversations that perhaps you shouldn’t be party to, or that you have by some magic become the fifth Beatle. This feeling of ‘being there’ is amplified by the pace of proceedings, which can only be described as a Long and Winding Road.
Although there is an overarching objective to make an album and do a show, long periods of the film involve just hanging around the band as they chat with each other at length and try out musical ideas again and again. Most big fans of the band will find this a fascinating insight into the relationships between the four, with nerdy musical insights into the foundations of many of the songs that ended up on the album, and some that didn’t and became classics for the members as solo artists from 1970 onwards. However, for a casual viewer, at times this ‘air’ in the room might be too much to keep them gripped – so be prepared.
These films paint a portrait of the group ready to move to a new stage in their development, led by an enthusiastic Paul McCartney at times frustrated by the apparent apathy of his bandmates. This was their chance to do something special, return to their routes of playing together live – but what that was and how it would manifest itself is something they struggle to agree on. As history tells us, these were the beginnings of the end of The Beatles, and what is so telling about this film and the way it draws you in is just how young the members were, having already achieved so much.
They had conquered the world, changed the face of music, almost reached double digits in hit studio albums… and the eldest of their group had not yet turned 30. It’s no wonder they felt pressure and their relationships were strained – but what comes through so clearly is that together they still had something very special. Not just a musical understanding of one another that as we see could turn from the vaguest mumblings of a tune to a fully-fledged hit, but a connection that had been forged between the only four people who could know what it was like to have lived through Beatlemania.
Culminating once again in the famous live gig on the roof of Apple Corps HQ alongside Billy Preston as the Metropolitan Police attempt to shut the show down, after seven-plus hours viewers are left with a more positive view of January 1969 in the history of the band. No, they didn’t do it wholly harmoniously, and it wasn’t necessarily how it had been envisioned when they first sat down in Twickenham Studios a few weeks earlier, but as their music floated across Savile Row and the surrounding London streets on 30th January, they had – even if it was ultimately not to last – managed to Get Back to where they once belonged.
The Beatles: Get Back premieres on Disney Plus on 25th, 26th and 27th November.