Let the record show: For a large chunk of my life, The Beatles were ‘that nursery rhyme band’. You’ve met people like me around the clubs and drawing rooms — those ignorant of just what the ‘Fab Four’ meant to music, culture and art history, because we’ve never bothered to dig further than ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ to find ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘A Day in the Life’. The light eventually dawns on some of us, as it did for me, thanks to Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019), or more particularly, the thought that the world is a better place with The Beatles’ tunes in it. But for Peter Jackson and Disney’s tour de force — The Beatles: Get Back — there is only one verdict: They could’ve let it be… much tighter.
The three-part docu-series streaming on Disney Hotstar is not only a build-up to the Fab Four’s iconic rooftop concert of 30 January 1969, but also spend 12 minutes short of eight hours following them around a sound stage, then their purpose-built studio at Savile Row, London, and then finally the rooftop of that same Apple Corps’ headquarters. It’s fly-on-the-wall stuff, and for the real Beatlemaniacs out there, the sort of vicarious joy they have mostly derived from books and interviews so far.
It’s a correction of historical record, especially with respect to the much-detested Yoko Ono, the well-publicised but (spoilers from here on) ultimately false stories about a John Lennon-George Harrison punch-up, George leaving the band, and the fractures within the band towards the end of its run. It shows that most narratives about The Beatles so far — even by the members and crew — were overplayed.
What The Beatles are really like
It’s eight hours of watching John, Paul, George and Ringo go to and beyond the edge of their issues, reconvene, go through several, several fine-tunes of the songs, and mostly, just sit around and giggle. And they are funny. It’s clear how attached they are to each other, and how good together, just by the amount of fun their jams turn out to be.
A detailed look at the creative process of a Lennon-McCartney original alone is worth the price of a monthly subscription because even after consuming all that you can about the biggest phenomenon of the 1960s, there’s nothing quite like seeing it unfold in front of your eyes. The maturation and increasing assertiveness of Harrison are what you had probably gleaned from The Beatles’ post-Rubber Soul work, but seeing him stand up for himself after a lifetime of being the clear ‘Number 3’ makes you root for him.
An amazing insight is a semi-serious discussion between the band members about making American pianist Billy Preston, who is playing some numbers with them, the fifth member of their group, to which McCartney drily remarks that they can hardly handle the four of them anymore.
Yoko Ono, being the ‘villain’ in the ‘Fab Four’s’ break-up story, is a massive myth busted. And thank goodness for it. If the world can mute its way through her post-structuralist shrieks during the jams, it owes her an apology. As Paul quips clairvoyantly after George’s exit from Twickenham, “It’s going to be the most comical thing in 50 years’ time. ‘They broke up ‘cause Yoko sat on an amp’”.
The docu-series’ drawbacks
But now, the negatives. Look at the runtime again — 468 minutes, and allow for the fact that it’s a three-part series.
Another issue is: It’s just a documentary about the ‘Fab Three’, isn’t it? Ringo Starr’s reputation among the sceptics — as the man with the cushiest job in the world, sitting behind those three and being famous for being able to keep time on a drum kit — gets magnified. He’s definitely the jester for the camera but comes across as passive to the extent of having almost a guest appearance in Part 1. It doesn’t help that his one composition in the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, ‘Octopus’s Garden’, which would later appear on Abbey Road, constitutes a segment that is a few minutes long. His skill on the piano is the most striking thing about him in this documentary.
John Lennon has always had an issue with likeability, and the narrative doesn’t help much. He seems aloof and disinterested early on, showing flashes of that famous wit and biting sarcasm when he’s ‘on’, especially back inside the Apple studio. But one can sense that he’s just hanging on for his mates; his heart isn’t in it anymore.
Paul McCartney, early on, appears to be the greyest character, even though some of that is down to the atmosphere of tensions the director makes the audience walk into with minimal context. It is assumed that you’re all caught up on the biographies and the paeans, so you’re supposed to remember the story behind the ‘tall bearded one’ bullying the ‘quiet little brother’ in the band. In his favour is the fact that the footage shows him to be the life force of the band, once Lennon didn’t care and Harrison wanted his own way. McCartney composing ‘Get Back’ on the bass, while waiting for a perennially late Lennon to land up at Twickenham, has virtuoso written all over it.
Jackson’s ‘bloated’ work of art
In the end (yes, a Beatles pun), one can’t but hold director Jackson accountable for what is, like his Lord of the Rings films, a bloated work of art. He has said in promotional interviews for ‘Get Back’ that in early discussions with the surviving members of the band — Paul and Ringo, both of whom are billed first as producers — the initial target was for a 2.5-hour piece. But he says he realised that any less than six hours would be stealing something wonderful from his fellow Beatle fans. And he says Paul agreed.
Well, like the initial Let It Be album that was overproduced to much scorn by American producer Phil Spector, it’s a bit too much. It’s like overdosing on doughnuts; eventually, you’ll ask yourself why you didn’t stop at three.
This is a story that deserves to be told. But with a much-tighter edit and slightly less self-indulgence from the ones helming it. The recording sessions are repetitive after a bit and, for most viewers who wouldn’t be studying The Beatles’ craft intricately, could easily have been chopped. As could the focus on the policemen standing around in the reception area and chewing on the chin-straps of their helmets.
The final feeling of the documentary, after the viewer digests it in her mind, will probably be: ‘If only Paul had heard George’s idea of running parallel solo careers, and John’s overwhelming agreement to it’.
Views are personal.