Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Review of Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back Documentary Series

The Beatles working on Let It Be album at Apple's basement studio
Peter Jackson’s documentary series The Beatles: Get Back is a fascinating behind-the-scenes chronicle of the Beatles’ Let It Be recording sessions, which culminated in their historic rooftop concert on January 30, 1969. The three-part series offers a rare glimpse inside the Beatles’ creative process in the studio–giving viewers an intimate fly-on-the-wall perspective of the band’s interactions during those sessions. This nearly eight-hour docuseries is a true godsend for Beatles fans, providing a treasure trove of information, performances, revelations, never-before-seen footage and other interesting tidbits about the groundbreaking quartet.

Jackson–the three-time Oscar-winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy–spent four years editing and restoring more than 60 hours of previously unseen film footage and over 150 hours of unheard audio footage for The Beatles: Get Back. The docuseries also features hundreds of previously unpublished photographs that were meticulously restored by Jackson and his team. All of the archival film and audio material for the docuseries was culled from the copious footage that director Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot for his 80-minute Beatles documentary film Let It Be, released in 1970. Jackson has said that The Beatles: Get Back is essentially “a documentary about a documentary.”

The documentary series kicks off with an exhilarating eight-minute montage of the Beatles’ meteoric rise from scruffy working-class Liverpool lads to global superstars. It’s truly inspiring to see these four young musicians’ incredible ascension from their very humble beginnings to becoming a cultural phenomenon that altered the landscape of popular music.

The docuseries covers every stage of the Let It Be recording sessions, giving viewers a detailed and comprehensive look at the entire process. Paul McCartney had the idea of taking a back-to-basics approach in making the album. He thought it would be a good way to revitalize the band, which had been going through a rough patch at the time–a lot of infighting and division among the members. The idea was to keep things as organic and unadorned as possible. There would be no overdubs or fancy studio tricks or gimmicks, just the four of them jamming and creating together like they did back in their early days. They would record all their tracks together as a unit with no parts added later. And in keeping with the returning-to-their-roots theme, they would perform their new songs from Let It Be live in front of an audience. This performance would be particularly significant because the band hadn’t put on a live concert in nearly three years.

The original idea was to film the Beatles’ rehearsal footage for Let It Be, which would be edited into a short television documentary. And the documentary would be used to promote the main TV special in which the Beatles would perform songs from Let It Be in front of an audience. The band tapped Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film and direct the TV documentary and concert. He previously directed the “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” promos for the band that were aired on the television show “Frost on Saturday” in 1968. Lindsay-Hogg also directed the clips for the Beatles’ songs “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” back in 1966.

The Let It Be sessions began on January 2, 1969 at Twickenham Film Studios in West London. Lindsay-Hogg had a film crew in place on the soundstage where the Beatles were working. The band was under a tight deadline and was tasked with writing and arranging 14 new songs that they’ll record live before an audience in two weeks. In a few weeks, Ringo Starr was scheduled to start shooting the satirical black comedy The Magic Christian, which he was co-starring with Peter Sellers. So the pressure was on.

The sessions got off to a rocky start. The atmosphere in the studio was fraught with tension and just an overall listlessness. They all looked like they’d rather be somewhere else. Things got particularly testy between Paul and George Harrison at one point regarding a guitar part that George was playing on Paul’s song “Two Of Us.” George wasn’t playing the part exactly how Paul wanted; he felt that Paul was being too controlling and should just let him feel the part out in his own way. And on top of that, John Lennon seemed distant and disengaged from the process during much of those early sessions. He appeared to be much more focused on his ever-present companion Yoko Ono than on the album, and he was also battling heroin addiction at the time. Ringo was pretty much just laying in the cut, not saying too much, just patiently sitting behind his drum kit waiting for his bandmates to get it together. 

It got so bad at Twickenham that George quit the band seven days into the sessions only to return five days later. His abrupt exit was attributed to several things: He felt that Paul and John were often dismissive of his songwriting contributions and that their songs always took precedence over his. He was also growing tired of Paul's bossy ways and micromanaging in the studio; additionally, George was annoyed by Yoko’s constant presence at the sessions. In an interview for The Beatles Anthology project, he summed up his reasons for leaving the band: “I thought what’s the point of this? I’m quite capable of being relatively happy on my own, and I’m not happy in this situation. I’m getting out of here.” In a sit-down among the band members, John and Paul acknowledged their mistakes and apologized to George for minimizing his songwriting contributions and sometimes making him feel ostracized; they eventually convinced him to rejoin the band.

One of the most poignant moments of The Beatles: Get Back comes when Paul, Ringo, Lindsay-Hogg and others at Twickenham are discussing the future of the band and the Let It Be documentary/TV concert project. This was the day after George had walked out of the session. Also, John was missing in action and couldn’t be reached. Paul initially tried to lighten the mood by joking around a bit, but his demeanor suddenly changed as the reality of the situation began to sink in. With tears welling up in his eyes, he said in a shaky voice, “And then there were two,” referring to himself and Ringo as being the only remaining Beatles. Paul’s sad and eerily prophetic statement showed that the Beatles still meant a lot to him, and that he viewed them not as just bandmates but as brothers. Despite all the tension and acrimony, the band still managed to get a few songs on their feet during the Twickenham sessions. 

The band was forced to move the two-week deadline back because they were far from having enough songs ready within that time frame. The TV special idea had been scrapped as well as the planned live concert. However, the Beatles stuck to the back-to-basics approach of recording the album–meaning no overdubs or studio gimmicks for their tracks. Lindsay-Hogg decided to take his project in a new direction. He planned to use the footage for the Beatles’ next feature film. 

The overall mood of the sessions improved considerably once the Beatles relocated to the Apple Corps headquarters following a week’s break. On January 21, they resumed work on Let It Be in the basement recording studio of the Apple Corps headquarters, located at 3 Savile Row, London. Lindsay-Hogg moved his film crew there to continue documenting the sessions. George had returned to the fold by that time, and John appeared to be much more upbeat and engaged in the process. The smaller studio had a much more cozy and intimate atmosphere than the cavernous soundstage at Twickenham. 

The footage of the Apple recording sessions dispels the long-held belief that making Let It Be was a wholly miserable experience for the Beatles. After they relocated to their Apple headquarters, there was a definite shift in attitude among the band members. It appeared that they made a concerted effort to leave all that negativity at Twickenham behind them and start fresh. The spark had returned, and they were working together as a band again. One of the most important things that Jackson accomplished with the docuseries was to show that the Let It Be sessions weren’t one long acrimonious nightmare as many had believed. From what is shown, the Apple sessions were mostly positive and amicable.

The Beatles were much more productive at their new digs and looked like they were genuinely enjoying the process of creating, playing and recording. The Beatles: Get Back captures many lighthearted and funny moments from the Apple sessions. One particularly funny moment is when John and Paul perform a comical version of “Two Of Us” in a thick Scottish brogue, and then they try to one-up that version by doing one through clenched teeth. The deranged look on John's face while singing through clenched teeth is hilarious. Other funny moments include the two dancing an impromptu jitterbug together. Even the usually impassive Yoko had to smile at that spectacle. These moments show the great chemistry that John and Paul shared, even outside of creating music. The two had a similar sense of humor and would often bounce off one another with clever quips and gibes. John’s dry, sardonic humor would often have Paul cracking up during the sessions. So it wasn’t surprising that they gelled so well as a songwriting team.

The docuseries also highlights how integral Billy Preston was to the Let It Be album. Since the Beatles wanted to record all the tracks on Let It Be without using overdubs, they needed a keyboard player to perform the keyboard parts while they played their primary instruments. Preston dropped by the sessions one day just to say hello, and John asked him if he’d like to play on their album. Preston was thrilled at the opportunity and quickly came onboard. The gifted 22-year-old musician was an old friend of the band, whom he met back in 1962 while touring with Little Richard in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles were Little Richard’s opening act on his Hamburg dates. 

Bringing Preston onboard was perhaps the wisest decision the band made during the Let it Be sessions. He provided that missing ingredient that they needed all along but didn’t realize it. He brought a whole new energy to the sessions. He boosted the mood with his enthusiasm, great musical talent and infectious personality. And he infused some church into their tracks with his gospel-inflected playing. The simultaneously amazed and pleased expression on Paul’s face when Preston serves up an extra-soulful keyboard part on “I've Got a Feeling” is priceless. “You've given us a lift, Bill,” an appreciative John told Preston after he accompanied the band on “Don’t Let Me Down.” “We’ve been at this for days.” In all, Preston played on seven tracks on the Let It Be album and performed with the band for their iconic rooftop concert. Also, he was the only non-Beatle to ever be given credit on a Beatles song for his scorching electric piano work on their smash “Get Back.” The single is credited as “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” He was often dubbed the “Fifth Beatle” due to his invaluable contributions to the Let It Be album.

Another great thing about Jackson’s docuseries is that the viewer gets a close look at the Beatles’ songwriting process in the studio. For instance, it tracks the evolution of Paul’s song “Get Back” from a seedling of an idea to the classic that we all know today. It's truly amazing to witness the genesis of the song with Paul strumming on his bass, tapping his foot, and softly humming to himself with George and Ringo looking on. It’s clear that they were familiar with Paul’s songwriting process, and they just patiently gave him his space to work out the song in his head. They eventually started playing along as the song slowly began to take shape. 

The Apple sessions were going so well that the band had a change of heart about not doing a concert and decided to do one after all. Now all they had to do was decide on a venue. They wanted to do something simple without a lot of fanfare or preplanning. They ultimately decided to do the concert on the rooftop of the Apple Corps headquarters. They held the concert on Thursday, January 30. It kicked off at 12:30 p.m. The setlist for the 42-minute performance was “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909,” “Dig a Pony,” and “God Save the Queen.” They performed “Get Back” three times, with the last take interrupted by the police; they performed two takes of “Don’t Let Me Down” and two takes of “I've Got a Feeling.” 

Lindsay-Hogg had five cameras positioned on the rooftop and one camera placed on the roof of the building across the street. Three cameras were placed at ground level outside the building to capture public reaction to the concert; and one was hidden in the reception lobby of the Apple building. The performance was recorded onto two eight-track machines in Apple’s basement studio by producer George Martin, engineer Glyn Johns and tape operator Alan Parsons. They monitored the concert via a closed-circuit system.

At 12:44 p.m., the police arrived at the Apple headquarters due to 30 noise complaints. The receptionist and doorman did their best to stall the police as long as possible. Split-screen is creatively used to show both the band performing and the crowd’s reaction at street level below. The juxtaposition of the band playing their souls out on the roof and people’s stunned reaction on the street below is quite exhilarating and enhances the excitement level of the entire event.

The concert was a great climax to the Let It Be project. The Beatles and Preston delivered a thrilling live performance that was filled with tons of soul. It fit perfectly with the band’s returning-to-their-roots theme; and the fact the police had to be called to shut it down captured the rebellious, outlaw spirit of rock and roll in its purest form. This was the Beatles’ last live performance, and they couldn’t have chosen a better way to give their final bow to the public. Lindsay-Hogg used the footage from the sessions and the rooftop concert for his 1970 Let It Be documentary.

The Beatles: Get Back was directed and produced by Peter Jackson. It was co-produced by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison–George Harrison’s widow. It’s worth a viewing even for those who aren’t big Beatles fans; and that’s just not due to its great cultural and historical significance, but also because it's such a well-made and well-researched piece. The acclaimed documentary series has been nominated for several prestigious film awards. And it currently has a 94% fresh score rating at American review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. It has won Rotten Tomatoes’ Golden Tomato Award for Best Docuseries. It also has a very impressive 9.1 out of 10 user rating  at IMDB.

The Beatles: Get Back is streaming exclusively on Disney + streaming service. The first episode premiered on Thursday, November 25, 2021.

Here's a cool little montage of the Beatles' Let It Be sessions set to their track "Get Back."

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