Streaming Review

The Beatles: Get Back review – meandering masterpiece sets the record straight

Peter Jackson's eight-hour documentary about the making of Let It Be is a treasure trove that's all the better for its exhaustive nature

What really went down in the final years of the greatest band of all time? Peter Jackson has raised the question once more with his groundbreaking documentary The Beatles: Get Back, a near eight-hour tour-de-force of restored and reedited archive footage that recontextualizes what we know about the infamous 1969 Let It Be sessions, which took place just a year before the Fab Four finally called it quits for good.

After all, wasn't this the period in which Yoko Ono ruined everything and the band spent the whole time bickering, praying for it to end? That is the stuff of Beatles legend. Right? Yet this painstakingly reassembled series, culled from more than 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio originally shot and recorded by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, undermines the rumours and makes us see the whole affair with fresh eyes. For starters: Paul seems surprisingly chill about Yoko being around, and even jokes that one day she’ll be mistakenly blamed for the group’s breakup.

No, Get Back seems more in tune with the idea that the Beatles split because it was inevitable. After ten years together, creating some of the most defining records of all time, the world's most famous band existed as an awkward hodgepodge of diverging tastes and interests. Members Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr each wanted different things (well, except maybe Ringo) and had grown tired of expending their creative energy on music that no longer appealed to them.

This is without question the most intimate footage of the band to ever have been made public, at times verging on the uncomfortably voyeuristic. It takes some getting used to. At first, there's a sense that getting too close will spoil the myth. But quickly Get Back begins to feel intoxicating, as Jackson – having condensed 60 hours of raw footage into three long episodes – embeds us with the band for close to a month. A month in which nobody ever seems quite clear on what it is they’re supposed to be doing (Is it an album? A show? A documentary?). But taking risks is what they've always done, they each insist, and so the band plough on.

There are a few minor arguments, mixed with understandable concerns about the future. At one point, George quietly, casually, quits the band. But contrary to the long purported myth, these four geniuses mostly seem to be having a ball. Lennon and McCartney, thought to be constantly butting heads at this point, appear to be genuinely thriving in one another’s company. And the boys, still at the height of their fame, show no pretentiousness, no air of diva-ishness. There’s no sense that they think they're above anyone else, or need to be pampered, or play the biggest arenas. They just want to make good music.

The bulk of the material is dedicated, quite intentionally, to (admittedly) repetitive footage of the same dozen or so songs being written and rehearsed, from “Don’t Let Me Down” to “Dig A Pony” – first at an expansive Twickenham sound stage and later at the iconic Apple Studios. But each time we listen, as we're able to pick out the minor tweaks and changes, there is a real, valuable sense of the creative process being laid bare. Then, hours later, the final track will present itself like some small miracle and Jackson will display a satisfying caption: “This recording appears on the album Let it Be.” Rarely do we get to see great works of art being spun out from start to finish, and anyone who finds the artistic process fascinating in and of itself will be likely to embrace this documentary as a rare gift.

It's impossible not to awe at a clip of McCartney, for example, absentmindedly playing the chords for what will later become the album’s most memorable single, as George and Ringo look on, unaware that he’s channeling a classic from a higher plane (George even yawns). Then Paul begins to conjure gibberish lyrics to go along with his new melody, before arriving on two words: “Get Back.” It’s like watching a man possessed. And as the song becomes recognisable to us, Jackson superimposes its title on the screen, as though to mark the exact moment where it officially comes to “exist.” It's awe-inspiring to witness, a testament to McCartney's singular genius.

The series, which I sat through in one uninterrupted, eight-hour viewing session, is a treasure trove packed with countless “I can’t believe I’m seeing this!” moments that will mark it as an essential tome for diehard fans. In here, too, we also glimpse early versions of songs that will later appear on arguably the band’s greatest masterpiece, Abbey Road, and plenty of material later used on the Beatles' respective solo albums. And it ends with a bang – the infamous Savile Row rooftop concert, presented here in all its glory, footage cut together in split-screen so we can see what's happening not only on the stage, but on the ground, as two comically flustered police officers do their best to silence the noise.

Get Back is undoubtably meandering and exhausting in places, but that’s also the point. We hunker down with these boys – not yet even 30 years of age – for an entire month and by the end we feel like we've been there for the entire time: chugging endless cups of tea, munching on toast, smoking cigarettes, drinking glasses of unidentifiable orange liquid, bouncing between the extremes of frustration and elation. This is an obsessive film for the obsessive fan, yes, but Jackson’s project is also true to the work that it chronicles – he has created a brilliantly flawed film about a brilliantly flawed album, a meditation on the strange, elusive and painstaking nature of creativity. Fifty years later, it feels like this is what the whole project was meant for in the first place. I can’t wait to go back.

The Beatles: Get Back is now streaming on Disney+.

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