On Thanksgiving weekend, The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s lovingly-crafted, laboriously long and surprisingly layered three-part Beatles saga was finally released on Disney+. A lot of us are still thinking, talking and writing about it… for good reason. As we ate our last slice of pumpkin pie watching the world’s greatest, not rock n’ roll band because for this writer, that’s still the Stones, but the world’s greatest band period, perform their last live show ever on a rooftop in England, everything about the experience felt significant, both on a cultural level and on a human level. Never has a holiday entertainment release been more perfectly planned, each episode debuting consecutively over three nights, and each evoking different impressions and emotions as the viewer committed to the fly-on-the-wall journey. At 8+ hours total, it took dedication to keep buzzing with the Beatles in this immersive, musically enlightening, not always pleasant way, but it was well worth it. Now that it’s been out there for a while, dissected every which way, it’s pretty clear: this film is not just the best documentary of 2021, or the best “rock doc” in a very long time, it’s also the best reality TV show ever.
Culled from 60 hours of footage from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be documentary (a film and recording John Lennon and Paul McCartney were not really happy with), Jackson’s chronicle seeks to provide more context for the last two albums, the writing process and the band’s breakup. The first part, a sort of surreal re-introduction to the four mythic beings also known as John, Paul, George and Ringo, was exciting to watch and absorb, from the strained dynamics of the band’s members to the skeletal beginnings and evolution of songs we all know and love, to the look and sound of the footage, which Jackson restored beautifully, even splicing some portions of audio and video that didn’t originally go together (for which he added a disclaimer) and adding subtitles to tell the real story.
Though the takeaways after the first part, set at Twickenham Studios, might have been mostly sorrow for George Harrison (for being shut out by McCartney during the writing process; Paul clearly only wanted to work out his music with John), Yoko Ono not surprisingly emerged as the most controversial player in the project. For many, her omnipresence at the sessions was annoying at first. Yoko had a chair right alongside the band (well, John) at all times and the co-dependent relationship was off-putting for a lot of us, though some (mostly women) found it inspiring, true love caught on film and perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the artist/muse relationship. Either way, it was clearly inconsiderate and did not help or contribute to the task at hand. Or did it?
There’s been a lot said about how this film proves that Ono didn’t break up the band, and some have gone as far to say she helped John stay longer than he might have. We saw it a bit differently. Yoko was a factor in the breakup of The Beatles, and Get Back does not show otherwise, it only reveals that it wasn’t all on her shoulders. She was one of a few different reasons the band imploded, but mostly, she embodied the fissure that had already started to emerge within the fab four. Disillusionment after years of insane fame, dealing with the aftermath of some bad business decisions, the death of their manager Brian Epstein, varying levels of drug use and monumental expectations going into the ’70s were a recipe for strained band relations, to say the least. Maybe John needed Yoko there for inspiration or as a buffer, or maybe he didn’t (we’ll never know), but within an already tense working atmosphere, it sent a message to the others that the Beatles brotherhood was no longer enough. The breakup wasn’t her fault – if anything it was John’s – but to say her presence didn’t play into the band’s problems is disingenuous, as is dismissing this opinion as simple misogyny.
Still, we went through the five stages of Yoko while watching: from surprise to annoyance to tolerance to acceptance to ultimately, appreciation for the bohemian vibe and jammy informality she brought to the room, which by the second installment felt more relaxed, fun and ultimately productive. Part two is arguably the hardest to get through for non-fans though; we hear the same songs (“Let It Be,” “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “Two of Us”) played again and again and again, and we see the band near delirious as they try to work everything out, including exactly what they will do once the music is ready. The TV show they planned got scrapped, but they still wanted to give Hogg something climactic, and a mini-concert on the roof was ultimately what they came up with.
After essentially watching six hours of rehearsals, part three, which leads up to the final live performance outdoors, is emotional, knowing what we know. For hardcore music-lovers, even the repetitive parts are compelling, but if our social media feed is any indication, not enough for all. Yes, there are still Beatles haters out there and for a lot of us, seeing the naysayer posts upon the docuseries’ release was eye-opening. What kind of soulless curmudgeon misses the beauty and magic of hanging out with the Beatles in creative mode for several hours, especially knowing that it will be their last time doing it together?
Watching the music and its creation is life-affirming stuff, even if you’re just a casual Beatles fan. It’s also wildly entertaining – from the exuberant jams with Billy Preston on keyboards to the fascinating interactions between George Martin, Glyn Johns, and Linda Eastman/McCartney and the band, to sneak peeks of music from the Beatles’ past and future, to fabulous fashions worn by each member throughout all three sessions, to the candid conversations (some recorded without the Beatles knowledge) providing a voyeuristic look behind the music for real (those old VH1 docs could only dream of coming close). Get Back is transportive television, a mind-blowing flashback that might be long, and at times uncomfortable, but is ultimately the best chronicle ever of the creative process. It reminds us that humans may be flawed creatures, but we can create beauty in its truest and purest form. It’s more than a music doc, it’s reality TV at its most transcendent.
Look for our full list of the Best Documentaries of 2021 here next week.
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