After watching the new Beatles documentary — all eight hours of it — it took me a day to step away and make sense of what I had just watched. Was it enjoyable? Mostly. Did we see anything new? Some things. In the end, did my opinion of the band and its members change? Maybe a little. Some of my musician friends didn’t like it – others liked it more than I did. And that’s the challenge that Jackson faced in pulling this enormous effort together into a consumable product. Who was his audience and what would they be interested in seeing? I can admit that it spurred me to do some additional research to validate that what I had seen was accurate and consistent with the accepted knowledge about the status of the Beatles at the time. And that second effort cleared up some of the footage and attitudes that I had just experienced.
Before we jump into the actual content, it’s important to understand the enormity of the task in pulling Get Back together. What started as a two-hour documentary to be released before COVID shut down the country turned into something nearly four times the size. But even before that, Peter Jackson had to approach the remaining Beatles Paul and Ringo, and consult with Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono to green-light the project. Paul was initially nervous because after over fifty years he didn’t recall much of what had been captured. He was worried about being cast in a bad light. Jackson, having already seen some of the footage, reassured Paul that it was very positive and uplifting. Ringo was interested because he recalled what a downer the original Let It Be movie had been and was interested in setting the record straight. In the end, they all agreed to let the project move forward.
In terms of the actual content that Jackson had to review, there were over 150 hours of audio-only along with over 60 hours of film (with audio) footage. If you listened to it all over 8-hour days that would total over 26 workdays to take the first pass through all of it. Further, in 1969, 16mm sound film was more expensive than mono-audio recording so there was much more audiotape than film. And the mono audio would not translate well into a modern documentary. In a mono mix, all the audio is squashed together so other than using an equalizer to isolate certain audio spectrums there was no way to separate say John making a joke while George noodled on his guitar. If you wanted to increase the volume of what John had just said, you would also be increasing the overall volume of everything on the recording, including the volume of George’s guitar playing because it’s all mixed together. To address this, Jackson paid a company to write revolutionary software that used Machine Learning to carve out individual tracks from the audio. For example, in a session where the bandmates were all speaking and each playing an instrument, Jackson was able to carve out what Ringo was saying and amplify it to the front of the mix to make it more audible. This also allowed him to apply a little of a stereo effect, which is most obvious if you listen to the segments over earbuds. From the 210 hours of material, he was able to cull it down to an 18-hour rough cut. Remember that originally, he intended to reduce it to a two-hour documentary. However, as he was going through the 18 hours, he realized that it would be difficult to decide what to cut out without removing some notable content for certain parts of the audience. He contacted Disney and asked whether it was okay to make this into a 6-hour documentary, perhaps split into three episodes, and they agreed given everyone was in lockdown and the release would be delayed anyway. In the end, he added another two hours to end up with the final eight-hour runtime.
One final challenge was that he found parts of the audio that were key to the documentary but of course didn’t have any video to go with it. In those cases, he used video where the bandmates were not facing the camera or where the video had some relationship to the audio content and merged those two. There is one audio segment that was recorded by hiding a mic in a flowerpot on the table where John and Paul were having lunch. That’s played over a still image and a transcript of the very revealing discussion.
Visually, the series is stunning: vivid, bright, and colorful. Part of this is due to the good quality of the film used originally, but mostly it’s because the 16mm film had to be upscaled to a modern depth of quality and format. That included covering more area with fewer pixels and some pixel interpolation, but the result is a sort of Snapchat filter effect which removes some of the blemishes from people’s faces and softens the hard edges. The Beatles were young (all under 30 at the time) and fresh-faced, but this effect makes them look brilliant and healthy.
The documentary covers January 1969, starting with plans to make a documentary about the Beatles recording their next album and ending it with an extraordinary live performance. The time constraint was dictated by Harrison being away for Christmas 1968 and Ringo having to start filming on The Magic Christian starting February 1969 – leaving one month. Michael Lindsay-Hogg was selected as a director based on his previous work with the Beatles and appears regularly in the Get Back sessions. The renowned Glyn Jones (who engineered albums for Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Blue Oyster Cult, and many more), also appears frequently and delivered the final mix for Let It Be to Phil Spector to accompany a release of the film and album in 1970. Spector then infamously applied his “wall of sound” effects to a few songs on the album, which infuriated Paul McCartney.
The original Let It Be movie has been analyzed repeatedly and drove some of the perceptions of the state of the Beatles at the time. In effect, it was accepted lore that the relationships were acrimonious, Yoko was a constant bother, and no one listened to George Harrison. And certainly, some vibes in Get Back reinforce those perceptions but it also calls some of that into question.
A quick summary of Get Back goes like this: In January 1969, the Beatles returned to the studio to make their next album after completing The Beatles (The White Album) in 1968, whereupon Paul McCartney declared publicly that the Beatles would soon perform live again. An idea was hatched to film the entire album-making process culminating in a concert initially planned for an ancient amphitheater in Libya, a locale that George and Ringo quickly rejected. In the meantime, the group gathered at Twickenham Studios and began pulling together the new songs that would be performed. But gathering in that cavernous studio with poor audio qualities and equipment caused the foursome to sour to the idea and relocate to the basement of Apple Studios on Savile Row. As usual band members brought song ideas to the studio and nearly all of them were at least considered for inclusion in the forthcoming album. One difference, in this case, is that on previous sessions the bandmates would bring demo recordings of song ideas that were pretty fleshed out. In this case, most of the Beatles showed up with vague ideas of melodies or lyrics. Songs like “Let it Be”, “Two of Us”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Dig a Pony”, and especially “Get Back” go from just ideas to near-final versions. At Twickenham, George Harrison famously tells McCartney that he’ll do whatever Paul says, or not play at all if that’s what Paul wants – showing some tension between the two. Billy Preston shows up to say “hello” and stays to record on nearly all the tracks of the album. At one point George leaves but is later convinced to return to the session – and the group. Near the end of January, realizing that they had run out of time to perform elsewhere, the group agrees to perform and film on the rooftop of their London studios.
Some notable tidbits are exposed during the sessions, including:
- Paul, as a kind of de facto leader at that moment, wants to make sure they follow a strict work ethic to get through the songs quickly. He prefers to start simple and then embellish. George instead likes to embellish along the way. Paul repeatedly pushes the group to focus, understanding the significant task at hand to write 12 to 14 songs in under 30 days.
- When George leaves (literally gets up and says “I’m leaving”) John shrugs and immediately suggests replacing him with Eric Clapton.
- It’s clear that the addition of Billy Preston, so positive and talented, injects much-needed energy into the sessions. He’s (sorta kinda) invited to be the fifth Beatle.
- A secret recording of John and Paul discussing the departure of George allows us to hear John concede that at times Paul took some of John’s songs to places John didn’t want them to go but he was too afraid to push back on Paul.
- The guys spend a lot of time jamming and playing a variety of classic blues and rock songs, and reminiscing about their shows in Germany. It reinforces what talented musicians they were.
- Yoko Ono is there, often sitting and just staring at John or disinterestedly reading the local paper. She wasn’t particularly invasive but just sat there constantly. However, Paul pointedly says he was fine with her being around and even jokes “It’s going to be such an incredible sort of comical thing, like, in 50 years’ time, you know: ‘They broke up ‘cause Yoko sat on an amp.’”
- John Lennon really hated Harrison’s song “I Me Mine.”
- John helps George with the words to “Something,” which would appear on Abbey Road telling him to sing whatever nonsense words as a filler (“attracts me like a cauliflower”).
- George helped Ringo with “Octopus’s Garden”, which would appear on Abbey Road.
- The band worked diligently to help George on “All Things Must Pass,” which wasn’t released until George’s eponymous solo album.
- George quietly discussed with John that he has a lot of material (“ten albums worth”) that he’d like to record on his own. John suggests maybe George could record some solo albums but still come back to be in the Beatles in between each release, which George seems to find amenable. It appears John and George, at this time anyway, weren’t thinking about breaking up the band.
- John is very funny, quick-witted and also a very good (but lazy) musician. Until the final take, he slops through chords.
- John asked whether the others could do the vocals on a song because he’d prefer just to be a guitarist for once (a comment on the difficulty of playing and singing).
- A song like “Get Back goes from basic noodling introduced by Paul into a fully-fledged and fleshed-out rocker in a matter of a few weeks.
This list could go on, but to be complete, here are some things I didn’t care for:
- John, Paul, Ringo playing raucous nonsense while Yoko Ono screeched – for ten minutes!
- Some repeatedly annoying antics by John and Paul, like singing “Two of Us” through gritted teeth for a few minutes, playing sloppily through songs, making lots of references to things only they would know.
- Sitting through many, many (many!) takes of songs where each take sounds very similar, or there’s a flub because one of the Beatles said or did something silly.
- Listening to decisions on food and drink brought in.
- Too much video of Heather McCartney (nee See). A little is cute, a lot didn’t add value.
Nonetheless, in the end, it’s a very good documentary. I’d say if you were a casual Beatles fan who enjoyed their music but didn’t fixate on it, you’ll find long stretches of it very boring. The original two-hour version would have been more in line with what you would have wanted to see. For everyone else, you’ll find a lot of interesting and heartwarming content. If you’re a musician, you’ll enjoy hearing Paul call out chords to the other bandmates as they’re learning his new song. And you’ll be reminded about just how seriously talented the foursome was.
When pressed whether there was another cut of the same epic, Peter Jackson conceded that there was indeed a fourteen-hour version that existed for a while before they trimmed it down to six hours and then back up to eight hours. So fear not! There may be a day when that longer version is released, but I would think only the most hardcore fan would enjoy the content that was otherwise left on the cutting room floor.
As a side note, I did some additional research on why George left the band during this time and it turns out that it doesn’t appear to be related to the rest of the band ignoring his music submissions. What didn’t make the documentary are the many, many takes of the band working with George on “All Things Must Pass,” and a few of his other songs. When pressed as to whether he wanted to perform the song, George shied away. Even after Paul and John urged him to perform it on acoustic guitar, George declined. There’s a whole storyline created shortly before the Beatles broke up that suggested George was neglected, but there’s evidence that this wasn’t necessarily the case.
The sheer amount of music they were putting out, the death of Brian Epstein, disagreements on financial matters, and the overall workload they imposed on themselves, seem the more likely reasons for the breakup. But watching Get Back is proof that the lads still liked each other, had fond memories of performing together and could crank out some unforgettable music — even under the toughest circumstances.