Music

The Beatles: Get Back Is an Eight-Hour Love Story

It’s long, long, long—but that’s because it had to be.

Four men play their instruments on a rooftop.
Apple Corps Ltd./Disney

The Baby-Faced Bobbie is one of the many indelible additions to Beatles lore to be found in director Peter Jackson’s new documentary Get Back, which premiered in three parts over the Thanksgiving weekend on Disney+. The chubby-cheeked London copper, who can’t be much past 21, was previously glimpsed in the footage of Let It Be, 1970’s original behind-the-scenes look at the creation of what became the Beatles’ final album. He’s one of the two officers who come to Apple Records HQ on Savile Row to try, and mostly fail, to shut down the legendary January 30, 1969, rooftop performance that climaxes both films. But only now do we get to hear the ganglier one—I think he’s PC Ray Dagg, and the other PC Ray Shayler—haggling at length with Apple staff in the office’s front hall, his helmet strap dangling awkwardly at his chin. There’ve been 30 noise complaints down at the station already, PC Dagg repeatedly moans. If the band is up there making a film, can’t they just dub in the sound later?  As he laments from the depths of his prudent English guts, “Surely, this can’t be necessary, is it?”

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As far as history is concerned, the two Rays are on the wrong side. This is the epochal 1960s rock group making its first—and, as it turns out, last—live public appearance in more than two years. But the Baby-Faced Bobbie does have a point. The Beatles have taken it upon themselves to blast a busy business district on a weekday afternoon with a high-decibel, al-fresco recording session, completely unannounced. The presence of the band’s Black American guest keyboardist Billy Preston (a veteran, at 23, of both Little Richard’s and Ray Charles’ bands) reminds one to wonder what would have happened here if this weren’t mainly a group of white millionnaires. Down on the street, some fans ask the film crew why the Beatles aren’t putting on a proper, more accessible show, rather than one they can hear but not see, happening many stories above their heads.

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Jackson’s landmark music documentary, reconstructed from 60 hours of footage shot for Let It Be and 150 more hours of audio, is not primarily a narrative or an argument, but it does answer that crowd’s question of how this odd spectacle came to be. Above all, though, using every modern technique of digital restoration, Get Back becomes an act of necromancy, bringing the Beatles back to life out of those dusty cinematic tombs; in its rich color and sound, it seems almost like it could have been filmed yesterday. Jackson makes these four young men look, for the first time, both contemporary and fully human to me. (Except George Harrison’s pink pinstriped suit, which remains fully superhuman.) Like Todd Haynes’ recent Velvet Underground documentary, Get Back is a time machine that yields no space for after-the-fact, talking-head explanations or testimonies. And a la Questlove’s July release Summer of Soul, it’s an act of witness and recovery of misplaced history, though this time from a tale that has been in a sense too well known for even the people involved to comprehend. And ultimately it has the answer to the Baby-Faced Bobbie’s question, too, just in case he’s watching 50-odd years later.

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Over the course of three weeks or so, in two different studios, the Beatles are writing and rehearsing for what’s initially supposed to be a TV special, recorded as a live album. When no one can agree on the details, they switch to the idea of a making-of documentary with some kind of live element. But they still can’t settle on where or how; Paul dislikes anything too small-scale, while budget-conscious George scoffs at anything too impractical.

Figuratively speaking, the Beatles have been backed further and further into a corner for years at this point. They were pushed out of touring after 1966 when the extremes of public scrutiny siphoned away both joy and safety. They were left without an organizational center after the 1967 death of their longtime manager Brian Epstein. And lately, they’ve been internally split by their evolving personal lives, as they enter their late 20s. (Get Back makes it palpable how young they still were for all that had happened.) As Get Back picks up the tale, they are anxiously hemmed in by the unrealistic deadlines they have set for themselves in January 1969. Day by day, we watch time and options for the live event run out, given that Ringo has to leave soon to act in a feature film. Finally, the band ends up with nowhere left to go but up to their own roof. As unintended metaphors go, it’s not bad.

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Once they get there, what Paul has been saying proves true: “The best bit of us, always has been and always will be, is when we’re backs-against-the-wall.” All the buildup makes the rooftop show a huge catharsis: When John and Paul hit their harmony on the opening line of “Don’t Let Me Down,” I unexpectedly well up. Now it isn’t just about a cool, disruptive, surprise concert; it’s about these four old friends longing not to let each other down and, at least for a little while longer, succeeding.

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Jackson’s project was initially announced as a 150-minute theatrical film, then replanned last year (as the pandemic shut cinemas down) as a three-part, six-hour documentary series. After Disney agreed to that, the director snuck in some extra additions, so that the final version clocks in at nearly eight hours. Some critics and social-media skeptics weighed in around its premiere with their own versions of PC Dagg’s “Surely, this can’t be necessary.” I’ve also seen the more casual Beatles fans on my own timelines ask where anyone’s supposed to find the time. Fair enough. Just as the world’s most famous band felt entitled to make a public racket that afternoon in London, today the Beatles is one of a scant few musical cash cows whose nostalgia products are so reliably profitable as to make such absurd demands upon the culture’s attention.

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It’s a lot to ask people to sit through hour upon hour of the lads screwing around, nodding off, making inside jokes, occasionally bickering, having the rare serious conversation, and doing one half-finished take after another of the same songs, broken up by jams on 1950s oldies they barely remember the words of. One afternoon, engineer Glyn Johns comes out of the control room to suggest, as if it’s a bright new idea, that perhaps what the group should do is finish one number, record it, and then go on to another song and record it. What about that as a plan? Nobody even dignifies him with a response.

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But the length of Jackson’s Get Back proves crucial to its effect, just as duration is key to the books of Marcel Proust and Elena Ferrante, a great cable TV series, or many immersive art installations. You couldn’t improve upon The Sopranos by condensing it into a two-hour movie. The original Let It Be film itself confirms it. Directed by hired hand Michael Lindsay-Hogg—who serves as a frequent onscreen goad and even antagonist in Get BackLet It Be has long been remembered as a dour document of the band breaking up, which is part of why they let it go out of print. In fact, that film was mainly a string of song performances, interrupted occasionally by short exchanges among the members, a few bitchy and some buoyant. It came out only after the Beatles did break up in 1970, and as a result, a whole storyline was read into it retrospectively, one it actually had no time to tell.

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It is easy to find sections that plausibly could be cut from Get Back, but anybody who’s ever been party to a long rehearsal or recording process in any artistic field is aware how inextricable the inventiveness usually is from downswings of boredom, tetchiness, and misfired dead-ends. It takes that tedium to emphasize the wonder of how mindbogglingly productive the Beatles’ January actually turned out to be. That’s especially true once they get out of the dreary Twickenham film studio and into their base at Apple, a demand George makes after he temporarily quits the band at the end of Part One. The next week, John asks how many songs the band has finished so far, thinking the answer is five or six. Their usual producer, George Martin, currently hanging around in an unofficial capacity, pulls a list from his pocket showing two or three times as many. The tracks include not only most of the eventual Let It Be album, but also what will become the core of Abbey Road and even some of their future solo material, not to mention all the snippets of other songs like Lennon’s “Madman” or something called “Suzy Parker” that are never to be heard of again.

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What Get Back lets the viewer experience is the invisible work that may not seem like work, as it slowly transforms even the faintest inspirations into art. I’ve seen many viewers on social media marveling at how Paul seems to generate the pith of the song “Get Back” one day in minutes, at first just strumming a random chord pattern on his bass, then singing a melody with gibberish syllables, gradually morphing them into the beginnings of the lyrics. (This process will become highly familiar over these hours.) But that’s only the start. Later, we find Paul and John going back and forth—during a period when they’re said to have stopped writing together—workshopping the specific words. After another few days, Paul decides that those lyrics about Jo-Jo and Loretta are meaningless rubbish, and begins pulling together a satirical song instead about anti-immigrant British politicians of the day saying “get back” to Pakistanis. It has another section, or perhaps whole song, featuring the same political miscreants telling the Commonwealth, “you’re much too common for me.” We don’t see or hear when the band decides to return to the nonsense “rubbish” lyrics after all, although the confused misinterpretations that came up when the more political lyrics leaked on bootleg tapes years ago may offer a clue as to why. But by the time the song cycles back around in another session, it’s basically become the version that everybody’s known for the past half century.

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Get Back’s heart lies within these iterative evolutions, and the creative relationships they help to make and unmake. It is about growing up, as these people are all still doing, and what you gain and lose along the way. And certainly, like most of the songs and symbols the Beatles are most famous for, it is about love.

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In publicity interviews, Jackson as well as surviving Beatles Paul and Ringo have emphasized how much more cheerful and fun Get Back shows this period to have been, compared to the received wisdom in Beatles histories. At Apple, the group’s spirits pick up especially with the arrival of Billy Preston, who gets willingly dragooned into playing keyboards after he drops in one day to say hello. His contributions are so revitalizing that they not only give him an Apple contract as a solo artist, but the band half-seriously talks about inviting him to become a full member… if only the four of them weren’t already so much trouble. It’s fascinating to see this group so inspired by Black music suddenly gain a close Black collaborator. Impressed by a particular keyboard part Billy is laying down, Paul admits, “Coming from the north of England, it doesn’t come through so easy, the soul.” Another time, John and Billy enthusiastically improvise a set of words to the melody of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” that are based on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which frankly might have made for a better song.

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But the film does not leave out everything that foreshadows the split that will come a year-plus later. At Twickenham, John seems squirrely and short on ideas, in a time when he’s widely reported to have been dabbling in heroin. Then there’s George’s sudden walkout—bidding the band, “See you ‘round the clubs!”—and the fraught negotiations that follow. One scene finds Paul at the verge of tears contemplating the prospect of a “divorce,” while Ringo sits stoically by him. When staffers start talking about the show-location issue again, George Martin interjects that “location isn’t really our main problem at the moment.” Paul agrees: “It’s breathing, actually.”

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Later, when Paul and John try to have a private conversation about the situation, the 1969 filmmakers eavesdrop like Cold War spies with a microphone hidden in a flowerpot. John calls the two leaders’ mistreatment of their younger guitarist “a festering wound” that they haven’t bothered to help bandage. For his part, Paul complains about being pushed into the impossible position of playing “boss” by default, in the absence of “Daddy” Epstein. When they all get back to work at the Apple studio, Paul plainly strives to rein himself in and be less imperious with his bandmates, while John steps up to share more leadership. But danger signals remain. Chief among them, as fans know, is John’s blinkered enthusiasm about Allen Klein as a potential future manager, the beginning of the business disputes that truly will bring about the band’s end. Meanwhile, George is keen on making a solo album, to do something with the backlog of songs the others won’t let on Beatles records, and Yoko Ono is very supportive on that front, perhaps because she’s keen on her and John doing the same.

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Contrary to the timeworn racist and misogynist talk about her malignant influence, Yoko here is conspicuously self-aware about not interfering with what’s happening in the studio. She’s happy to do some jamming when they’re at loose ends; her howling into the microphone inspires giddy toddler Heather McCartney to imitate her one Sunday, as generations of women in punk and other artists will do in the future. But otherwise, she’s knitting, making notes, or quietly grooving in her seat next to John. She’s also discovered one day in a long chat we can’t hear with Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney), who, to be fair, also spends many hours hanging out in the studio. That John and Yoko are so glued to one another is partly explained by the fact that they’d been through a miscarriage just a few months earlier, and perhaps by dopesick ups and downs too. More simply, though, as Paul acknowledges, it’s in keeping with John’s trademark emotional intensity. We hear Paul wrestling with his own displacement and jealousy while trying to graciously recognize his old friend’s right to this new love, and how silly and wasteful it would be to break the group up “because Yoko sat on an amp.”

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There are sweet moments between all of them—Paul playing piano while Ringo does a spontaneous soft-shoe, George and John having an animated conversation about watching the newly formed Fleetwood Mac on a late-night TV show, Ringo slyly laying his hand overtop of Paul’s and Linda’s in the control room as they listen back to the rooftop recordings, which turns into a playfight. But the romantic friendship between Paul and John, fraying yet unbroken, is the band’s, and the film’s, emotional center. It’s constantly flickering in their eyes, in the physical chemistry between them, in the rhythms they fall into that leave everyone else a few inches outside.

Late into the project, Paul notices the theme about coming apart and returning home extending through many of their songs, and John cocks an eyebrow. “It’s like you and me are lovers,” he says drily, then pauses: “We’ll have to camp it up for those.” Often when John goes into his habitual kooky voices and Goon Show-style surreal comedy routines, the oft-abandoned Liverpool kid in him seems to be defending against such moments of intimacy and vulnerability with Paul. That particularly comes up on “Two of Us,” which I’ve always thought of as their love duet; in rehearsals they’ll do it in Scottish brogues, or through goofily grotesque clenched teeth, almost any way but straight.

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In Get Back, Jackson allows us to observe such patterns directly as never before. It’s taken this movie’s long and winding road onto and across our screens to track them—one tragically longer, as it turned out, than what “Two of Us” referred to as “the road that stretches out ahead.” In the flowerpot conversation, Paul tells John he’s sure that, whatever their present differences, when the Beatles are all in their old age, they’ll understand and be singing together again. A bullet, a decade later, is going to sunder that dream. Heartbreakingly, watching Get Back, you can’t help being certain Paul would have been right, if only. So no, PC Dagg, perhaps none of it is strictly necessary. But love always has a way of disturbing the peace.

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