They say that you can never have too much of a good thing. For diehard Beatles fans this saying could not be truer of Peter Jackson’s recent docuseries, ‘Get Back’, which focuses on the creation of the band’s final album ‘Let It Be’. For others, 468 minutes might seem a bit much.
The three-part series, now fully released on Disney+, provides a fascinating insight into the lives of not just four extraordinary musicians, but four wonderful friends. However, following their meteoric rise to fame in the 1960s, it captures the late demise of the group and the tensions that caused their split in 1970.
Much of the footage was used in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary, though through exclusive access to never-before-seen footage and audio – over 210 hours’ worth to be exact – Jackson and his team expertly remaster and collate it to give a cool contemporary feel.
It is ultimately a privilege to have such an incredible access to their world. It feels almost unreal that we are transported to a place where these hitherto inaccessible figures talk so ordinarily. Whilst two of the core members are long dead, the group’s charming interactions and wit feel totally current whilst also belonging to a specific epochal moment.
Indeed, the documentary reveals why the Beatles are so transcendent and continue to be so likeable as a group. In a post-war world of class divisions and national anxiety, their unifying veneer of self-assurance, resilience and raw talent makes them feel somehow above it.
This is why going the distance with the documentary doesn’t seem so gruelling, as often they feel more like friends rather than historically remote characters. Right from the off there is a spellbinding and perpetual marvelling at their efficiency and genius, as their minds whirr along to produce some of the most resonant and recognised tunes in such a short space of time.
Regardless of one’s loyalty to the band, ‘Get Back’ can be viewed in various ways. For some, it represents a vital social and cultural document. For others, it can be interpreted as a psychological study of friendship and fame. Some may enjoy the fly-on-the-wall voyeurism.
It is one of those things that is hard to impose objectivity on, since The Beatles speak personally to so many people. The aficionados will believe that Jackson is stingy with how much footage was revealed to the world, whilst the mildly interested will see it as a bit of drag and an anti-climactic exposition of what are messianic cultural figures.
Even for the Beatles obsessed, there is a secret yearning for a bit more spice. Other than the drama of George Harrison’s walk-out, which punctuates the end of the first instalment, there is no real narrative other than a general air of foreshadowing and dislocation.
Without context, it doesn’t pack the biggest punch and beats on without much happening other than experimental jamming and everyday chatter, to the point where their genius becomes almost banal.
If you do not revere the Beatles then of course it is easy to be cynical, though for many the banality is the pure beauty: the authenticity of how they truly were, and how easy the creative process came to them.
Fundamentally, they were four good friends with an extraordinary passion for music; going through the trials and tribulations that life throws at us all with age. There is something universal and comforting, therefore, about resonating with a group of individuals who were ostensibly larger than life.
Their breakup didn’t have to be a tragic thing, as this docuseries proves, but something entirely natural and at times uplifting. They even joke about it to music, as McCartney dramatically reads out a newspaper article that details how things would never be the same. Despite the overhanging inevitability of their split, they remain largely cheerful and jokey.
For all the sugar-coating that Jackson contrives, however, you cannot help but identify a gloomy and melancholic note by the end. Rather than artistic coherence, every moment is laced with a sense of things falling apart and a general mish mash following the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967. The fact that they create so much content so quickly speaks to their genius, but a sense of aimlessness pervades as things wind down to its eventual halt.
In general, it feels less like the days of the awesome foursome as there is now an awkward fifth member, with pianist Billy Preston entering the fray. There is also the ever-present Yoko Ono, who sits beside John Lennon permanently as family lives generally prove disruptive. George Harrison, only 25, has desires of his own having had some brilliant tracks either dismissed or undermined. Following the death of Epstein, McCartney is forced into an awkward paternal role that holds back the general camaraderie and means that decisive action is seldom taken. Drummer Ringo watches on knowingly from on high.
The series does eventually culminate in the famous rooftop concert on top of Apple studios, which sums up the general level of bathos associated with the group’s decline. Some may view it as pure rock ‘n’ roll, a paragon of rebelliousness as police officers attempt to put a stop to it but they continue anyway.
However, for their last public appearance it was a far cry from the early plans of a stunning show in Libya. Without discrediting the genius of the songs and the group’s undeniable showmanship, it was clumsy, ill-thought out, gimmicky, and cut short (just 42 minutes).
Equally, however, it captured the enduring spirit of the Beatles: unique, daring, and uncompromising. The sands of time get to us all, yet their fundamental essence remained the same despite all the change that they had collectively seen over that past decade. Despite the anxieties and disagreements burning vociferously in the backdrop, in that one concentrated moment, on top of a roof in Savile Row, were the outpourings of four titanic figures in British music, standing like permanent luminaries above mere mortals.
Overall, Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ is a sensitively crafted documentary that is well worth a watch. No one expects you to make it through the entirety, but you can dip in and out for a truly unmatched human insight into one of the greatest bands of all time.
The effect is overall comforting as you get transported to another time and share, in all its humanity, concerns with timeless figures who were more all-conquering and self-confident than yourself. It is certainly something that I will be revisiting in times of trouble.