As we’re informed via title cards at the beginning of each episode of The Beatles: Get Back, there was an abundance of material to work with to make this docuseries. Back in January 1969, more than 60 hours of video footage and over 150 hours of audio were recorded as part of a project to film the making of a new album and a planned TV special from the legendary band. To sift through that all and stitch it together in the most effective way would require a diligent master of editing. So why get the guy who turned The Hobbit into three bloated and wildly overstuffed films?
Peter Jackson might not have been the right person for the job. Watching Get Back, one gets the feeling he’s torn between serving two different audiences: the average viewer who wants a compelling narrative about a difficult and near-final chapter in the life of one of the all-time great bands, and Beatles aficionados who’d like nothing more than to spend as much time as possible with these musicians. He ends up decisively siding with the latter, which means anyone who isn’t a Beatles completist will presumably—at multiple points during this series—get bored.
The three episodes that make up this nearly eight-hour docuseries linger on the minutiae: endless rehearsals of the same songs; the copious downtime between takes, usually filled with goofy jokes, awkward conversations, and breezy renditions of covers; voluminous footage detailing technical issues. One could argue this is the point—to create a you-are-there verisimilitude, and linger in the space between events in order to bring to life the complicated dynamic between these four men (and the small army of people employed by them).
But while you certainly get plenty of time to understand the brotherly camaraderie and brittle tensions among the bandmates, it can occasionally be as draining and tiresome to sit around waiting for something to happen as it likely was for the guys themselves. For as jaw-dropping as it can be to see Paul McCartney, riffing while waiting for Lennon to arrive, suddenly come up with the framework for “Let It Be,” it can also be enervating when you’re five hours into the series and suddenly, rehearsals grind to a halt so a technical issue can be addressed.
Anyone who’s logged hours in a recording studio will likely relate to the ennui radiating off The Beatles at times—if nothing else, this film nails that feeling of hurry-up-and-wait listlessness. But those pitstops are still just pauses en route to one of the most memorable live performances in pop music history: the band playing live in public for the last time, on the roof of Apple Studios in London, while the police try (hilariously ineffectually) to shut it down. And to see how the group pivoted from the massive failure of the original TV-show plan to that famed bit of musical lore is nothing short of riveting.
Those looking for sources of the group’s eventual growing rift and eventual demise will find much to savor. McCartney and Harrison come across as the personalities most at odds with each other. (Lennon and McCartney certainly evince moments of each irritation with each other, too, though if a new interview with Michael Lindsay-Hogg—the director who originally shot all this footage—is to be believed, Lennon’s lack of animus might be attributed to the beginning of his heroin use.)
McCartney’s perfectionism, and Harrison’s feelings of marginalization in the creative process, at first seem diplomatic enough, until you realize how awfully British they’re being. That politesse hides volcanic frustrations: When George responds to Paul’s worry that he’s annoying him with a simple, “You don’t annoy me anymore,” you can almost see the knife sliding in. And the sexist narrative of Yoko Ono breaking up the group is quickly dismantled; she’s by Lennon’s side throughout, but it quickly becomes apparent that these long-simmering fissures have little to do with the fact that, as McCartney spoofs it at one point, “Yoko sat on an amp.”
There’s a rough structure here: Set in the three-week period between the beginning of filming and that rooftop performance (a timeline which eventually stretches to a month), Get Back features a broad arc about the pressure of writing a new record in such a short time window, the crisis of Harrison briefly quitting the band, and the impending deadline of what to do about the live shows. (Lindsay-Hogg, a colorfully blue-blood raconteur who comes across like a young Orson Welles in disguise, keeps pushing for an outdoor amphitheater in… Libya.) But, come on—these are The Beatles. They dictate circumstances, not the other way around. It’s more interesting to view in hindsight, knowing things will change, and watching everyone around the band slowly catch up to that fact. (Sometimes very slowly; again, nearly every element—besides the songs themselves—gets talked to death.)
Unlike a lot of projects, here the interest is less in the how of specific camera shots or stylistic tics and more in the what happened—and how much is on film, style be damned. The big exception: a fascinating private conversation between McCartney and Lennon, immediately following Harrison’s temporary quitting the band, which was captured by a hidden mic in the flowerpot on the cafeteria table. Depicted via only the text of their chat, it includes moments like Paul insisting to John, “The thing is, you’re the boss; you’ve always been.” But the surfeit of material does mean that whenever something of interest happens, there’s usually a camera or mic there recording it.
For those who only know of the tumult that took place, everything else is a powerful reminder of the deep bonds between these men. For every moment of icy silence, there’s an equally open-hearted scene of laughter, as Lennon breaks the guys up with his off-the-cuff wit, or Ringo (true to reputation, an often-silent presence of easygoing assurance) vamps it up for a camera. But everyone has those elements, McCartney and Harrison included. Ultimately, this is as much about what it was like to be in The Beatles during their final era as it is about what came of these sessions. That’s an intoxicating stew of multilayered personalities and genius-level artists plying their trade in the most humdrum manner imaginable—with a bunch of hired help milling around. And, in the final episode, children lend a family-like atmosphere to the proceedings, which is charming for the first 10 minutes or so, before that montage gains bloat, too.
There’s a oddly cathartic sequence when, after moving from the cold and unpleasant soundstage they began shooting on into a comfy and intimate room at Apple, everyone just makes a squalling noise jam, and McCartney yells the text of a newspaper hit piece about the band’s transition from “boys next door” to “weirdies.” After it’s done, it feels like the group is trying to wash its hands of the drama, at least for the time being (even if McCartney’s own admittedly self-imposed frustrations keep bubbling up). By the end of the year, the band had broken up. But for this last, fascinating period, Get Back provides a rewarding look at artists still capable of making iconic music together, if also starting to suspect they’d rather do it independently of one another. It’s a terrific documentary portrait, but strangely, it might have benefitted from there being somewhat less of it.