When I was a teenager, I had two deeply cherished time-travel fantasies. One was to go back to 1980 and prevent the assassination of John Lennon. The other was to go back to 1969 and stop The Beatles from breaking up. Watching Peter Jackson’s tremendous archival documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, what immediately struck me was the many different futures that could have been. And they could all be traced back to the month of January in 1969.
As far as received wisdom goes, the making of the Let It Be album and documentary was a fraught time for the band. With John Lennon and Paul McCartney allegedly at each other’s throats, Lennon’s partner Yoko Ono a divisive influence and George Harrison deeply disaffected, that month was supposedly the final nail in the coffin of the band’s career.
And now we have Get Back, and with it, finally, the full story. And it’s not at all what anyone expected. In the nearly eight hours of footage available in the three-part series, we see a supremely talented band writing songs, fooling around, rehearsing for a live show and working through the inevitable pitfalls of growing up. It’s also a startlingly intimate portrait of cultural titans that’s quite unprecedented in terms of the level of access that we, the audience, are granted.
This becomes an almost perfect outcome because that’s exactly what The Beatles had been aiming for when the cameras began rolling on 2 January in a large, draughty sound stage of Twickenham Studios in London. The band hadn’t played live since 1966, and despite their groundbreaking work on albums such as Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and The Beatles (1968), a connection with their audience was something they missed. The band had been growing up in public since 1963, and, by 1969, were seen by the burgeoning American counterculture as four genius prophets of an egalitarian future. The Beatles themselves were more interested, as usual, in surveying the pop, R&B and rock landscape, and seeking inspiration for their own next steps. Influenced both by the new bluesy, heavy rock sounds from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac and Canned Heat as well as by the return to musical roots from peers such as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Band, The Beatles too were keen to get back to where they once belonged, as a cracking live band, and upstage all their contemporaries.
As The Beatles: Get Back shows, the band had to first work through many internal contradictions. These had been surfacing more and more since the death of their beloved manager and father figure, Brian Epstein, in 1967. By 1969, McCartney was tired of doing only albums, Lennon was increasingly distracted by the urge to create avant-garde art “happenings” with Ono, Harrison was frustrated by their disregard of his songwriting, and Ringo Starr was trying to fit in a burgeoning film career. The section of the documentary which deals with the Twickenham days of early January clearly shows The Beatles as being uncomfortable in their cold, unmusical surroundings, accustomed as they were to the creative comforts of the EMI studios at Abbey Road.
Used as they were to beginning recordings in the late evenings and carrying on through the night, they are sleepy and lethargic at 10am, increasingly bitchy as they work through their interpersonal dynamics. At one point, Starr comments on how everyone in the band has been increasingly grumpy since Epstein’s death. McCartney, with his fanatical devotion to the group, often ends up overstepping the mark, sounding hectoring and bossy or growing sullen when the others push back. Harrison tries to bring a more democratic air to the proceedings, bringing new songs that are as good, if not better than what Lennon and McCartney are producing at the moment. The two alpha Beatles continue to treat him like a kid brother, fuelling his resentment. It’s Starr who seems to hold the band together through the toughest moments. Though he hardly speaks through the documentary, he’s full of droll, zen-like wisdom when he does.
He’s also the best musician in the room. Of late, Starr’s unique drum compositions, feel and technique are finally being given the credit they deserve, and on Get Back, you can see why. Always rock solid, even when he’s accompanying a new song, Starr is never sloppy or tentative, his beats immaculate, his snare drum crisp and dry, his cymbal and hi-hat work swinging immaculately. He exists to play in his favourite band and offer endless love and camaraderie to the others. At one point, Lennon even jokes that they often forget he’s there, and when Harrison temporarily quits the group in a huff, it’s Starr who brings Lennon and McCartney together in a tender group hug.
Through all this, the most amazing aspect of the documentary is seeing how each Beatle was as committed as ever to the group in early 1969, a little over a year before their break-up. McCartney’s creative ambitions are the most obviously tied to the band, but so are Lennon’s. During a remarkable candid conversation, the two talk about their outsized egos and how they have let Harrison’s hurt fester, and how they would need to behave better in the future because being in The Beatles means the world to them.
When Harrison returns and the band relocates to Apple Studios, everyone perks up and pulls together, writing and refining songs on the fly, songs that would be the highlight of any other band’s careers. To see The Beatles functioning as a tight group of musicians with an almost uncanny psychic connection is breathtaking. There is one magical moment in Twickenham when a sleepy McCartney, Starr and Harrison are waiting for Lennon. The Beatles are short of new songs and McCartney picks up his bass and starts strumming chords and a rhythm, and before our eyes, Get Back, the band’s chart-topping single from April 1969, is created from thin air. Starr provides a rudimentary beat with handclaps, while Harrison yawns and starts busking along on his guitar.
The Beatles real falling-out would begin in the weeks and months following the end of the filming and sessions in January. The group’s doomed search for someone to fill the managerial vacuum would slowly tear Lennon and McCartney apart through the rest of year, culminating in Lennon announcing to the others that he’s quit the group later in the year. Exhausted by his attempts to keep the band together, and feeling cornered by the others, McCartney would make the split official in April 1970. In January 1969, such thoughts are far from the band. They bring in American soul singer and pianist Billy Preston to augment the group, and Lennon and Harrison are enthused at the possibility of adding a fifth Beatle.
They rehearse and demo songs, including Harrison’s Something, Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth and McCartney’s The Back Seat Of My Car, which would go on to feature in their final album, Abbey Road, as well as in their respective solo albums in the early 1970s. They do rediscover the joys of being a live band, both in the studio as well as in the famously rocking rooftop gig on 30 January. They are genuinely happy in each other’s company, discussing current events and playing songs they have heard on the radio, covering old favourites, reminiscing about their early days as a band.
Let’s not forget how ridiculously young they were at the time: Lennon and Starr were 28, McCartney, 26 and Harrison, 25. The Beatles’ 1960s schedule was punishing: two albums, two-three singles and at least a film, or, till 1966, a world tour, every year. Who knows how things might have worked out if, like modern bands, they had had the luxury of going their own ways, doing their own thing and reconvening every two years to make their next album. More than anything, it’s probably exhaustion that broke up the band.
In short, Peter Jackson’s documentary is nothing short of revelatory, giving both Beatles fans and cultural historians alike plenty to chew on for years to come. It accomplishes on film what Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records And The Sixties and Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970 did as books—providing a primary text to evaluate this most special of bands. The Let It Be sessions have long been seen as a Beatles fiasco, in part due to Lennon and Harrison’s deliberate mis-remembering of the sessions in the bitter and acrimonious fallout of The Beatles’ breakup. We now have the full picture, served with huge dollops of nuance. A fiasco? Sessions that produced a No.1 album in the US and UK, three number 1 singles, a film, a live show, and enough songs to last The Beatles—both as a band and as individual artists—for at least the next three years could hardly be called that. The Beatles: Get Back sets the record straight.