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Review: Peter Jackson’s ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ on Disney+ Hotstar

One for the die-hard Beatlenut, the director pieces together a lengthy but insightful three-part docuseries about the final phase in John, George, Paul and Ringo’s careers

Narendra Kusnur Nov 29, 2021

A still from 'The Beatles: Get Back.' Photo: Courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar

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Like anybody else, John Lennon too felt weary. At one point in Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back, he admits he could not get the song “Don’t Let Me Down” right because of how tired he was, and that he could do with a bit more sleep.

Like anybody else, John could be consistently late too. Much earlier in the film, which shows a scene from January 1969, a bearded Paul McCartney is heard complaining of this habit, and telling Ringo Starr he could get rid of John. The work doesn’t suffer though, as Paul picks up his bass guitar, hammers a few notes and creates a song out of nowhere. A yawning George Harrison fiddles with his guitar and a bored Ringo joins in with handclaps. By the time John walks in, the basic skeleton of the song “Get Back” is ready.

Jackson’s three-part rockumentary The Beatles: Get Back premiered on Disney+ Hotstar on November 25th, with a runtime of a whopping seven hours and 48 minutes. While that may seem lengthy for the casual fan—part two could have done with some editing—it surely is a treasure for the diehard Beatlenut.

Of course, fans would be familiar with the basic theme, captured in 80 minutes by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg in the 1970 film Let It Be. The Beatles are assigned with the task of creating and rehearsing 14 songs to be played in front of a live audience for a TV show and documentary within a set deadline as Ringo is committed to shoot for the feature film The Magic Christian after that.

Known for his The Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit trilogies, Jackson has described Get Back as a “documentary about a documentary.” He chooses from over 60 hours of outtakes from Lindsay-Hogg’s film, along with 150 hours of audio recordings. Like the 1970 film, Get Back begins with the Beatles rehearsing at London’s Twickenham Film Studios where the original plan was to shoot a TV film, their shift to the Apple Studios and culminating with the famous free and unannounced Rooftop Concert, which would be their last public performance.

The song “Get Back” is played on loop and one sees rehearsals of “The Long And Winding Road,” “Let It Be,” “Across The Universe,” “Dig A Pony,” “Two Of Us,” and Harrison’s “For You Blue” and “I Me Mine.” All these songs made it to the record Let It Be, whose final mix was produced by Phil Spector. There are also rehearsals of “Don’t Let Me Down,” released as a B-Side, and the Abbey Road songs “Something,” “Carry That Weight” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.”

Jackson scores in the details, beginning with a 10-minute capsule to focus on the band’s journey before 1969, and then using entire portions of rehearsals, recordings, disagreements and huddle meetings featuring the Beatles with guest pianist Billy Preston, producer George Martin, filmmaker Lindsay-Hogg, sound engineer Glyn Johns and road manager Mal Evans. Musician and engineer Alan Parsons, described as ‘tape operator’ in the credits, appears in a few fleeting shots, and the audience is in for a surprise after the brief appearance of actor Peter Sellers, who starred in The Magic Christian.

John’s girlfriend Yoko Ono is constantly by his side—though she thankfully keeps a distance during the Rooftop Concert. Paul’s girlfriend Linda Eastman is seen clicking photographs, while her daughter Heather plays around with the band members. George’s wife Pattie makes a very brief appearance, and Ringo’s wife Maureen Starkey pops in and out a few times.

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For a diehard fan, watching the documentary would be akin to the experience of a groupie who’s been invited to hang out with the boys in the studio, enjoying every minute of idol worship. The song rehearsals, over rounds of cigarettes and tea, are a treat, especially the way Paul and John keep vocalizing their parts, singing scat syllables, using mock voices and imitating instrument sounds.

The Beatles
The Beatles live at their rooftop concert in January 1969. Photo: Courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar

There are times they go back to old songs, distorting the words of “O Bla-Di O Bla-Da” and suddenly jamming to “Rock And Roll Music,” which is shown with footage from an earlier concert. This is in addition to the renditions of the traditional “Midnight Special,” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” popularized by Elvis Presley, Jimmie Davies and Charles Mitchell’s’ “You Are My Sunshine,” and Bob Dylan’s “Quinn The Eskimo” and “I Shall Be Released.”

There’s a shot of George trying to write the words of ”Something,” which was subsequently used on the Abbey Road album. Seeing him struggling to get it right, George tells him to sing “Something in the way she moves attracts me like a cauliflower” until it clicks, with George even using the word ‘pomegranate’ (the actual words are “Something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover”). And there are these fantastic sequences where John sings out their proposed setlist and Paul reads out a critical newspaper article in song form.

Not everything is hunky-dory between the Fab Four, though. In the first part itself, they are all rattled by the sudden deadline of creating 14 songs in a short time. The group members are unhappy with the acoustics at Twickenham, and feel they could work more intimately in a smaller place. Besides John’s tardiness, there is constant friction between Paul and George, which sees the latter commenting, “Maybe we should have a divorce,” and Paul replying, “Well, I said that at the last meeting.”

Tired of Paul’s domineering personality, George announces that he is quitting the band, to which John retorts: “If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we get (Eric) Clapton.” The others want to convince George but the first meeting does not go off well.

Of course, there are some touching moments, such as when they talk about how much they miss their beloved manager, Brian Epstein who had died months earlier because of an overdose at the age of 32. 

The second part begins with Ringo being the only one to arrive on time. He’s sitting with film director Michael, when a bouquet arrives for George. They laugh at the irony, and when Michael asks who sent it, Ringo responds that it’s the Hare Krishna people. “Harry who?” asks Michael, innocently. Ringo is asked if he liked India, talking about the band’s visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in Rishikesh the previous year. “Not really,” says Ringo.

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Paul arrives next, and before John comes in, he expresses his displeasure about Yoko’s constant presence, but admits he can do nothing about it. Saying it isn’t right to interfere, he quips, “It’s going to be such a comical thing like in 50 years’ time people say they broke off because Yoko sat on an amp.” Paul says that he and John wrote a lot more earlier because they spent a lot of time together, often sharing the room during their travels. He also states that given a choice between Yoko and the Beatles, John would opt for Yoko.

Paul and John eventually have a chat, recorded clandestinely, though it’s more about George. The guitarist eventually returns to the group, and as per one of his conditions, they shift to the Apple Studio. Even John’s body language shows a change for the better, and after the idea for the TV show is dropped, the boys differ about whether to do the Rooftop Concert or not.

The famous show finally takes place during lunchtime on January 30th, 1969, to the delight of fans and the discomfort of office-goers in the vicinity. The police are asked to intervene because it gets too loud. In the docuseries, the footage of crowd responses is merged beautifully with shots of the band playing.

The Get Back series is sure to bring pure joy to devout fans, and there are many portions one would want to sing along with. The only complaint, arguably, is the length, and one wonders whether it would have been a better idea to divide the same film into seven or eight shorter parts instead of three lengthy episodes. Some of the songs are repeated often, and after a point one feels like fast-forwarding “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” But then, that’s how most rehearsals are—musicians keep on practicing until satisfied.

For Jackson, it’s purely a labor of love. Rather than using judgmental commentary, he prefers to tell the story as it unfolds, leaving viewers to come to their conclusions. The other positive thing is that this gives a great insight into the lives of the boys, as a group and as individuals—their mannerisms, musicality, quirks and humor come across in vivid detail.

Many portions warrant a revisit, even after that first lengthy watch. The creation of the song “Get Back,” George’s decision to quit, the rehearsal of “Let It Be,” “The Long And Winding Road” and “Across The Universe,” the singing out of the setlist, the fun the musicians have when the young Heather is in the studio, and, of course, the Rooftop Concert; though seen before on different formats, are scenes that linger on. It’s a film that can be treasured for posterity, with a lot that’ll tempt you to ‘get back’.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ below.

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