Director Peter Jackson’s new three-part, eight-hour documentary “The Beatles: Get Back,” airing on Disney + starting Thursday, adds even more obsessive and grueling detail to the story of a group that has been obsessively documented for over 50 years. .
And like the Beatles themselves, by the time the final episode ends, viewers will likely be ready, finally, to stop.
Does a good group really need endless documentaries chronicling every burp and aimless negotiation of its members?
At the start of 1969, the Beatles were in crisis. Their manager, Brian Epstein (whom they still referred to as “Mr. Epstein”), had passed away. No one else was able to say ‘no’ to one of the four most successful musicians on the planet. In a desperate attempt to recapture their old collaborative spark, Paul McCartney suggested a practice session to create new songs without studio deception or overdubs, so the tracks sounded and played live, just like on their first albums.
The sessions were filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for a documentary which became the 1970 film “Let It Be”. For the new documentary, Jackson went back to the 55 hours of footage to create what is essentially an (extremely) extended cut.
At the start of the 1969 sessions, guitarist George Harrison complained of a disappointing take. “It looks like the same old s —,” he said. This frustrated exclamation also functions as an unwitting criticism of Jackson’s documentary.
The big takeaway from the new material is supposed to be that The Beatles didn’t hate each other as much back then as they previously suspected. Yes, we see the moment when Harrison, angered by McCartney’s demands for control, leaves the group for a few days.
But there’s also plenty of footage of the band hanging out and laughing as they play through early rock and pop tracks from Tommy Tucker, Arthur Crudup, and the Everly Brothers. John’s irrepressible bad boy antics – singing with a Scandinavian accent, turning every song into vaudeville with high-pitched heckling – seem less sarcastic and more silly. The other members of the group are having fun.
The change in interpretation is of interest to Beatles fanatics, of whom there are many. But even people like me who enjoy band music are likely to find much of the extra running time tedious.
Scenes of endless rambling arguments and pointless jokes make you feel like you’re stuck in some kind of hellish fusion of low-end podcast and board meeting. In a particularly uncomfortable sequence, McCartney reads / sings a negative press release aloud as the others jostle each other. It’s supposed to show he’s indifferent and unaffected. But it comes across as a pointless and humiliating self-flagellation exercise.
Even the music becomes a kind of torment when it spans eight hours. “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are solid songs. McCartney’s schmaltz ballads, like “Let It Be,” are always pretty. The retro rock ‘n’ roll flavored skiffle of “One After 909” is still kicking your feet. But despite being well constructed, songs in general just don’t stand up to this obsessive scrutiny.
By the fifth, 10th or 30th pass, you (like the band) are ready to never hear them again.
Scenes of endless rambling arguments and pointless jokes make you feel like you’re stuck in some kind of hellish fusion of low-end podcast and board meeting.
The only moment in the sessions that seems truly exciting and new is when Lennon’s future wife Yoko Ono walks up to the mic for a jam and starts screaming like an injured creature in labor. Lennon on guitar and McCartney on drums are suddenly fueled by demonic inspiration. The click of comments and the scream make it sound for a moment like they’re from the same year as contemporaries like the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and Led Zeppelin. They not only look back to Chuck Berry, but also to a future of punk, metal, no wave and noise.
Lennon would explore this direction further in his collaborations with Ono after the Beatles disbanded a year later. But when he lazily suggests including the recording on “Let It Be” itself, everyone looks embarrassed.
The Beatles pioneered pop studio experimentation, concept albums, and heavy music in the 1960s. But by 1969 they were no longer at the forefront of any particular musical movement – and didn’t seem to want to be. Their latest albums are celebrated like all the rest of their albums by a sort of critical inertia. But contemporaries like Sly Stone, Miles Davis, Black Sabbath, Vashti Bunyan and, for that matter, Ono and Billy Preston, who performed on the “Let It Be” sessions, were pushing rock in directions that the Beatles, as that collective at least, just couldn’t muster the energy to explore.
There is no shame in just being a great band, rather than the best, biggest, and most stunning band ever, at any given time. But does a good group really need endless documentaries chronicling every burping and aimless negotiation of its members?
Jackson is an important and popular director. He says he spent four years working on this documentary, all to tell us once again that The Beatles are the most important musical group to ever band together – yes, even to their indifferent Elvis impersonations. Couldn’t he think of any music from that era or any other that might have been worth thinking about instead?
Of course, popularity and critical consensus have their own logic. The Beatles are the thing to talk about because the Beatles are the thing to talk about. Documentaries about lesser-known characters aren’t going to get as much attention, because people aren’t as interested in less famous characters by definition. Fame is an airless box. The Beatles, to their credit, got fed up and left. The rest of us, however, are apparently doomed to sit in this studio listening to “Get Back” forever.