The Beatles: Get Back Is Too Long, But It Has to Be

What may at first seem like a major bug in Peter Jackson’s new docuseries is actually its greatest feature — and a gift.

12/2/2021 11:16:00 AM

'You don’t watch Get Back so much as hang out with it and let it wash over you.' chaneyj writes on why the three-part Disney+ docuseries is too long — and why it needs to be

What may at first seem like a major bug in Peter Jackson’s new docuseries is actually its greatest feature — and a gift.

Collectively, the three episodes add up to 470 minutes, or nearly eight hours of viewing time. That’s more than three House of Guccis, more than three Dunes, and in the ballpark of the entire third season of Succession. It is not, however, nearly as long as the original or extended versions of The Lord of the Rings (558 and 686 minutes, respectively), which, like Get Back, were directed by Peter Jackson, a man who clearly loves to tell sprawling stories in three parts without much concern for keeping things tight.

I could sit here on this very internet and pretend Get Back would not have benefited from some serious trims, but I won’t because it would have. The docuseries definitely doesn’t need its ten-minute opening recap of the Beatles’ career, a portion of Get Back I refer to as Previously, on the Beatles. (A few well-chosen title cards would have done the trick.) In theory, there is no need to watch Paul McCartney and John Lennon do a goofy take of “Two of Us” in silly accents and, later, watch them do another goofy take of “Two of Us” sung through gritted teeth. Honestly, at least six of the stabs at “Two of Us” probably could have been tossed in the trash without doing major harm to this endeavor.

At the same time, it would not have made sense to edit Get Back and reduce it to a two-, three-, or even four-hour version. One of the many things Get Back does really well is to provide a sense of what it was like to float in the orbit of John, Paul, George, and Ringo at a moment when the Beatles as a unit were beginning to disintegrate. A lot of that time seems frustrating, tense, and uncomfortable. With its sometimes sleepy pace and awkward silences, Get Back makes you sit in those feelings for a while and, to the extent that such a thing is possible, feel what the members of the biggest rock band of all time were feeling. The title Get Back refers to the well-known Beatles song and the original name of the album that would become Let It Be. But in line with the transportive nature of the material, Get Back also feels like a command instructing us to go back in time and just exist for a while in the first month of the last year of both the 1960s and the band whose music helped define it.

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To see only the more dramatic moments in the 22 days that unfold in Get Back, first at Twickenham Studios and then at Apple Corps, would not provide a proper sense of the surrounding vibe. Get Back is a lot of things: a concert movie, a mountain of archival footage, a new resource for engaging in deep Yoko Ono analysis, a treasure trove of lewks. But it is also, most definitely, a vibe. You don’t watch Get Back so much as hang out with it and let it wash over you. It’s the equivalent of a long-playing record that fills the room and is still going even after you leave for a few minutes to make a snack. (That snack obviously should involve toast and tea. So many cups of tea in Get Back!) Or, to put it in a more modern context, as my esteemed colleague Dee Lockett did during a Slack conversation, “Really, this doc is a Twitch stream.” What it’s asking us to do is akin to what the last track (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) on the best Beatles album (Revolver) suggests: Relax and float downstream. Surrender, if not to the void, then to the flow of wherever Jackson’s shaping of 60 hours of rarely seen Beatles footage takes us.

The Beatles: Get Back also serves another function, which may ultimately be its most enduring contribution: It shows us what the creative process looked like for some of the most prolific and gifted artists of the late 20th century. Inspiration is often described in mystical terms, as if it’s some force that just strikes songwriters, novelists, or filmmakers between their eyeballs and guides them through the process of crafting a song, book, or movie. There is a moment in the docuseries when McCartney, guitar in hand, summons the bones of the song “Get Back” out of the ether, which supports the idea that genius is something that strikes suddenly rather than something that can be honed. But part of what makes that moment so magical is that there’s a lot of non-magic leading up to it, followed by even more non-magic. At first, McCartney fashions “Get Back” as an ironic anti-immigrant song before altering the words. Later, he and Lennon spend a fair amount of time noodling over the lyrics, batting American-sounding names back and forth before eventually settling on Jojo. A lot of thought and trial and error is what eventually resulted in the rock classic as we’ve known it for most of our lives.

There is extensive footage like this in Get Back, sparks of ideas that lead to the kneading of melodic and lyrical dough. Ringo Starr plays a bit of “Octopus’s Garden,” and George Harrison starts suggesting different lyrics. McCartney or Lennon vocalizes constantly when he’s got a melody for a tune but not all the actual words yet. (On behalf of every writer who has ever put a TK where a paragraph should be, I thank Lennon and McCartney for making us feel understood.) One could argue that seeing so much of this play out drags down the docuseries. Counterargument: That business is exactly what the docuseries is all about, the tedious experimentation required to turn a lucky spark of an idea into something that will be revisited by generations.

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The show ably captures the delicate human dynamics involved in such collaboration. Beatles fans will come to Get Back knowing Harrison famously left the band for a few days during this period but was eventually lured back by his bandmates and the promise that they would switch venues from Twickenham to Apple. But actually seeing him announce his departure — “I think I’ll be leaving the band,” he says casually, standing up just as lunch is called — is a moment of drama that wouldn’t hit the way it does without all the time spent observing the subtle interplay between the members. The shots of McCartney and Lennon chatting through arrangements while Harrison sits off to the side, of McCartney telling Harrison not to “vamp” because it will “take away from” Lennon’s own guitar vamping, and a mundane conversation about the royalties that will be received from the sale of the Beatles’ pre-1965 sheet-music catalogue, most of which will go to songwriters Lennon and McCartney, all set the stage for Harrison’s behavior. There are multiple microaggressions and outright aggressions that understandably make him, a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, feel like an undervalued member of the group. But we have to see all of that play out to understand his exit in its full context.

Similarly, when Harrison returns, production moves to the Apple building, and, most crucially, Billy Preston starts playing with the band on keyboards, there’s a lightness and joy in the room that stands in contrast to the heavy, exhausted mood that dominated the cavernous space at Twickenham. The difference between those two environments wouldn’t be as apparent, wouldn’t tell as much of a story, if Get Back didn’t spend a decent amount of time soaking in the dour atmosphere at the first location.

And in episode three, when the concert that has been discussed in conversation after conversation finally takes place, famously, on the roof of the Apple Corps building in the middle of London, it takes on even greater significance. We already know the historical importance of this moment — it’s the first live performance by the band in three years and its last, ever. But because we’ve invested in two and a half lengthy episodes to get to this point, there is a sense of accomplishment in this amplified finale. Like the Beatles, we may feel as though we’ve passed an endurance test to arrive here, and that makes the sound of rock and roll blasting across the streets of London, whether Londoners appreciate it or not — “It woke me up from my sleep, and I don’t like it,” complains one older woman — all the more cathartic.

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The Beatles created more music in a shorter period of time than just about any band that ever existed. Fans didn’t have to wait long at all to get new music from them. During the Get Back sessions, the White Album, released in late 1968, sat at the top of the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. and was followed shortly by Yellow Submarine and, later that year, Abbey Road before Let It Be would finally surface as a release in 1970. Imagine getting that many new albums in that short a span from Adele or Beyoncé. You can’t because it’s impossible to conceive. The universe, or at least social media, would fold in upon itself if anyone dropped that much new material that was that good these days.

I wasn’t alive in the 1960s, but I suspect that for those who were, the period when the Beatles were together as a band and pounding out a truly unbelievable amount of songs on the regular must have seemed to go by so quickly. Get Back allows us to return to that era, or experience it for the first time. And by taking it slow, it gives us more time to appreciate being in the presence of Paul, Ringo, and the two who left us decades ago, John and George. The fact that it goes on for so long may seem like the show’s major bug at first, but after a while, you realize it is actually its greatest feature, and a true, generous gift.

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chaneyj That’s so true. A couple of days after I finished watching it I found I missed them. Put it on and listened to it in the background while I was putting up my Christmas decorations! chaneyj Wish it was a documentary about a different album. Don’t really like their last album that much.

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