In 1969, being a Beatle was a little like living through a pandemic.
You’re isolated from the wider world. You’re overexposed to your closest companions, the ones you love the most and who know you best — the ones who drive you crazy. You’re struggling to move forward despite lack of shared vision, fear of the future and sheer exhaustion.
None of which had succeeded — just yet, as of January 1969 — in snuffing out the troubled but heartfelt cohesion, the startling spontaneity, the cracking brilliance of the Beatles. It’s all there in fascinating and exhaustive detail in “Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s masterful three-part TV series (now on Disney+), which takes a deeper dive into the hundreds of hours of footage filmed that month for what became the desultory dissolution movie “Let It Be.”
“Get Back” reintroduces us to that scene, but in far greater dimension. The Beatles’ self-imposed mission at the time was to document themselves writing and recording a new batch of songs, with the ultimate aim some sort of live performance as well as a new album, but they had a pressing deadline — just under one month — and no new material. They’d also decided to “get back” to basics by employing no studio trickery, overdubs or editing. Everything would be performed live, just like it was back in the old days when the Beatles were, as Paul McCartney still likes to say, “a great little rock ’n’ roll band,” not some pantheon of musical gods.
So, the pressure was on and cameras captured it all: ramshackle run-throughs of standard oldies (like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll”) that the rowdy young Beatles once played for nightclub crowds; tentative introductions of brand-new tunes sketched out by McCartney and George Harrison only the night before and revealed to the others for the very first time; lengthy squabbles about harmony vocals, guitar solos and other musical details; and overwhelming angst about the band’s direction and reputation.
(“It’s like watching your parents have a fight,” my daughter commented at the end of the first episode.)
Maybe that’s the most remarkable thing about “Get Back.” It provides a candid, sometimes uncomfortable window on four famous personalities who seemed larger than life even when they were impossibly young. (Incredibly, in 1969 these over-it, world-weary men were only in their late 20s.)
Or perhaps what’s most remarkable is that gaining a better understanding of the Beatles’ complicated, familial chemistry actually matters to so many of us. For seriously infected Beatlemaniacs like me, Jackson’s bright, all-inclusive redo of the brief, miserable (and weirdly dim) “Let It Be” movie is a major new contribution to Beatles scholarship and culture. We’ll be returning, rediscovering and dissecting for years.
Fortunately, most of the discord comes to an end near the halfway mark of “Get Back,” which is when the group relocates from a chilly, cavernous movie studio to a homey new recording room at Apple Records. That’s where the band really gets down to the business of polishing new tunes. The addition of old friend and keyboard whiz Billy Preston, a jubilant presence, lifts everyone’s game so tremendously that John Lennon floats permanently enlisting Preston as a fifth Beatle.
When Harrison suggests adding Bob Dylan too, McCartney wisecracks that things are difficult enough with four.
With his astonishing gifts for musical arrangement and, especially, for pulling melodies out of thin air, McCartney steps forward as the natural, if slightly uncomfortable, bandleader. One highlight of the show is witnessing him improvise the basic idea for the rocking title song, “Get Back,” out of nothing in a couple of minutes. You can just about see the wheels turning in his head. Another gem is McCartney’s improvisation of a comedy curio called “Commonwealth,” protesting racism against immigrants.
McCartney’s brilliance is outshone only by John Lennon’s wickedly irrepressible verbal mischief. Watching these two outsize talents get serious when they’re writing together, and outrageously silly when they’re silly together, is one of the many joyful revelations in “Get Back.” (When McCartney’s 6-year-old stepdaugher runs rampant in the studio, mimicking Lennon’s future wife by wailing into an open microphone, Lennon notes with approval: “Yoko!”)
Alas, the fiery chemical bond between Lennon and McCartney leaves little room for poor moody George Harrison, who seesaws at first between cheerful participation and simmering resentment. At the end of Episode 1, the crowded-out Harrison abruptly puts down his guitar and quits the band, leaving the others to explode in heavy-metal jamming, complete with Yoko Ono on lead wail. But within a couple of days he’s back, surprisingly happy, sporting far-out Carnaby fashions and making energetic contributions to the team.
Guitarists with sharp eyes will learn a lot about Harrison’s subtle talent and his late-blossoming songwriting from “Get Back.” The reconciled Harrison matter-of-factly discusses his dilemma with Lennon, explaining that he’s bursting with enough new songs for a solo album but that he very much wants to preserve “the Beatle thing” as well.
Ringo Starr may always come last in the Beatle list, but he’s the journeyman hero of “Get Back.” He’s always ready to play and always steady as a rock, both in music and in friendship. In one scene, Harrison helps Starr work out some chords for his new ditty, “Octopus’s Garden.” In another, Starr wonders at McCartney’s fertile meanderings around the keyboard, where seedlings of ideas are blossoming into “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.”
“I’d watch an hour of him just playing the piano. It’s so great,” Starr says.
That’s how Beatles superfans will feel about this massive, three-episode, eight-hour narrative: rewarded with completeness that seems aimed more at history than at easy viewing. The casually curious might enjoy dipping in and out of Episode 1 to get a taste of the uncertainty and misery (and the improvisation of “Get Back” and “Commonwealth”) before heading for the happier climes of Episodes 2 and 3.
The entire project culminates in a live performance, as the group plays its famous guerilla concert atop the roof of the Apple building in London. The well-rehearsed, powered-up Beatles seem entirely in their element, with (mostly) happy chaos in the streets below, along with comically ineffective intervention by the staid constabulary.
“Jolly good,” pronounces one passing woman, who seems about the age of a Beatle mother.
“I think it’s very good, but why aren’t they doing it in the street?” another passerby asks. “We’d all like to see them.”
At last, more than half a century later, there’s so much more of the Beatles to see, hear and understand.