The Beatles: Get Back (Review)

The Peter Jackson led restoration of The Beatles’ Get Back sessions (previously only released as part of the movie Let It Be) is not merely fascinating, it is a truly definitive work of unprecedented brilliance. It’s impossible to not sound hyperbolic when describing it. It gives a privileged insight to an iconic moment of cultural history; it presents the creative process better than anything I’ve ever seen; it reframes the conversation around a previously known chapter in Beatles history. And, beyond all that, it’s just a joy from start to finish, every minute of its almost eight hours being at least a minor revelation.

Of course, this does all depend on an appreciation for The Beatles. If you don’t like The Beatles, you won’t like this. But, this being said, this being a chronicle of history more than a hagiography, or any focused narrative, may give it crossover appeal. The best way to describe the work is in comparison to its original incarnation, the documentary Let It Be. Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film took 16mm footage, blew it up to 35 and haphazardly chucked it together. We can’t blame only him, arguments about how people were being presented and what narrative was being suggested defined the process. The end result is a fascinating mess, an unparalleled look into the life of The Beatles, and how they make those songs, but an utter jumble. The film was reviled by the band, not liking the portrait it painted, and its release has been supressed for decades. This being the case, it still stood as the definitive statement on what was a pivotal point in the history of the band: a portrait of a band falling apart.

But, we don’t need that anymore. We have this painstakingly restored masterpiece. First of all, you can’t undersell the technical achievement, nor its impact. Techniques like those used on They Shall Not Grow Old are applied and the result is staggering. The footage that once looked so shoddy is now gorgeous, in a way that’s utterly transporting. The final section of Let It Be (the concert) felt like a window into the past; this film feels like living in the present. The Beatles no longer feel like history, their humanity is sold so well and watching this is just watching life unfurl on screen. This matches the prosaic nature of the footage, everyday stuff of the band goofing around, chatting and recording. The curation is even more staggering, though. While Let It Be existed at random, and sans context, this is seamless. There is no forced narrative, no talking head approach or intrusive narration. It’s just the footage with the occasional usage of supplementary material or text on screen to contextualise key moments.

What Jackson and co. have done, is to carefully thread a chronological narrative out of reems of footage that gives you all you would want and need. It feels like we are actually mapping out a journey, a story with clear beats and an obvious destination (in which all moments are allowed to make sense) yet it also keeps the incidental. A real feat is how the edit manages to capture the atmosphere. The first part ends with the departure of a band member, the second part begins (after a brief introduction) with chaos. The remaining band members descend into a collective, yet artistic, madness. The music becomes chaotic, one of them is swinging around the studio. It’s wild. And the composition of it all captures this feeling perfectly. At every point, the right footage is chosen, capturing something brilliant. The historical arc is captured but so is the emotional arc, and the personal.

The most overt highlight of Get Back is the concert at the end. The iconic rooftop gig is presented, like in Let It Be, but (as with all else) it’s expanded and better. The filmmakers make use of a split-screen approach, working very cleverly as it reminds the viewer of the cover of the Let It Be album (a deft touch that justifies what could have been a distracting stylisation). What this means is that we are never dragged away from the roof yet we also get to capture its impact. After all, there are four stories going on and each exists (to begin with) in independence. We have the band playing, lost in the music in a state of artistic bliss; the crowd gathering beneath, interviewed in brilliant sequences; we have the recording actually happening downstairs and, finally, we have the police trying to shut it down (a welcome touch is a subtitle pointing out the names of the main police officers). It all happened together and we see it together, Jackson and co. managing to capture the event and its impact. However, though astonishing, this sequence is not the real highlight.

The actual highlight is being with The Beatles. For me, it is the glances between John and Paul, the bond shared in looks and the way they just goof around and try to make each other laugh. Seeing The Beatles in the studio for extended periods just being creative explosions, while also terrifically silly, is a unique pleasure. And then, every now and then, you see how a masterpiece was written. Capturing the creative process on film has long evaded most filmmakers, with so many music films just propagating the myth that music spontaneously bursts into the world (Bohemian Rhapsody being maybe the worst offender, and this being by no means its worst crime). Obviously, The Beatles are operating on another level, but seeing noodling, improvisation and collaboration (or just arguments) slowly form into known songs is beyond stunning to behold. The debate, the back and forth, the conflict, it is all part of it. It actually feels like a gift, something so special and so raw (ironically so, as the careful restoration is what evokes this).

Ultimately, Get Back is just something perfect. It is a look into how some of the best music was put together and gives us a look at how The Beatles worked (and didn’t work). It is a vital historical document and also a very entertaining (and very funny) documentary. This is what documentary filmmaking is for. The world is better for having Get Back in it. It is beyond special.

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