Let It Be — and Get Back, and the bulk of the sessions and the rooftop concert — have always posed a conundrum in its relation to The Beatles. Simultaneously the flawed but fascinating final statement and a stopgap before Abbey Road, with a series of mixes that haven’t been able to displace the less-fitting excesses of Phil Spector and a film of its making nearly suppressed for decades, it is almost ignored, an album maudit where engagement is filled with complications.
The Beatles: Get Back, which chronicles the month of January 1969 that led to the fabled rooftop concert, seeks to bring forth both the complications and correct the record to a certain extent: while it presents a view of the extended recording sessions that is by no means the totally fractious chaos that it has often been characterized as, there are still flare-ups and disagreements, often characterized by long arguments. Unfortunately, however, Peter Jackson’s molding of the 60 hours of footage at his disposal — as directed initially by Michael Lindsay-Hogg — aims for something close to a recreation of what ends up being something less consistently or genuinely engaging than might be hoped; I say this as a great fan of the Beatles, though it’s been a while since I read Mark Lewisohn’s descriptions in his invaluable tome about the recording sessions, and Let It Be is among my least favorite of their records.
Initially announced as a documentary film, which then turned into a roughly six-hour three-part series, The Beatles: Get Back has now ballooned into an ungainly seven-and-a-half-hour series, with the second part alone, covering the two weeks between George’s departure and just before the rooftop concert preparations, running almost three hours. Length itself is not a problem in and of itself, but the emphases, or rather lack thereof, that Jackson chooses to place are: music is played frequently but in snippets, and a desultory mood quickly sets in, a lethargy that might be warranted if the series was able to sustain and uphold it with its sense of form.
But Jackson is limited by the footage he has, and for inexplicable reasons has chosen to tamper with it further. It appears that Lindsay-Hogg had something like ten cameras all rolling simultaneously, in both Twickenham and Apple, with some of them set in direct close-up of even marginal figures, and Jackson decides to cut rapidly between them almost without pause, holding few shots on either the band as a whole or wide shots of individual figures, aside from ones that emphasize the cavernous space of Twickenham. Moreover, the already discussed anti-archival implications — “restorations” which have heavily degrained most of the footage, thus erasing the 16mm textures that now only truly exist in the nicely vibrant colors — are immediately and continuously distracting in their lack of tactility, and the reframing done, switching the 1.37:1 footage to 1.77:1, might be even more off-putting, cutting off faces and shoving close-ups into angles that were never intended.
With all of this distraction — along with some cutaways, some (the Beatles singing “Rock and Roll Music” intercut with their performances of it on the 1966 world tour) considerably more integrated and lively than others (immigration protests which inspired “Get Back”) — the overall sense of the Beatles running on fumes rings even stronger. And yet… these still are the Lads, and the music when it truly clicks still has a sense of motion and closeness that’s still palpable. The problem, which extends even to the truly fantastic rooftop concert that almost closes the series, lies in the paucity of material that makes it past the vaguely noodling rehearsal stage. The impact of the forty-minute rooftop concert lessens somewhat when the Beatles only play five distinct songs, plus one reprisal each of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” and two reprisals of “Get Back,” especially when the night before they had floated the possibility of playing such songs as “Oh! Darling,” “All Things Must Pass,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The confusion of the entire month, with constant downsizing of plans and missed dates, even extends to the Beatles’ indecision on the day of the rooftop concert; while Jackson’s decision to include this state of mind makes sense from an accuracy standpoint — which, it must be said, only occasionally feels extended to his patience with showcasing entire rehearsals of songs — it makes for amorphous filmmaking, only made more confusing by frequent mismatching of audio and footage.
Still, bland and blithe filmmaking can still yield some fantastic moments; the Beatles even at low ebb are prime camera subjects, though it’s a pity that Ringo (my favorite) has a minimal presence, a charming performance of “Octopus’s Garden” and some little moments aside, due to his general reticence to speak. In one of the few moments that derives its power from duration, the camera holds on Paul as he gradually comes up with “Get Back”; the first jam with Billy Preston yields an energy that registers nicely; it’s genuinely a pleasure to see the exact contexts in which some of John’s studio banter on Let It Be came from. Key figures in the Beatles’ orbit — George Martin and Mal Evans especially — have a nice presence, though it’s somewhat strange to see how much involvement Lindsay-Hogg and Glyn Johns had in the proceedings. And in one of the best aspects, Ono Yōko emerges vindicated; she is a constant presence by John’s side, but remains fairly subdued aside from some really cool moments in which she jams with the Beatles (all of whom seem engaged) using her trademark vocal style, which Paul’s adopted daughter Heather adorably mimics on the recording of “Dig It.”
On the whole, though, The Beatles: Get Back feels both overstuffed and incomplete, something which might be best indicated by the ending. The rooftop concert is enlivening, in large part because of the split screens and perspectives that Jackson utilizes and the corresponding use of proper aspect ratios; the music could be turned up a bit louder than the police constables’ exasperated attempts to close down the production, but a great deal of fun is had in mixing in the voices of the spectators and their bemused appreciation. But rather than close on that, there is a coda of the Beatles and company listening to the recordings, followed by a regression to the desultory studio recordings that they embarked upon immediately after. There is also no mention of the long delay in release, or Spector, or Abbey Road. It’s definitely possible to argue that it’s justified by the overall focus on the sessions themselves (aside a blitzkrieg of a well-executed, if slightly achronological opening ten-minute recap), but so much else of this feels unnecessarily thrown-in — there are even handy chyrons showing who each person is, even the members of the Beatles, for each part — that such an omission feels off. That might be the best description of The Beatles: Get Back: an admirable but compromised effort, to an even greater degree than the album it partially documents.