It may be the Beatles’ last live performance together, that much is clear from the start. For three years the musicians have only worked in the studio, now Paul McCartney wants another concert. A live TV show maybe? Or, to make a lot of noise, an illegal appearance in the Houses of Parliament, possibly carried out by the police while playing guitar, as John Lennon jokes? Or, more conventionally, in a children’s hospital or an orphanage?
On January 2, 1969, the four musicians went together in a hall in the Twickenham Film Studios and began rehearsing for an album that only exists in fragments and will gradually take shape in the following weeks. The conclusion will be a legendary concert, which will not take place in front of sick children, but in front of passers-by and with an enormous police presence on the roof of the headquarters of Apple Corps, the Beatles company.
A film crew was also present in the studio under director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who recorded all conflicts, song births, stupidities and music-historical moments with his camera and sound people, and cut the 81-minute documentary “Let it Be” from the material , which premiered in 1970, but without any of the band members taking part. For fans, the film is considered a sad document of the breakup of the band, but in 1971 there was an Oscar for “Best Film Music”.
Epic studio recordings
Apple Corps was convinced that there was also an uplifting story hidden in the many dozen hours of recorded material, the company that still represents all of the creative and business interests of the band members who are still alive. For decades, Apple Corps has been busy making albums out of the most improvised recordings, but only die-hard fans can get real enjoyment from them.
Peter Jackson, famous for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and notorious for epic film lengths, was commissioned to re-evaluate the recordings. A new documentary film has now been made under his direction, around eight hours long, which will be published in three parts on the Disney Plus streaming platform. Jackson demonstrated his flair for archival recordings in 2018 with the First World War documentary project “They Shall Not Grow Old”, for which he reworked film recordings from the front in France and backed them up with sensational eyewitness reports from the BBC audio archive.
“One of the most fertile phases”
When accepting the Beatles project, Jackson said he hesitated, as a self-declared fan who had always viewed the “Let it Be” album ambiguously and was concerned that the footage was also melancholy and gloomy. He was surprised, however: “I don’t think there was another three-week period in the history of the Beatles that was more creative and fruitful,” says Jackson: “This is not the depressing break of the Beatles, the lousy Recordings, but actually one of the most intense phases of songwriting, rehearsals and recordings you have ever had. “
“Get Back” – that is what McCartney wanted the album to be originally called, in the sense of a “Back to the roots” – is now the result of Jackson’s efforts to create the most intense film experience possible from the more than 60 hours of film material. Especially in the first few days at Twickenham Film Studios – later the Beatles move to the Apple Corps studio for the recordings – it is a decidedly retro-colorful viewing experience.
Only at first glance do the recordings seem improvised, the background is carefully illuminated in powdery rainbow colors. Every day someone places a vase with fresh mini daffodils in yellow-green at Ringo Starr’s feet, the flowers form an attractive contrast to the pink-violet background. At some point the flowers become a running gag when Ringo receives the bouquet of the day like a wedding bouquet because nobody else has a hand free.
Conflicts in the studio
George Harrison, who feels patronized by McCartney and keeps getting quieter, at some point leaves the studio almost without a word. “Cut, cut” someone shouts, there shouldn’t be a film, only days later he’s back on board. “If he doesn’t come back, we’ll just get Eric Clapton,” says Lennon, probably just kidding. We have known about the tensions for a long time, but they are being tracked down here. The fact that Yoko Ono is always there also causes conflicts among the “Fab Four”.
When Lennon doesn’t show up in the studio one morning, Paul says what the others think: If the going gets tough and John has to choose between Yoko and the Beatles, Yoko will win. What is less well known: How great Ono’s patience must have been to endure these week-long sessions. This is very clearly noticeable here, because above all the “Get Back” documentary is long and meandering. It is possible that the Beatles are no longer a band made up of real people, but rather a historical phenomenon, like Lady Diana or John F. Kennedy.
Searching for traces in the material
Thanks to the extensive running time, “Get Back” enables a search for traces of patterns, conflicts and song births. What is a gift for the competent Beatles’ exegesis turns into a gently curated splash for everyone else: Short text inserts name people and songs, photo overlays explain historical contexts such as the virulent racism and the resulting unrest in Great Britain, which was unpublished in the UK Beat down the song “Commonwealth” and turn “Get Back” into an anti-racist protest song in between.
Then again gems flash up like a McCartney whimpering and humming on the guitar, listening to his voice on “Get Back”. That mysterious moment in which a song is created, in which hesitant or courageous trial and error gradually forms into what will later become a hit, the moment that films about musicians keep trying to reconstruct that is so elusive: Here it is documented, in real time.