Get Back felt like it might turn into one of those events that is so over-hyped that you end up feeling like it has been watched for you. Between my Beatles bubble on Twitter and my over-subscriptions to Beatles podcasts, this felt like a real test of my oft-expressed opinion that when it comes to something you are truly obsessed with, you can never have too much.
But in that last week, as people started talking about the 100-minute preview, or dropping non-disclosure agreement hints that they might have seen the whole thing, and various snippets and clips started appearing on the socials, there was a danger of a them-and-us mentality emerging, and that slightly bitter feeling of being in the out group. Also, as it became clear in terms of running time, that – far from being a six hour documentary in three parts – it was actually getting on for eight hours long, it began to feel as if it might be too much.
I’ve been watching bits of the Anthology DVDs over the past couple of weeks – all part of preparing for Beatles Club at school – and one of the things that strikes you is that Anthology itself is about eight hours. So what Peter Jackson has done here is zoom in, as if on a fractal image, and in and in, and he has given us four weeks in January 1969 at about the same length as the Anthology series, which covered, what, nearly 20 years.
But it’s great. This is The Beatles, and they never let us down. I’ve got a few technical quibbles, and I’ve got a lot to say about Michael Lindsay Hogg, but I’ll start by talking about the group, and what they show us in the first episode.
Director Peter Jackson, the Alan Smithee of this arrangement, has chosen to show us the main events of each day in chronological order. In doing so, he begins to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, an arc with heroes and villains, and story beats that seem so perfect that it might be a scripted drama. But The Beatles’ story is the greatest story every told, so no great surprise there.
Paul is a handsome, bearded King Lear and the other three are his daughters, with Ringo as Cordelia. Paul is still at the peak of his creative powers, which is something he demonstrates every day in every way, pulling out song after song as works in progress. But he is also aware that this role he is playing, the kingship, has been thrust upon him, and that resentment is brewing. He ends up tying himself in knots, both pushing things forward and holding himself back in his attempts to manage his colleagues’ ever changing moods.
Lennon, as Goneril, veers between spaced silence and silly playmate. It seems as if he isn’t feeling well a lot of the time, and underneath his behaviour lies a deep insecurity about his songwriting and his voice, as ever. While Paul seems to have songs falling out of him, Lennon has “Don’t Let Me Down”, and (in a hint of the natural talent he’s lost faith in) little fragments like ‘Everybody had a hard year….
Meanwhile, George (Regan), also has songs falling out of him, every night, apparently—but also a growing resentment that he’s treated as a second class Beatle. In the traditional narrative, George is angry with Paul for dismissing his songs, but in Part 1 we see that it is John who jokingly dismisses the waltz time signature of “I Me Mine”. George sits on his cushions watching as Paul and John begin to reconnect and give each other all the attention, until eventually he sees only one option.
And Ringo, lovely Cordelia, watches all, sees all, knows all. It’s fascinating seeing him not quite having the final rhythms that he eventually hits upon. And his look of studied concentration makes you wonder, was he horribly bored? At one point, discussing the show that nobody really wants to do, he nods towards Paul at the piano and says something like, ‘Tell you what, I’d happily watch an hour of him at the piano.’
The Beatles are finding that their bubble is being continually invaded. Where “Mr Epstein” is most obviously missed is in the fact that too many people have access to them, too many people are hanging around, and the alchemy of the group is being tainted.
Far from being the whitewash that many critics sneered might be the case with this re-edit, this really is a clear-eyed view of the situation and the group dynamics. And what you realise is that Michael Lindsay Hogg’s 1970 edit was a stitch up and a distortion. Why he hasn’t been given a harder time over his contribution, I don’t know. When I was reading the Get Back book the other week, I tweeted that my new theory was that MLH broke up the Beatles. He takes himself out of the original film, but he was a constant, daily nagging presence, going on and on about his unfeasible idea of a torchlit concert at an ancient site in Libya. Thinking like a filmmaker, sure, but on the very first day, Paul tells him, in no uncertain terms, ‘I think you’ll find we won’t be going abroad, because Ringo doesn’t want to.’
For his pains, Paul is the one who was stitched up by the Let it Be edit. He’s made to seem more overbearing than he was. Collaborative work on ‘Octopus’s Garden” seems to stop when he arrives at the Apple offices. His argument with George is edited so that it seems as if George is pissed off with Paul. Jackson recontextualises it by showing the whole (out of focus) unedited sequence, in which it is Paul who is frustrated and pissed off at the lack of support, the lack of progress, and the continual harping about the past.
In the most stunning sequence in Part 1, Paul seems to be comfort-strumming chords on his bass, and slips into a trance, out of which emerges the beginnings of ‘Get Back’. It is a spine-tingling moment. Whatever your opinion of the song itself (I think it’s great), it’s a lesson in how creativity works. While George fights off his early morning yawns, and Ringo watches all, sees all and knows all, we witness the miracle of birth.
But was this simply incredible moment in the Let it Be film? Um, no. Michael Lindsay Hogg either didn’t appreciate what he had, or he left it out deliberately because it made Paul look too good.
Lastly, my technical quibbles. Jackson has used the Nagra audio and matched it to “appropriate” bits of silent film footage. I was surprised at how unconvincing a lot of this footage matching was. I was often distracted by lips and faces not remotely fitting what was being said. My other main quibble is in the slight softness of the enhanced footage. The colours are incredible: The Beatles’ clothing is an incredible parade of peacock colours (although John’s “continuity clothing” makes you wonder if he ponged a bit). But some of the faces look a bit too smooth, as if airbrushed, any hint of skin texture lost in the enlargement. Linda Eastman had freckles, didn’t she? Only visible in one or two shots here.