I have always struggled with the albums and films that resulted from The Beatles sessions first released as the album Let It Be.
The making of the previous album The Beatles (everybody calls it The White Album) was nearly their undoing, as they largely recorded as four solo performers. The idea behind the Let It Be/Get Back sessions was to get them playing as a unit again.
To have a goal to work towards, they decide that, by the end of the month, they will have recorded a new album and will perform the new material on a live TV broadcast. No pressure.
Why we even have this footage is because they decide to film the proceedings for potential use in a documentary. Now that footage has been made into a movie twice over: 1970’s Let It Be, as directed by Michael Lindsay-Hoff, and now as “directed” by Peter Jackson in 2021’s Get Back.
Even the titles of these two releases reflect the malleability of the material. In 1969, the material was originally sequenced into what was to be an album titled Get Back, but which was rejected. About a year later, after Abbey Road had been recorded and released, Phil Spector was brought in to radically retool the recordings into the Let It Be album that became the last album released by the band.
I can’t say there’s much I liked about that album as originally released in 1970, and I definitely wasn’t a fan of the movie of the sessions which was in theatres that same year. Then again, I don’t think anybody was a fan of that film—least of all the band and their Apple Corporation, as that movie has been out of circulation since its home video releases on VHS and laserdisc.
And I doubt it will ever see release on streaming or later physical formats, now that Peter Jackson has put his imprint on the material—all eight, wait a goddamn minute, EIGHT HOURS OF THIS?!?
OK, so it is twelve minutes shy of that runtime, but that is splitting hairs. As even a huge, lifelong Beatles fan, I don’t understand why this isn’t a quarter of the length. Even being generous, I think it could be 2 ½ hours long.
Now, I understand streaming has blurred the lines between movies and series considerably, and that increased flexibility in runtimes is a welcome development, but you still should only make your work as long as is warranted by the material. So, why most of this footage wasn’t available separately as a special feature is beyond me.
Admittedly, one thing Jackson improves upon is he largely shows the guys in a good mood and enjoying each other’s company. This is in start contrast with Lindsay-Hogg’s version, where everybody is so dour one might think they were in one of Ingmar Bergman’s bleakest works.
But that doesn’t mean Jackson should include everything of even the most remote interest. When you have McCartney talking about monkeys copulating, and we have to watch a tiny monkey going tiny-monkey-balls-deep into another monkey, I shudder to think of what he might have left on the cutting-room floor.
This is the same mentality that is starting to diminish his reputation as a great filmmaker. Sure, he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I was thrilled to have the extended versions of those films, but then he takes The Hobbit and spreads it out into a thin paste across three films, and then we got extended versions of those. I think he needs somebody to reign him in.
On the other hand, I realize some of my favorite moments here are minor moments others would have consigned to the scrapheap. To my surprise, both of my favorite bits center around Ringo, who I’m thinking is probably a wonderful person to know.
In the first moment, Peter Sellers stops by for a brief visit, but looks uncomfortable and leaves quickly. When he turns to go, Ringo, his co-star in The Magic Christian, puts his hand on Sellers’s arm in a gentle, silent appeal for him to stay. It is a small gesture, but it is so nice and straight from the heart that it made me smile.
Much later, Ringo shyly plays for his bandmates what he has so far of a composition titled “Octopus’s Garden”. After a few bars, the room breaks out in laughter and Ringo is obviously hurt. The Harrison walks up and discusses with Ringo what he has so far and how it might be worked into a full song. Then producer George Martin walks up and we see the foundations forming for what would become a track on the Abbey Road album.
One moment I think anybody would have to keep in the film is when keyboardist Billy Preston shows up and the group quickly ropes him in to play with them. They knew him from back in their Hamburgh days when Preston was supporting Little Richard, and I think this helps reconnect them to a camaraderie they had back in those early, struggling days.
I have often heard that, if there was ever a fifth Beatle, it was Preston, and I couldn’t agree more. In addition to being co-credited on the “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down” single, the keyboardist slides in effortlessly with the group. It really is a shame they didn’t work more with him.
There were some other moments of particular interest, such as casual discussions about some of the developments that would eventually be the undoing of The Beatles and Apple Records, such as preparations to meet Alan Klein.
And one scene I was especially stunned to see was an early version of the song “Get Back” where, inspired by newspaper articles about a right-wing anti-immigration zealot, they change the lyrics to a white power anthem. Yes, I realize they were doing this as a mockery of the asshole they were reading about, but it is still a very uncomfortable moment.
The high point of Get Back is the famous rooftop performance. Shown here in more or less its entirety, Jackson wisely employs split-screen techniques and incorporates interview footage of confused people on the street below. There’s also great hidden camera footage of the police officers who arrive to shut it down. Just imagine being one of those guys, preserved for all time on film as one of the guys who shut down The Beatles’ last public performance.
In the end, Get Back is vastly superior to the original film Let It Be. However, just like the competing versions of the album, both are still flawed. There’s an interesting moment here where somebody in the control booth informed the group over the loudspeaker “You do know this take is costing two shillings a foot, don’t you?”. I believe somebody with that perspective should have been saying a similar thing to Peter Jackson.
Dir: Peter Jackson
Starring The Beatles, Billy Preston
Watched on blu-ray