Directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson (“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”), “The Beatles: Get Back” uses the best pieces of footage from 50 years ago and invites the viewer into the studio with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr for the three weeks the band spent recording and finishing their album Let It Be. The three-part documentary miniseries begins with a short history of the band, later spending the bulk of its time in the studio where they rehearse, dance to and record the songs later featured on Let It Be and Abbey Road.
The footage, originally taken by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (“Let It Be”) in 1969, has been restored to look almost new. It follows the band from Twickenham Film Studios to their own studio, Apple, which they agreed to join in order for Harrison to return to the band. The series is chronological, each “day” ranging from 10 to 30 minutes of footage. On a given day, McCartney might sing and adjust lyrics while the others arrive; Lennon might show up in the same clothes as the day before and announce that he is wearing “continuity clothing”; the four will undoubtedly discuss whether they should have a live concert and they will spend much of their time playing and singing together.
The ups and downs of the story keep it moving and somewhat linear. The stakes are kept high by the tight deadline, Harrison’s short hiatus from the band and the debate over whether and where to have a live show (options included getting arrested during their performance — McCartney’s idea — and transporting their audience on a boat to an amphitheater in Libya, among others). The final 45 minutes of the series depict the entirety of The Beatles’ 1969 rooftop concert which would be the band’s final live show. Clips of the band are cut with brief interviews with people on the street below, asking them whether they recognize and like the music, to which the vast majority answer yes. This part also follows two young police officers as they attempt to make the band stop playing on account of noise complaints.
Lindsay-Hogg’s footage — originally some 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio — was captured using two 16mm cameras and two Nagra-brand tape recorders with the intention of turning it into a documentary or TV special. As seen in the series, this was a tentative plan and, aside from the pieces used in the 1970 documentary “Let It Be,” the footage was stored away, left unseen for 50 years.
In 2017, Jackson was contacted by Apple, The Beatles’ company, which offered him the footage due to his interest in video restoration. He showed some of the footage to McCartney after a concert in New Zealand and later showed it to Starr as well, getting them both on board with the project. According to Jackson, the footage reminded the remaining band members that their time recording this album was happy, not miserable as they later remembered it.
The series speaks to this, leaving the viewer with the sense that in spite of their occasional disagreements, the band worked well together in this time. Apart from the time when Harrison leaves, the closest they come to fighting is when Lennon jokingly pretends to punch Harrison after reading an article claiming the two had been in fistfights. Rather than the breakdown of the band, the series shows how high-spirited they were, from the moment when Lennon and Yoko Ono dance around the studio while the other members play to when musician and friend of the band Billy Preston stops by the studio, joining them on the keyboard. By the end of the day, they say jokingly that Preston is in the band. He continues to rehearse with them in one of the most joyous moments of the series, and joins them for the rooftop concert.
Jackson spent the following four years choosing and restoring video and audio that now comprise the series. To improve the audio quality, he tried “demixing,” a technique involving separating the different instruments in a performance into different tracks, but it did not work well. Rather than give up, he contacted people who developed a functional AI machine-learning program, which allowed the songs the band rehearsed to sound as good as professionally recorded music.
This also allowed Jackson to make the conversations between the band members audible. He believes they occasionally played over their conversations to intentionally drown out their words in the recordings, which led Lindsay-Hogg to start using hidden tape recorders. After Harrison leaves the band, we listen to Lennon and McCartney discuss how to proceed; the conversation was secretly recorded by a microphone hidden in a flower pot in the Twickenham cafeteria.
While selecting what footage to use, Jackson behaved as the Beatles fan that he is: When he saw a moment that, as a fan, he found valuable and wanted other fans to see, he made sure to leave it in. Though originally intended to be a two-and-a-half-hour feature film, he ended up with a final cut nearly eight hours long and felt he could cut nothing more. This could seem like a long time to spend watching a band rehearse, but, first, it’s The Beatles, and, second, because of Jackson’s care in choosing what to include, every second of the series feels valuable. Not one scene passes that feels empty or pointless; every moment was one that I was glad I saw.
The deadline and occasional conflicts in the series mold the story, but they are not what makes the story so indispensable. Rather, it is seeing the four band members figuring out songs before our eyes, Lennon and McCartney singing “Two of Us” through gritted teeth and the band and recording team laughing together while listening to their music in the recording booth. After viewing the series, listening to the album comes with images of its history — the changes, struggles and rehearsals behind each song whose creation the viewer has now shared in the making of.
“Get Back” is less about watching The Beatles rehearse as it is about being there with them as they do so, bearing witness to the genius behind the songs we love so much but have only heard before as outsiders. And how could that experience not be worth eight hours of anyone’s time?
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.