December 3, 2021


‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

By Martin McKenzie-Murray

Image © Apple Records / Disney+

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

The Beatles lost their horns as folk devils long ago, but for a while those horns seemed very sharp. They were considered blasphemous commies in the Southern United States, a revolutionary threat to Marcos’s Philippines and drug-bent corruptors just about everywhere else their music could be heard. In the luridly addled mind of Elvis Presley, they were all of these things, and the King was sufficiently alarmed to personally inform President Nixon of their subversiveness. Once a folk devil himself, Elvis had since turned paranoid state informant and wannabe G-man in his sad twilight years. 

Beatlemania wasn’t just hysterical reverence, then, or mass sexual conniptions – it was also the band’s near-global capture, and refraction, of anxious and paranoid imaginations. They didn’t only inspire love and astonishment; they excited murderous passions. When the screams and riots overwhelmed them, they quit touring and retreated to the studio. But even there the psychic weight of being a Beatle was immense, and later the very concept for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a creatively elaborate dissociation from their own identity. “The people gave their money and they gave their screams,” George Harrison said, “but The Beatles gave their nervous systems, which is a much more difficult thing to give.” A decade after their break-up, Lennon was forced to give his life – murdered by a deranged fan.

I can still remember, in my early twenties, kneeling before a friend’s toilet bowl after a late night and announcing, between violent purges of my stomach, that The Beatles’ development between 1962 and 1970 was the Greatest Story Ever Told. I think I was serious, and neither my friend’s Christian faith nor my undignified condition could temper my claim. I’ve since revised my hyperbole, but their music – and their story – remain remarkable.

“Looked at properly, the Beatles really were the 1960s,” Andrew O’Hagan has written. “They started out as one thing and ended as another, and that is the core of their story, how they changed from ultra-melodic laughing boys to revolutionary art-heroes, making an entire generation imagine itself differently.”

And so we come to The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s three-part, eight-hour documentary about the Let It Be sessions, when the band was flirting with dissolution and thus imagining themselves differently. “A documentary about a documentary,” is how Jackson describes his verité series, and he might be thought of here more as a gifted archeologist than filmmaker.

Given access to the hallowed vault of Apple Records – which contains more than 60 hours of intimate footage of the sessions – Jackson’s team has exhumed, cut and lovingly enhanced the film and sound of the collection. It’s an epic, technically impressive and historically significant achievement. It’s also the work of a fanatic, and its largely formless eight hours will likely only be fully watched by other fanatics.

In the first week of 1969, the soul-weary Beatles met in a cavernous film studio with a mission: to write and rehearse a new album of 14 songs to be performed for a live, televised concert in less than three weeks. What’s more, this whole process would be filmed (and secretly recorded by hidden mics) by the self-pleased and cigar-loving filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg (it’s his footage that Jackson has resurrected).    

Even for a band as gifted and prolific as The Beatles, the concept was absurdly ambitious. This would have been true had their collective love and bonhomie been intact, but it wasn’t. “We’ve been grumpy for 18 months,” Ringo tells Lindsay-Hogg early on, and almost the first words we hear are John’s complaints about the awful acoustics and the serene Hare Krishna bloke George had invited in.

It’s not clear from this film why four exhausted and fractious men, who have nothing left to prove, would voluntarily burden themselves in this way, though one suspects it has a lot to do with McCartney’s ambition. Their manager, Brian Epstein, who had done so much to train their discipline, had accidentally overdosed 18 months earlier, and Paul says to the others that their “Daddy” is gone now, and they’d have to get things done themselves – or call it a day. Shrewd and controlling as McCartney is, his de facto leadership sits uncomfortably with him. “I can hear myself annoying you,” he tells George. “I’m scared of me being boss, and I have been for two years now.”    

Despite the preposterous deadline, early sessions are marked by procrastination: aimless noodling, jokey covers and interminable debates about the concert’s venue (an orphanage, cruise liner and ancient amphitheater in Tripoli are all mooted). Their producer and sage, George Martin – tellingly absent for most of these sessions – reminds them that without any songs, the concert venue hardly matters.

What follows is Beatles folklore: an album that none of them much liked, and would delay releasing; a documentary they loathed, and would later pull from circulation; and the inevitable abandonment of the televised concert in favour of an impromptu rehearsal on the roof of their record company.

The Beatles thought Lindsay-Hogg’s resulting film was distortedly grim – “joyless and narrow” in Ringo’s words – and much has been made of Get Back “bust[ing] the myth that the Let It Be sessions were the final nail in the Beatles’ coffin”. I’m not so sure. We do see plenty of love, levity and magic, but the sullen tensions of those sessions are all confirmed here.

We see Paul passive-aggressively needling bandmates and patronising George, while Lennon is often smack-dazed and sarcastic. (Appalled by the pious sentimentality of “Let It Be”, Lennon asks McCartney if they’re meant to giggle during the solo.) Ringo watches on with saintly patience but growing exhaustion, while a vulnerable George nurses a deeply bruised ego. After George quits the band (he’s persuaded back almost a week later), John and Paul privately confer about his departure, and express regret about their treatment of him. John refers to George’s discontent as a “festering wound” for which “we never gave him any bandages”.

It’s a dramatic moment, and there are others, but it’s not all stunning intimacy. At the start of each part of Get Back, a hilariously phrased caption warns the viewer that the episode “contains tobacco depictions” but a more relevant warning might be of viewer stupefaction. I’m a big fan of the group, but there’s only so many hours of noodling, bickering, rig-jigging and tea-slurping I can watch. This is “slow TV” for music nuts, and I experienced more tedium than pleasure.  

But there are magic moments, and each fan will have their favourite. I grinned watching Paul sing John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, as I did watching the pair develop their harmonies for “Two of Us”. The piano/organ playing of Billy Preston is brilliant and indispensable, while his presence as a guest helps dilute the Beatles’ sourness. I was touched when George tells John how he’d stayed up all night writing a song, having remembered his advice years before about respecting inspiration and writing for as long as it lasted, and was astonished by how phenomenally good they sounded live on that rooftop, despite playing new songs with frigid fingers in a winter gale.

It was their last public performance, and if Let It Be was not the “final nail” then Get Back gives us a glimpse of the coffin. Within 18 months of the rooftop gig, The Beatles would record one last album and bitterly split. Grief-stricken, Paul withdrew to the Scottish countryside; Ringo quickly slid into two decades of violent alcoholism. George would soon release one of the finest solo Beatle albums, comprising songs ignored by his older bandmates, while John moved to New York City, where his messianic complex deepened.

If the strange weight of being a Beatle was such that during the band’s existence they often wanted to surrender their identities, the actual loss of it in 1970 seemed even more painful – at least for half of them. The four laughing boys had dreamed a dream that engulfed the world, but leaving it would be a nightmare.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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