The Beatles’ Get Back project, completed in January 1969, has finally been completed. Again.
For most of the last 50 years, it has been known as Let it Be, a film and LP released in 1970. The project, conceived by Paul McCartney, was originally intended to be a television special documenting the band’s preparation. to a live concert (their first in two and a half years). Due to the performance element, the Beatles decided to return to their roots and only develop material that could be played without adding overdubs.
As it happened, the concert did not start and the Beatles decided instead to play a short unannounced concert on the roof of their headquarters. The TV special became a feature film, and the sound was handed over to “wall of sound” producer, Phil Spector (which led to controversial results).
Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, the Beatles pulled the film version (a fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg) out of circulation.
Lindsay-Hoggs Let it Be is remembered as a portrait of a band that is disintegrating. And in fact, George Harrison briefly left the band early in the four-week project, though Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary does not cover this episode.
Let it Be was seen in part as a downturn because the Beatles, especially Lennon, were eager to throw it in light of the band’s dissolution (which took place just weeks before the release of Let it Be, both film and album). As Lennon said in December 1970, the recording was “hell” and Spector got “the craziest load of poorly recorded shit”.
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While the recently released The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson, covers Harrison’s departure and return, Jackson’s film is tonally different from Lindsay-Hoggs. According to Jackson, the grim account of Let it Be is inaccurate, as there is a lot of “joy” and friendship evident in the 60-hour film and 150-hour audiotape that have been sitting in a vault for half a century.
Much of this sound has long been available as bootlegs, informing written accounts of this period of the Beatles’ history. However, the sound without video does not always tell the whole story.
Although Jackson and his team have not strayed from the moments of friction, ennui and purposelessness that the band experiences, the tenor in Get Back is more optimistic than Lindsay-Hogg’s version (though there may be more frivolity in that film than Jackson or its reputation allow it).
But Get Back is not just a snippet of Let it Be; it is a documentary in itself, a film about the making of a film. Lindsay-Hogg is now a character in the drama of trying to figure out what the project is about and how it will end.
Unlike the cinema verité style in Let it Be, Get Back provides much-needed context in the form of titles that name the main characters and songs, as well as explain what’s going on. The use of a day-by-day countdown to live performances gives the otherwise formless events a sense of narration and even excitement.
Get Back was supposed to be a feature film premiere, but COVID-19 led to a reworking and reconceptualization of the work, so it became a documentary for Disney +. The latest reports were that the series would be a three-part series with a playing time of six hours.
The climactic roof concert
As it turns out, that driving time is closer to eight hours. (Let it Be is only 80 minutes long.) Almost all of these eight hours show the Beatles at work on a soundstage (at Twickenham Film Studios) or in an ad hoc recording studio (put together at the Beatles’ Apple headquarters, as it – after Harrison’s absence – it was decided that Twickenham was not conducive to creativity).
The Apple studio is clearly more comfortable, and the tone is further eased when the Beatles are joined by an outsider, their old friend Billy Preston, on keyboards (a crucial moment for the project).
There’s nevertheless something of a hermetic feeling in most of Get Back, so when the Beatles and Preston go up on the roof to play in public – the cinematic “payoff” that the band and Lindsay-Hogg had been looking for throughout the project – there is a tangible sense of liberation.
And the famous roof concert, presented with creative use of split screen, is amazingly good (and is also presented for the first time in its 42-minute-long entirety).
After the countless reviews and recordings of the same songs over the previous weeks (as well as several covers and early Beatles tunes), the sense of energy and quality of the game gives the film the climax it needs, complete with police officers, albeit politely demanding that the Beatles stop breaking the peace in London’s West End.
Cigarettes, cups of tea and white bread
Get Back is very different from Let it Be in part because of Jackson’s editing, especially his use of montage, which produces a dynamic, sometimes frenetic, energy. In addition to these stylistic elements, Get Back is notable as a technical feat.
It looks and sounds amazingly good, not something that has ever been said about Let it Be. Jackson and his technical team have used the kind of film recovery techniques used in his war documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (2018).
The vision in Get Back is beautifully saturated, sharp and less grainy than Lindsay-Hogg’s film. Harrison and Starr, in their sartorial splendor, often resemble their comic book equivalents from Yellow Submarine (1968).
If there’s anything unadorned about Jackson’s film, it’s the sight of people apparently living off cigarettes, cups of tea and white bread. Also particularly “historic” is the homosocial nature of the project; almost all the active participants are men. Even Yoko Ono, who sits next to Lennon all the way through, is almost completely silent (apart from her vocal participation in a few impromptu jams).
While the film has been painstakingly restored, the soundtrack has almost been remade. Much of the sound was recorded on mono quarter-inch tapes. Jackson’s technical team used machine learning to effectively “remix” these mono bands, enabling Jackson to refine individual voices masked by other sound sources (voices or musical instruments).
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This is an extraordinary technological breakthrough that allows for key conversations to be heard properly for the first time, and for remixes of replays and rehearsals of songs that were not recorded as “takes” on the eight-track system.
Get Back is a treat for any Beatles fan. It’s also a reminder, if need be, that some classic songs were recorded for the project. (Given that McCartney delivered at least three of these classics – Let it Be, The Long and Winding Road and Get Back – it’s not surprising that he’s long been dissatisfied with the way they were originally presented.)
But Jackson’s films are not only sweet and light. Lennon is e.g. dismissive of Harrison’s I, Me, Mine, and he makes a joking joke about Bob Wooler, a disc jockey from Liverpool, who Lennon assaulted in 1963. Also noteworthy is the relative absence of George Martin, who largely handles production duties for his sound engineer, Glyn Johns, definitely a sign that Martin found something wrong with the project.
And in fact, numerous sequences show a band that lacks focus and discipline. So Get Back is without a doubt a mixed bag: exciting, compelling and fun, but also sometimes just a little boring.
In this, Jackson has been true to the original project. His extraordinary TV series is important viewing for anyone interested in popular music.