The Beatles: Get Back has all the makings of an absurdist play. Four musicians come together, presumably to record an album. There’s much ado about a TV show. A live performance. Neither of which may happen. Throw in discussions, jokes, bickering, and bantering. The band’s attire is enchanting as well, each member sporting a variety of colors, furs, lapels, and hats. The musicians alternately revel and writhe in their artistic and interpersonal histories while techs, producers, and directors set things up, tear things down, bring drinks, and try their best to keep the process moving along.
Despite an almost eight-hour runtime, divided into three episodes, the documentary is more often than not riveting. The band’s intriguing compositional and recording processes are punctuated by informative reminiscences, exhilarated brainstorming sessions, and frequently tense logistical powwows. Viewers may find themselves alternately adrenalized and jubilant, witnessing such songs as “Get Back”, “Two of Us”, and “I’ve Got a Feeling” being sculpted from their rudiments to the irresistible tunes we know so well.
One of the documentary’s major successes is how it humanizes John, Paul, George, and Ringo, individually and collectively. “What’s for lunch?” someone asks. “Did anyone order coffee?” someone else queries. John and Yoko dance together during one segment, their mutual adoration obvious. Paul and John dance together in another, their movements effusing camaraderie and muted competitiveness. Paul’s wife, Linda, and daughter, Heather, visit the studio, Heather frolicking between the amps and equipment as the Beatles provide an impromptu soundtrack and spirited conversation.
Ringo presents the essentials of “Octopus’s Garden”, and he and George figure out a piano accompaniment. Billy Preston is enrolled to contribute keyboards and radically energize the relational and creative dynamics. At various points, the band listen to playbacks, laughing, grimacing, and occasionally expressing approval.
The documentary also hypnotically captures how various one-on-one and communal frictions were often handled passive-aggressively, via sarcasm or backhanded compliments; through deflection or sublimation; i.e., cacophonous jams or humorous takes on their own songs or other peoples’ songs; and hyper-soberly, as when John and Paul sit in a cafeteria discussing the power dynamics within the Beatles, neither casting blame, each simply sharing what he perceives as problematic.
When they finally stage their 30 January 1969 rooftop show – their final performance – atop Apple Studios at 3 Savile Row, one is immediately reminded that the Beatles were an exemplary live band. The segment is sublime. At the same time, it’s humorous and a bit surreal that throughout the event, several of the people who are gathered on the street below are unsure who is actually playing.
The police receive numerous complaints from business owners about the volume level. In scenes that could have been scripted for Fawlty Towers or the Pink Panther series, they spend considerable time trying to get the Beatles to stop playing. The performance is cut short, ending abruptly but amiably. Everyone regards it as a triumph. The documentary ends with the band pulling off the show, nailing several of Let It Be’s key tracks. All that remains is for them to record additional songs in the privacy of the studio.
That is, not much happens, per se. However, an enthralling story also emerges: of four individuals who, despite history’s deifications, were driven by universally recognizable ambitions, ambivalences, and conflicts. Then there’s the fact that John and George are deceased, that the Beatles’ albums were recorded and released half a century ago. Those immortalized 20-somethings are no longer with us. So much has transpired. Additionally, the Beatles, as perennial as they are, are not as ubiquitous as they once were. Younger artists and more contemporary musical templates have begun to claim the limelight. To paraphrase Buddha and quote George, “all things must pass”.
With The Beatles: Get Back, we observe four people who exerted a prodigious influence on art and culture, navigating their gifts and flaws while manifesting their talents as consummately as possible. Each is a work in progress, striving to both participate yet remain independent, to belong yet retain autonomy. What is revealed here is a set of cumulative portraits that shed light not only on John, Paul, George, and Ringo but on all of us. This documentary tells our story as much as theirs.