I’m not a Beatles guy. It’s not that I don’t like the Beatles; I just never really got into them. The last time I really listened to any of their music was when Cirque du Soleil released the soundtrack for their Beatles-based show “Love,” and it was like an hour-long DJ set of classic Beatles tracks. It was and is extremely well-done, but it didn’t really spur me to look into the rest of the Beatles’ catalogue, let alone any of the solo stuff or demos or alternate takes or band interviews, etc., etc.
So why am I, in the year of our lord 2021, looking into all that stuff now, about 51 years since the band broke up? I’m guessing you may already know the answer: director Peter Jackson’s 8-hour cut of archival footage of the Beatles known as “Get Back” on Disney+.
I only had a month of Disney+ because my young niece came to stay the night with us last month, and we started up a subscription so she could watch Pixar’s (pretty excellent) “Onward” 2.2 times. I had heard about this Beatles documentary and saw some of the previews, and thought it seemed pretty cool, and since it was the last week we would have Disney+, hey, let’s do it!
For your reference, as of this writing, it’s been about 15 days since my wife and I finished the third and final part of the massive documentary, and I’m still wishing it had been longer. I’m still walking around the house humming and singing “All I want is youuuuu” and “I hi-hi hi-hi … dig a pooony” and “Jojo was a man, he thought he was a loner” and on and on. I’m still doing my pretty accurate and funny (in my opinion) John Lennon impression at my wife whenever I get a chance.
Why did this documentary trigger such a massive case of Beatlemania in me? The first factor is that I knew SOME about the Beatles, but not a ton. I hadn’t realized when I started watching the documentary (spoilers?) that the band’s sessions that started in an empty movie studio just after New Year’s 1969 would lead to the Beatles’ famous final rooftop performance. I hadn’t realized that the idea for all this 50-year-old footage was to make a TV special and movie. I didn’t realize how close the band was to breaking up, or that George Harrison would threaten to leave before the band had even recorded a new song for the project. But I knew enough about the band, its legendary producer George Martin, the founding of Apple Records, the fact that they had essentially stopped touring for the last half of their career (when they started getting “weird”), that the scenes weren’t just totally context-less for me.
So as I watched, I got to do my favorite thing to do when watching a documentary: Google shit incessantly from my phone. I watched and dove down rabbit holes whenever someone new appeared on screen, or whenever someone mentioned someone else. Was that THE Alan Parsons? How did John and Yoko even meet? Where did John’s first wife go? What other movies did Ringo appear in? I know who Stella McCartney is, but who is this other kid? Did George really have 100 written-yet-unrecorded songs he was sitting on in 1969?
Secondly, I have to admit: The Beatles were some funny and cool dudes. For all the supposed drama that was going on between the members of the band at the time (and yes, some of that drama definitely comes out in this documentary, just not as much as I assumed), they seemed to be having a really good time. I laughed out loud a lot watching these guys goof around with each other. They did a lot of intentionally silly takes of songs, like when Paul and John sang “Two of Us” entirely through their teeth like ventriloquists, staring and grinning maniacally at each other.
Third, the show is a super interesting study of how people in long relationships interact with each other. Though you can tell they are trying to be guarded about their feelings and opinions at some points, it’s amazing how quickly and easily they lose track of the cameras and open up to each other. You get a very good read on how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and sometimes what motivates them. Some of them (Paul) seem acutely aware of the pressure on the band to deliver something amazing and do a lot of homework to make it happen. Some of them (John) seem pretty aware of the hugeness and power and influence of the band, but don’t appear to take it very seriously. Some of them (George and Ringo) seem at times distracted or put off by the lack of direction of things, or the lack of input they are able to give, but they mostly shrug and get along to go along. But there’s definitely some tension.
One morning, George comes in first thing and lays down the genesis of what would become the lovely “I Me Mine,” a little ditty he’d put together the night before that would end up on the band’s final “Let It Be” LP in 1970, for Paul and Ringo. The editing cuts out Paul’s full reaction, but it’s clear it’s less than full-throated enthusiasm. John comes over and starts joking around about how it’s not rock and roll enough. Then the audience hears George saying something along the lines of “I don’t really give a fuck if you want it or not, it doesn’t bother me.”
But it obviously DOES bother him, and it SHOULD! It’s gold! Paul had come in a day or two prior and, in a riveting piece of documentary cinema, birthed the bassline and general melody for “Get Back” on the fly. He did this wizardry in front of George and Ringo, who were clearly very tired first thing in the morning, but gradually woke up to the musical miracle they were witnessing. It’s obvious that little stroke of genius got George’s juices flowing, but rather than gather around that morning and start working out the bones of “I Me Mine” as the group had done with “Get Back,” they mostly wave it off and move on to something else.
Why? How did they decide to do that? How much of a role did that slight play in George quitting the band for a couple of days that week? How much of a role did it play in George’s decision to help Ringo with “Octopus’s Garden” after he returns? The group does eventually devote some time in these sessions to workshopping the embryonic strand of George’s amazing “Something,” which becomes one of the most famous Beatles songs, period.
Director/editor Peter Jackson masterfully wove together key moments like these from this treasure trove of material to produce a fully fleshed-out narrative of a bunch of geniuses who happened to be friends and also happened to be members of the biggest rock band in the world trying to figure out if they had anything left in the tank for each other. The members of the band are CLEARLY thinking about their own solo projects. Not just thinking, really: the whole reason the band even has access to the Twyckenham studio in which they spend an ill-fated couple of weeks faffing around is because it’s the same studio in which Ringo is about to shoot a motion picture with Peter Sellers.
They’re making movies! They’re marrying new wives! They’re recording stuff on their own! They’re even setting up a business that will guarantee all of them income even if/when they stop making records themselves. That’s all background to the band’s “real” work of putting together new music, which is the reason they’re all there, working toward their first public performance — one way or another — in three years.
And as it goes, you also hear the band members making historical commentary, like Paul and John talking about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, which had happened the day before and clearly inspired them, or the band riffing on “Get Back” as a commentary against anti-immigration politicians who’d made headlines in the U.K.
It’s all a fascinating look at the sublimely mundane process of making music, and the wrangling that goes into how four strong egos (well, maybe three strong egos and the seemingly very laid-back Ringo; though it bears noting John reveals during the course of the documentary that Ringo himself had “quit the band” at one point for unexplained reasons) work together to create art.
And if you watch it under the right circumstances, it might even make you a Beatles guy or girl or enby for a while.