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Over the past 18 months, while you were making banana bread and Zooming, Peter Jackson was watching The Beatles. The Get Back sessions, the first recordings of what would become Let It Be, are a notorious chapter in the band’s lore. In January 1969, the band set up in a cavernous space at Twickenham Studios to try to record an album in two weeks before a live date.
The circumstances were not auspicious. They had no venue for the gig, no songs for the album and they weren’t getting along with each other. Having given up performing live after their US tour in 1966, they were now becoming increasingly experimental – both with their music and their substance consumption.
Paul McCartney hoped the experience of playing together again, like they had in the early days, would herald a return to some of their old camaraderie. The filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to record the proceedings. His 1970 film, Let It Be, has often been accused of focusing on the negative.
With all the material still available, much of it unused, Jackson had 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio to stitch together for his piece. It called upon everything he learnt making They Shall Not Grow Old, his 2018 First World War documentary.
The result is The Beatles: Get Back, a three-part documentary that runs to more than seven hours, airing on Disney Plus over consecutive nights this week. It is a monument to The Beatles, enormous and revealing, which acts as a bulwark against the endless books and articles and chatter about them by simply showing them as they were. In part, it is a corrective, but it is also a fortification. Any future assessment of the band and its members will have to measure up against the people we see here.
Over the 52 years since these recordings, the acrimony of the period has taken on a mythic quality: Paul had become tyrannical, the story goes; George was at breaking point; John was checked out, high on heroin and Yoko; Ringo was apathetic. The picture that emerges from this epic trilogy is less explosive and more interesting.
Divisions emerge quietly. McCartney is a reluctant leader. “I’m scared of me being boss,” he says. But if they’re going to get out of the doldrums and do the gig, they’ll need some songs.
“You don’t annoy me anymore,” says George. They miss Brian Epstein who had imposed a kind of structure on the group but died of an overdose in 1967. For all the discord, you never feel they are at each other’s throats. They have been through it all, these guys, as bonded by their shared experience as any veteran squaddies.
They are such a part of pop-culture history that it is shocking at times to see them as real people, four young blokes smoking, chatting, asking for drinks, mucking around on guitars. The films rescue McCartney, in particular, from the late-career image as a naff crooner. Here he is in his might: young, cool, thick bearded, determined, warm in full colour.
Another filmmaker might have felt pressured to cut the footage more dramatically or impose a stronger sense of his own narrative on things. Secure in his reputation, Jackson is content to keep a gentle hand on the tiller.
Long sections of composition and improvisation and conversation are allowed to run and run. A common complaint of cultural documentaries is that you don’t get to see the magic happen: well, here it is, two and a half geniuses and Ringo Starr sitting in a room, snapping at each other and still coming up with songs that mean something to everyone you know.
The films go on for so long that by the time we get to their rooftop gig at their offices in Savile Row, you feel like you’re in the band yourself. There is a sense of relief, verging on euphoria. Jackson must be exhausted. We’ll be waiting a while for his McCartney-led sequel, The Lord of the Wings.
“If we tell it like it is then we’ve got a very good documentary,” Michael tells Ringo one morning, when the drummer is the first to arrive to the studio. “But if we’re hiding then we don’t have much of a documentary.”
In Jackson’s hands, they have a very good documentary.
‘The Beatles: Get Back’ is available to stream on Disney Plus