No stranger to massive and daunting projects, the film director Peter Jackson is best known for his “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies. “The Beatles: Get Back,” which is streaming on Disney+, is a massive and daunting project, too.
It’s also glorious.
Jackson has reduced more than 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio to three parts, totaling more than 7½ hours. (That makes it a bit massive and daunting for viewers, too.) All this material was assembled for the making of “Let It Be,” the Beatles album and documentary, both released in 1970.
They came out a few months after the band had broken up, so something of a pall has hung over them ever since. Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film does conclude with the group’s now-legendary live rooftop performance atop their Apple Corps headquarters. (You want to know how much the world has changed in the past half century? Think of what “Apple” meant then and what it means now.) But even at 81 minutes, the documentary feels draggy and meandering. It’s never been released on DVD or available for streaming, though a bit of scouting around can find an online link.
So the idea of a film almost six times longer than “Let It Be” and drawn from the same footage was not necessarily promising. But what that additional length means, among other things, is that the material can breathe. Things do drag a bit toward the end of part two, and prior to the concert, which is the climax of part three, but even the dragginess is absorbing. “The Beatles: Get Back” is an astonishingly up-close and engrossing view of Paul, John, George, and Ringo and their creative process.
Usually, it’s John who’s listed first. Here Paul is the clearly dominant figure. He’s not quite leader — “I’m scared of being the boss” he says early in part one — but he’s definitely the musical director. John is as much focused on an ever-present Yoko as on the music. George briefly leaves the band (“If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday,” John shrugs, “we can get Eric,” meaning Clapton). Ringo is . . . Ringo. (That’s too harsh. For one thing, he understands the camera better than the other three do.)
It was Paul’s idea to do a concert and make a TV film about it. That’s what brought in Lindsay-Hogg, a frequent presence here, and what has taken the Beatles to a soundstage at Twickenham Film Studios, in West London.
It’s January 1969, and no one’s quite sure what’s going to happen. The band has blocked out a month to rehearse and record new songs, finishing with a concert of some sort. Three weeks later Lindsay-Hogg is heard to say, “‘Expecting’ is not a word we use anymore. ‘Thinking about.’” Although we know how things will end, no one on camera does. The vast gray space of the soundstage has everyone a bit thrown. Visually, it helps set off parts two and three, when the band returns to Apple, in central London.
Jackson begins the documentary with a skillful and concise overview of the band’s career up to that point. He then proceeds in strictly chronological order, going day by day. A narrative shape quickly emerges. With each new day, a calendar for January appears on a new screen, x marking the date. It’s simple and straightforward but also nicely visual.
There are notable events. As always, John is the wild card, but it’s George who acts, quitting the band (the negotiations to get him back are offscreen). In part two, a friend from their Hamburg days, keyboard wiz Billy Preston, drops by Apple for a visit and jams. “You’ve given us a lift, Bill,” a grateful Lennon tells him. Preston’s asked to play with the band. Paul’s future wife, Linda Eastman, visits a few times; once with her young daughter Heather (who drums with Ringo). The look on Paul’s face when we see — but don’t hear — Lindsay-Hogg and the sound engineer Glyn Johns propose the rooftop concert is priceless.
But what matters most, besides the extraordinary personalities of the four principals, of course, is the dailiness. It’s fascinating to hear now-familiar songs sound very different and slowly move toward what we now know. When they’re first working through “Let It Be” George proposes subbing “Captain Marvel” for “Mother Mary.” He’s not serious. Though maybe he should have been?
No less fascinating are countless random moments. Some are wonderfully mundane: “Paul, do you want some sandwiches?” George asks. Everyone certainly drinks a lot of tea, and a fondness for toast is general. Ringo does an old soft shoe. Later he and Paul play four-handed boogie-woogie at the piano. Yoko laughs (when have you ever seen that before?). She and Linda chat (ditto). Peter Sellers pops by. Paul smokes the occasional cigar (who knew?). Ringo can’t contain himself as Paul runs through an early version of “Let It Be.” “See, I’d watch an hour of him just playin’ the piano. So great.”
The biggest part of the dailiness is how much fun the Beatles have. They’re frequently bored or tired or frustrated, often all three, but most of the time they’re enjoying each other’s company, and their joy in music-making is both obvious and irresistible. Again and again, they’ll break into some oldie — lots of Chuck Berry, also Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Ben E. King, the Drifters — and they’re even more in heaven than we are. “So what shall we do for fun, besides work?” Lennon asks.
Jackson provides subtitles as needed. The occasional title card offers explanation or context. Individuals are identified upon first appearance. This even extends to the two highly vexed police officers who arrive at the Apple offices midway through the concert to try to put an end to it. “We don’t appreciate this, mate,” one says to the doorkeeper. “We can hear it down at the police station.” They fail in their mission. Peter Jackson has not.
Give John the final word. As early as day four, when everyone’s still fumbling around for a plan — Lindsay-Hogg keeps plumping for a concert at a Roman amphitheater in Libya — he understands perfectly well what’s going to happen. “The worst we could have is a documentary of us making an LP,” he says. He was right, and it’s a wonderful worst.
THE BEATLES: GET BACK
Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring the Beatles. Streaming on Disney+. 468 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: some swearing, lots and lots of smoking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.