How the Beatles passed their own audition, the hard way
The Beatles: Get Back
A three-part musical documentary starting John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Billy Preston. Directed by Peter Jackson, from film footage originally shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Now streaming on Disney+. 468 minutes. STC
A funny thing happens on the way to a break-up in "The Beatles: Get Back," the new Peter Jackson documentary — something close to transcendence.
The acrimonious split of rock 'n' roll legend becomes instead a joyous farewell, as seen in the rooftop concert atop the band's Apple Corps headquarters in London that proved to be the Beatles' final public performance and their most glorious moment as a group.
Seen in its entirety for the first time in Jackson's epic three-part doc, the Jan. 30, 1969 concert features four exuberant Beatles (plus soulful new hire Billy Preston), several peeved and hilariously meddlesome police officers and, on the streets below, a gaggle of delighted and/or disrupted members of the public.
Watching the rooftop performance prompts smiles and also the triumphant feeling of having collectively lived through a truly special time. The concert ends with John Lennon's famous jest, "I hope we passed the audition."
They did indeed. It was an audition they designed themselves to prove they still deserved to be called the world's best rock band. Were the Fab Four still fabulous?
Getting to this magnificent moment took weeks of rehearsal and debate — not all of it friendly — as seen in the new doc. Culled from the archives and now screening on Disney+, the film is worth the wait of 52 years and the endurance test of its nearly eight-hour total running time.
"The Beatles: Get Back" tells much more of the story than what was revealed in Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1971 documentary, "Let It Be," which implied that all the Beatles did was argue and gripe during the weeks of writing and rehearsals that led to the concert (and subsequent "Let It Be" album, released in 1970, the band's final studio output).
Almost as mad as the Fab Four's initial impulse to try to write and record 14 new songs in three weeks in January 1969, in front of Lindsay-Hogg's probing documentary cameras, is director Jackson's determination to show as much of the nearly 60 hours of archived film and 150 hours of audiotape as most viewers could possibly endure.
The upside of the film's lengthy running time is the chance to see and hear previously unseen footage and unheard audio, digitally enhanced, of Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr recording together. They also worked on songs for their penultimate album, "Abbey Road," released in the fall of 1969, plus other tunes that would soon end up on solo albums.
The downside: Watching them work is like panning for gold in a shallow river. We see the Beatles hard at it, chasing their elusive muse, in what feels like relentless real time. We bear witness to and keenly feel their frustration as they struggle to meet a self-imposed deadline and revive the group energy that once came so easily to them.
John at first seems glazed, likely stoned, as he devotes most of his attention to his new love, Yoko Ono, who sits silently by his side.
Paul is clearly frustrated. He's arrived with ideas for several new songs — including future hits "Get Back," "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" — but he's often greeted with yawns and half-hearted musical efforts from his mates. He tells John that he has reluctantly shouldered the leadership role Lennon used to have:
"I'm scared of me being the boss, and I have been for a couple of years," Paul admits.
George is supremely pissed off at his bandmates, even though they cheerfully assist him with "Something," the love ballad that many consider the Beatles' greatest song. He leaves the band at one point, before being coaxed back by his mates.
Ringo seems happy to be there, as always, but also worried about the tension in the room, which John refers to as "the space between us."
Yet they're all determined to get something of value done. They recorded their debut album, "Please Please Me," in a single day in 1963. If they could do that in a day, surely they could do an album and a show in three weeks?
Easier said than done, as the doc shows us almost in real time. Over 21 days during the cold first month of '69, beginning in a draughty suburban film warehouse before shifting to a makeshift studio at the Apple Corps headquarters on posh Savile Row, the Beatles go hard at it. They're assisted by Glyn Johns, the master recording engineer who'd recently twirled the knobs for the Rolling Stones' latest hit LP, "Beggars Banquet."
The plan is for the Beatles to write and then perform on TV their new album by the end of the month, making what will be their first live concert in more than two years. They later scrap the show and begin planning a surprise lunchtime concert on the roof of Apple's HQ, a decision made as much for convenience as for dramatic effect.
Here's a dilemma for viewers, especially those who perhaps aren't diehard fans: How many times do we need to see John, Paul, George and Ringo work out the chords and lyrics for "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling," plus all of the many snippets of rock golden oldies they spontaneously jam on?
The crowded working condition are made even more so by the presence of not just recording engineer Johns, but also producer George Martin, tape engineer Alan Parsons (later a rock star in his own right), road manager Mal Evans and many others.
There are also numerous lovers and friends who drop in, chief among them John's new love Yoko, who sits silently and never interrupts, contrary to the longstanding slag that her meddling broke up the band. (McCartney prophetically jokes about it in the film, predicting that in 50 years, people will say, "They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.')
Another frequent session attendee is Paul's girlfriend, Linda Eastman, who will soon become his wife. She brings her young daughter Heather with her. Actor Peter Sellers, soon to be making the absurdist comedy "The Magic Christian" with co-star Ringo Starr, also pays a visit.
It's a lot to take in, especially if viewed for hours at a time. Yet Jackson makes a convincing case that Beatle history needs a rewrite by way of total immersion.
Turns out the bad vibes between the band members were vastly overstated. They're just part of the bigger picture of four best friends creatively communing during those long January sessions of 52 years ago.
For the most part, the film shows the Beatles enjoying themselves, especially when keyboard whiz Billy Preston, former of Little Richard's band arrives midway through the sessions at Harrison's request. Billy energizes the lads so much, Lennon declares him to be part of the band.
The doc doesn't hide disharmony and disagreements. If anything, it amplifies them, showing much more of the circumstances of George's impulsive decision to briefly quit the group. Jackson includes a lunchtime conversation between John and Paul, recorded secretly, in which the two talk about what to do if George decides not to return.
Ever the optimist, Paul reckons that George will come back and everything will eventually work out.
"And probably when we're all very old, we'll all agree with each other, and we'll all sing together," he adds.
It was a future that was not to be — but "The Beatles: Get Back" makes the past seem just like yesterday. 🌓