In the middle of the twentieth century, there was a thing called shared popular culture. If it was on TV or the radio, everybody knew about it. And among all the figures who defined popular culture, none were ever better known in the English-speaking world than John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—the Beatles. In under a decade, the Beatles produced twenty-seven #1 hits on the UK and US charts, and their influence impacted not only pop music but the whole idea of celebrity, resonating to the present day. In a March 1966 interview with Maureen Cleave, just before the overworked Beatles stopped touring to work exclusively in the recording studio, John Lennon uttered the shocking but entirely true statement that the group had become “more popular than Jesus.”
By the start of 1969, despite being rich and famous beyond their wildest imagination, the four lads from Liverpool were drifting apart. By the end of the year, the Beatles broke up for good, and various narratives were offered as explanation: George’s creative frustration; Paul’s ego; a lack of discipline and direction after the death of their original manager, Brian Epstein; rancor over money made worse by their overbearing new manager, Allen Klein; and, of course, the ubiquitous Yoko. In any case, the end-story of the most popular music group of all-time was not a happy one.
Never one for making short films, director Peter Jackson has cut sixty hours of film footage and more than twice as many hours of audio recordings into Get Back, a three-part, eight-hour documentary series now streaming on Disney+. Get Back is nostalgic in the extreme, telling a feel-good story that redirects the standing narrative of the many factors that contributed to ending the Beatles for good. With Get Back, there is a slight sense of narrative whitewashing going on, but for a big Beatles fan like me, it is mostly a treat to witness the boys in action again.
Thanks to “Let it Be,” an aborted television special directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, many of us are familiar with various bits of the footage, but with Jackson’s effort, we get so much more—maybe even too much more. Jackson makes us flies on the wall as the Beatles attempt to write, record, and perform a new record together—the first time the group had collaborated intimately in about three years. We witness the group creating the songs that will eventually fill their last-released LP, Let it Be, but we also see early versions of songs from their final studio masterpiece Abbey Road, as well as future solo projects. Rock-and-roll nerds get much more than they could have hoped for in Get Back.
Swirling around the lads throughout the series is a cast of companions and hangers-on, including Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman, soon-to-be-married to Lennon and McCartney, respectively. We also meet the prodigiously talented American pianist Billy Preston, director Lindsay-Hogg, and various album production people, including Glyn Johns, the engineer of the tracks that would eventually go to tape, and the band’s gentlemanly producer, George Martin. The series begins on a huge sound stage at Twickenham Studios, which proves totally unsuitable for the band, and then moves to a cozier space at the new headquarters of Apple Records in London. The plan all along is to play a big outdoor show somewhere at the end of the process, and hare-brained ideas like filling a giant boat with fans and shipping them to a venue in Libya are ultimately abandoned in favor of what would become the Beatles iconic final performance—a few new songs blaring off the roof of the studio on Saville Row to astonished onlookers.
Amid the hours of jamming and rehearsing that Jackson shows us, the rooftop footage in Part III is chief among the scenes that will make any music fan’s spine tingle. Likewise, it is mesmerizing in Part I to watch Paul write “Get Back,” seemingly in a matter of minutes, while sitting around waiting for John to show up, and to witness the band’s inspired and sudden coherence on John’s “Don’t Let Me Down” once Preston sits down at the keyboard to join the group. There are also many endearing moments when John and Paul appear to be having just as much fun as they did when they were cutting school together as Liverpudlian teenagers. The duo’s charisma when they are in sync with each other is almost otherworldly.
There are, however, some parts that Jackson has clearly avoided, including material critical of Yoko. And there is one particularly odd, ethically uncomfortable scene where we are told that the voices of John and Paul were recorded surreptitiously by a microphone hidden in a flowerpot—odd because it greatly contributes to the minimizing of problems in the service of a “happy ending”; in real life, “gotcha” moments are rarely so positive. Ethically problematic because, well, private is supposed to mean private. But try as Jackson might, he cannot avoid leaving us thinking about the rot at the heart of the Beatles’ shiny apple. Even as we are edified by the beauty of tracks like John’s New Age reflection “Across the Universe” and Paul’s vestigial Catholic hit “Let it Be,” the spiritual significance of Jackson’s series hits us above all in the unavoidably dark moments of his tale.
In the first episode, George declares, “Maybe we should have a divorce,” to which Paul responds, “It’s getting nearer.” John cruelly makes fun of George’s friends attending their rehearsal—admittedly odd-looking members of the Hare Krishna sect. And eventually George is fed up with the whole experience and walks out, jeopardizing the project. We suddenly realize that George may well be the most important and intriguing character in the series. He is on fire creatively, but he struggles for the attention of John and Paul as he shows his work. Ironically, George would write the best songs on Abbey Road later in 1969 before going on to create what is arguably the best post-Beatles solo record, the aptly titled All Things Must Pass, in November 1970.
Beatles obsessives often point to the band’s 1967 trip to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India as the moment the band experienced a true break among its members, and that comes up here. At one point, John and Paul agree that the experience and their training in Transcendental Meditation felt “like school,” and that they had acted like phonies. Paul says to John, “We probably should have . . . ,” and John finishes, “been ourselves.” But George, who is clearly unhappy throughout the sessions, fires back, “That is the biggest joke. To be yourselves. Because that was the purpose of going there. To find who yourself really is.” To which John replies, in a tellingly regretful tone, “Well, we certainly found that out, didn’t we?”
Putting aside Harrison’s devotion to Eastern mysticism, his comment is telling of the whole Beatles thing, and of the whole idea of popular culture. On some level, it’s all an act. And it’s an act that has huge potential to ruin souls. Get Back is, therefore, the chronicle of the rather unglamorous curtain calls we all must face someday. Having all the fame and influence in the world will not save anyone, and popularity may even push us further away from understanding the depth of our own hearts.
Another troubling and important motif that runs through the series is the Beatles’ aimlessness without an authority figure to help them focus. They speak often about the death of Epstein, the Liverpool record-store owner who made the Fab Four what they were, taking care of them and challenging them, even as he negotiated bad deals for them that created big headaches later. As we watch Get Back, we can tell it has been a long time, perhaps too long, since anyone has been able to tell John, Paul, George, or Ringo what to do. In the various struggles the four men exhibit on camera, we remember that no human can flourish for long amid the illusion of controlling his own destiny. Time and again, we see the stoic bearing of the impeccably dressed George Martin who stands by, helpless to keep the group focused on bringing a new era of Beatlemania into existence. It’s just not meant to be.
All these heavy themes aside, Jackson’s Get Back series is truly delightful for those with a long attention span. For people who have found joy in the Beatles’ music, Jackson’s creation intensifies it for us. It is a shame and a scandal, of course, that anyone in pop culture could be credibly called “more popular than Jesus,” but those of us who recognize that fact could do a lot worse than spending a few hours back in 1969 with the Fab Four today, if only to remember that despite brokenness and hardship, we can occasionally do beautiful things with people we love. Of course, money can’t buy us love, and ultimately, all things must pass.
In which case, I’ll take Peter Jackson’s happy ending with gratitude.