Get Back review: Watch The Beatles making magic in their final days

The Beatles meet to record and film Let It Be. The Disney Plus documentary Get Back revisits the occasion decades later.

Disney Plus

My dad saw the Beatles play live once. A lot of parents and grandparents did, obviously, but I like to think that my dad’s story was a bit special. He was sweeping after a dance at a youth club and got a chance to see the night’s performers, four up-and-coming local youngsters, improvising together on stage. I wonder if, while watching John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr playing together early in their careers, he got goosebumps like me with the new documentary. Return, which gives you an intimate close-up of the fractured Fab Four in their final days.

Directed by Peter Jackson, Get Back takes us back to 1969 and challenges an entrenched narrative about the last days of the Beatles. It is a documentary series consisting of three long episodes, premiered on Disney Plus one at a time starting today, November 25, 26 and 27.

This comprehensive (and honestly a bit exhausting) look into the songwriting and recording process gives you a close-up of the four most famous musicians in the world as they try to figure out if they want to remain Beatles. It’s certainly a hypnotic treat for music scholars and Beatles megafans. But even with the absorbing undercurrent of suspense surrounding the band’s fate, Get Back is still eight hours of watching some guys sitting in a room.

Having gone from being a gang of bequiffed teenagers in the late 1950s to the lauded overlords of Beatlemania in the 1960s, by 1969 the group found itself adrift. After a backlash from American religious types against Lennon’s simplistic comment about being more famous than Jesus, they stopped traveling to focus on increasingly complex and experimental music. But a side effect of the multitrack’s time-saving tech innovation meant they played individually rather than together as a unit, just as other commitments and relationships put their friendship to the test.

Feeling that they needed to regain their old energy, the band decided to write and record an album in two weeks, moving towards their first live concert in years. They also decided to film everything. But the resulting film, Let It Be, turned out to be something very different, as when it came out, the Beatles were no more.

The Beatles give their last concert on a London rooftop in January 1969.

Disney Plus

Let It Be has for decades been considered a fundamental rock text, a look inside a band on the brink of implosion. But Get Back reviews and to some extent corrects that myth, starting with a disclaimer about describing the events and the people as they happened. The new series looks at 56 hours of invisible footage and over 150 hours of never-before-heard audio, and the three lengthy episodes have room for much more nuance.

Sure, there is an obvious tension. Harrison makes his pitch to be more involved, but gets irritated at McCartney’s leadership. McCartney, meanwhile, despairs of lack of enthusiasm. Lennon is always late, Yoko Ono perennially on his shoulder. With cameras rolling discreetly from across the cavernous but claustrophobic studio where the band gathers to rehearse, the four of them slip into a real conversation about depression.

And there is external pressure to be the biggest pop group on the planet. After the death of their manager, the Beatles are now managing themselves and facing tedious complications like haggling over EMI record label equipment. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the man who supervises the filming, continues to suggest that the band perform in an amphitheater in Libya or in a children’s hospital. And time is running because Ringo has to go make a movie with Peter Sellers.

The Beatles write and record songs that will appear on their final albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be.

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But Get Back also shows a group of creative people having fun. Lennon makes everyone laugh with their silly voices, everyone makes fun of McCartney’s beard and jokes with a dirty version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. The camera captures Lennon looking at Harrison playing. John and Yoko dance slowly to the beat of the jam sessions, and the ubiquitous but almost completely silent Ono is seen joking around with McCartney’s next wife, Linda. There’s a lovely moment when Linda’s little daughter Heather blatantly joins in with a song. And after hours of watching a crisis unfold around Harrison, it’s truly heartwarming to see him unable to stop smiling when others comically ruin a shot.

Above all, Get Back shows a gang of boys doing magic. The film opens with unhurried shots of the musical and film crew set up as John, Paul, George, and Ringo sit adrift in their seats for the first song. They stare intently at each other, locking themselves into a new song, joking with each other as they jump in and out of rhythm. It is fascinating.

This happens over and over again, whether they’re playing to Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry songs or feeling possible lyrics from The Long and Winding Road. As they battle through embryonic versions of so many iconic songs, you find yourself encouraging them to find the right word that you know is waiting to fit into its place.

McCartney’s love and understanding of music is contagious, connecting what they are doing to broader musical traditions. You have an intriguing take on inspiration when Harrison talks about what he saw on TV last night and how a jarring juxtaposition between two shows sparked the song I Me Mine. And just like my dad did while pushing a broom across a back room in Merseyside, you can see the Beatles casually and joyfully swapping instruments, working together to shape their sound.

Even though I’m from Wirral, a lush peninsula across the river from Liverpool that the Beatles played many times when they grew up, my parents had no rarities or collectibles in their record collection. We weren’t a family of musicians, or if I’m honest, we weren’t even big Beatles fans. They were just the main / only shared interest in my parents’ easily listened to LP jumble. I’m sure I’m not the only person who connected with my parents through the Beatles as a kind of background radiation that transcends musical taste.

So on paper, Get Back would seem like a perfect family display for the holiday season. Good luck with that. My dad would have fallen asleep in his chair in a matter of minutes. Not only is it excruciatingly long, but it is also quite static. Get Back is great at capturing the band’s boredom and frustration as they sit around waiting for missing members to show up, but it does so when really showing them sitting bored and frustrated, for years. Episode 2, in which the music stops when a member of the band disappears, makes the Jackson Hobbit movies look like a masterclass shortly.

“Do you realize this tape is costing you two shillings a foot?” someone asks at one point during the recording session, and it feels like a question someone from Disney might have directed at Jackson.

The Oscar-winning director spread out his films The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in different cuts, and maybe Get Back needs multiple versions as well. It might not be in the spirit of the thing, but it would be easier if you could choose Just the music, Just the chat, or Just the fights.

Still, if you have time, you will come to know and empathize with these icons on a deeply human level. And the footage is packed with shocking moments, whether it’s a portentous zoom on an abandoned microphone or a private conversation captured with a tape recorder hidden in a flowerpot. As a bonus, there is the continued pleasure of the clothing: every day, the band and their camp followers show up and wear sparkly shirts and ties, extravagant fluffy coats, and delightfully stylish suits.

And, of course, everything is based on the big moment: the concert. Hours earlier, the band is still divided on whether they want to go up on the roof. But they go up. Get Back includes the entire 42-minute show performed and filmed on an icy rooftop, several floors above London’s Savile Row, in January 1969 at lunchtime. A raucous and unique moment in rock history, it turned out to be their last gig, but what a great way to say goodbye.

I said goodbye to both of my parents in 2020 (neither from COVID, although the pandemic prevented us from spending time with them towards the end). Returning to our old home, my brothers and I went through the old record collection one last time. The tattered 7 inches and a well-worn Abbey Road tape cassette reminded me of my dad’s story and made me think of my mom and dad dancing in their youth.

The last time I saw Mom and Dad together was on a Beatles tour of Liverpool, where they met my new daughter for the second time. My little girl is now a little girl and she sings Yellow Submarine in the bathtub while splashing around with a toy of the right color. She na-na-naaas along with Hey Jude in the car, which never fails to get my wife and I foggy. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll be paying attention when you put the Get Back concert on TV over the holidays, but it doesn’t matter.

Someday we will see it together. For now we will let it be.

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