If you were born after The Beatles became ‘a thing’, when and where and why you found them the first time can sometimes be heard to pin-point. They were just there, man. Larger than life. Musical gods.
Obviously I can remember moments in my youth which helped inform my fandom for the group. My older brother had a VHS documentary called, The Compleat Beatles. I remember watching that so many times, there are now pieces of Beatle interviews, news reports, live performances, and so on, where I know every vocal inflection, every bodily movement, every facial expression. It’s like Star Wars Episode IV which I was also devouring during this early to mid 1980s period; I watched these videos so many times while my brain was still forming, it’s in there for good now. Every little bit.
As I moved into my teenage years, I learned the guitar, thought about music a lot, and even bought tons of bootleg albums. In the case of my Beatles bootlegs these were often outtakes from studio sessions. Take after take after take of certain songs. I never got sick of listening to this stuff… I’d note how the bass would change here… the lyrics would change there… it was endlessly fascinating.
And in saying all of this, you can maybe see I was a little different to someone who liked, or even loved, just listening to Beatles music. I was in deeper. And even that’s an understatement. I immersed in the stuff as much as I immersed myself in other major fandoms in my life, like Doctor Who, for example.
All of this being preamble to saying that Peter Jackson’s Get Back – comprising three episodes of quite raw studio footage from the band’s Let It Be sessions, between two and three hours apiece, with the whole series running at 468 minutes – was made for someone like me. But I think I’ve already shown here that I’m not ‘normal’. Indeed, my wife (who loves The Beatles), wasn’t interested in the documentary at all. A work colleague who also loves the band got 20 minutes into the thing, stopped, and asked me the next day at work, “Is there going to be a movie-length release of the good bits?”
And it’s hard to argue with them. As fascinating as I find it to watch Paul and Ringo chatting between songs, or John singing in a funny voice, or watching George’s growing displeasure as the band scrambles to find songs for the album despite him constantly pointing out he’s brought tons of songs, I know this isn’t for everyone. Why Disney hasn’t led straight off the bat with, say, a two-hour version (like we thought we were getting originally), and then dropped this behemoth later, I have no idea.
Presently I see the same patterns repeating with friends all over the world. 20 minutes in, they’re on social media declaring it’s the most amazing thing ever. By the fifth hour, with more hours to come, they’re wondering if they really need to hear another 30 second take of Don’t Let Me Down.
I know how this piece is sounding so I also need to stress, however, when this documentary delivers, it REALLY delivers. Something you will hear a lot of people reference is how amazing it is to see Paul playing a very rudimentary version of Get Back. The music’s not quite there and the lyrics are a long way off, but you can see the seed of the song planted and start to grow. It’s great. But I also enjoyed other bits, like when Paul and John slip into the studio’s cafeteria and their conversation is recorded by a microphone hidden, allegedly, in a pot plant. I dare say none of us have ever heard a couple of Beatles talking to each other like ‘normal’ people, with no idea they’re being recorded. It’s amazing. Similarly I was quite taken with Ringo sitting at a piano, banging out an early version of Octopus’s Garden. George wanders over, acoustic guitar in hand, and watches for a moment, before starting to strum some chords and work out a bit of a guitar part for himself. I was entranced by these moments.
This is one of those times where I feel if I had an edit suite and a few days, I could cull this footage down to something amazing. Yes, it would mean losing things that are interesting, in theory. But it would produce an edit that more people would stick with. The lack of narration or talking heads and just simple snippets of text here and there means the documentary really lives or dies based on the footage. And there are times where the footage isn’t really cutting it – even for a super fan like myself. Frankly there’s only so many times you need to hear a song being sung in a funny voice, Beatles pulling faces at each other or 20 seconds of them singing some obscure 1950s song for no apparent reason.
Cards on the table, I am delighted to have seen all of this footage. But I couldn’t tell you when in my lifetime, if ever, I’ll want to do it again. If Jackson does cut a two-hour ‘best of’ I think I’d watch that sometime. But as something to watch annually, or even bi-annually as some sort of event TV? This Beatles fan says no. So I can only imagine how some casual fan who just wants to hear Let It Be might feel. Ironically the best version of that song comes during the closing credits where, almost eight hours into the project, the credits are literally rolling and we’re still being presented with new footage; on this occasion the small recording session that occurred after the infamous rooftop concert.
Get Back is peak Peter Jackson. Presented with a simple task, which would absolutely rock and appeal to the widest number of people as a two-hour thing, he makes it almost eight. Approach with caution.