Director Peter Jackson’s new three-part, eight-hour documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back,” airing on Disney+ starting Thursday, adds even more obsessive and exhausting detail to the history of a band that has been obsessively documented for more than 50 years.
And like the Beatles themselves, by the time the final episode drags itself to a close, viewers are likely to be ready, finally, to quit.
Does a good band really need endless documentaries chronicling its members' every burp and aimless negotiation?
At the beginning of 1969, the Beatles were in crisis. Their manager, Brian Epstein (whom they still referred to as “Mr. Epstein”), had died. No one else was in a position to say “no” to any of the four most successful musicians on Earth. In a desperate bid to recapture their former collaborative spark, Paul McCartney suggested a practice session workshopping new songs without studio trickery or overdubs, so the tracks would sound and be reproducible live, as on their early albums.
The sessions were filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg for a documentary that became the 1970 film “Let It Be.” For the new documentary, Jackson returned to the 55 hours of footage to create what is essentially an (extremely) extended cut.
During the early 1969 sessions, guitarist George Harrison complained about an underwhelming take. “It sounds like the same old s---,” he said. That frustrated exclamation also functions as an unintentional critique of Jackson’s documentary.
The big takeaway from the new material is supposed to be that the Beatles didn’t hate one another at the time as much as previously suspected. Yes, we see the moment when Harrison, irritated with McCartney’s controlling demands, quits the band for a few days.
But there’s also lots of footage of the group hanging out and giggling as they play through early rock and pop numbers by Tommy Tucker, Arthur Crudup and the Everly Brothers. John’s irrepressible bad-boy antics — singing with a Scandinavian accent, turning every tune into a vaudeville shtick with high-pitched heckling — comes across less as snark and more as silly high spirits. The other band members enjoy it.
The change in interpretation is interesting for Beatles fanatics, of whom there are many. But even people like me who enjoy the band’s music are likely to find much of the additional running time tedious.
Scenes of endless rambling arguments and pointless banter make you feel like you’re stuck in some sort of hellish fusion of low-end podcast and corporate board meeting. In one particularly uncomfortable sequence, McCartney reads/sings a negative press release aloud while the others jam along. It’s supposed to show that he’s indifferent and unaffected. But it comes across as a pointless and humiliating exercise in self-flagellation.
Even the music becomes a kind of torment when it’s stretched out to eight hours. “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” are solid songs. McCartney’s schmaltz ballads, like “Let It Be,” are still pretty. The retro rock ’n’ roll-flavored skiffle of “One After 909” still gets your toes tapping. But while they’re well-constructed, the songs in general just don’t hold up to this obsessive scrutiny.
By the fifth or 10th or 30th run-through, you (like the band) are ready to never hear them again.
Scenes of endless rambling arguments and pointless banter make you feel like you’re stuck in some sort of hellish fusion of low-end podcast and corporate board meeting.
The one moment in the sessions that really feels exciting and new is when Lennon’s future wife, Yoko Ono, steps up to the mic for a jam and starts shrieking like a wounded creature giving birth. Lennon on guitar and McCartney on drums are suddenly fueled with demonic inspiration. The feedback clatter and the shriek make it sound for a moment like they belong in the same year as contemporaries like the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and Led Zeppelin. They’re looking not just backward to Chuck Berry but also forward to a future of punk, metal, no wave and noise.
Lennon would explore this direction further in his collaborations with Ono after the Beatles dissolved a year later. But when he idly suggests including the recording on “Let It Be” itself, everyone looks embarrassed.
The Beatles had been pioneers in pop studio experimentation, concept albums and heavy music during the ’60s. But by 1969 they were no longer at the forefront of any particular musical movement — and didn’t seem to want to be. Their last albums are celebrated like all the rest of their albums out of a kind of critical inertia. But contemporaries like Sly Stone, Miles Davis, Black Sabbath, Vashti Bunyan and, for that matter, Ono and Billy Preston, who played on the “Let It Be” sessions, were pushing rock in directions that the Beatles, as a collective at least, simply couldn’t muster the energy to explore.
There’s no shame in simply being a good band, rather than the best, most important and dazzling band ever, at a given moment in time. But does a good band really need endless documentaries chronicling its members' every burp and aimless negotiation?
Jackson is an important and popular director. He says he spent four years working on this documentary, all to tell us once again that the Beatles are the most important musical group that ever grouped — yes, even to their indifferent Elvis impersonations. He couldn’t think of any music of that era or of any other that might have been worth thinking about, instead?
Of course, popularity and critical consensus have their own logic. The Beatles are the thing to talk about because the Beatles are the thing to talk about. Documentaries about lesser-known figures aren’t going to attract as much attention, because people aren’t as interested in less celebrated figures, by definition. Fame is an airless box. The Beatles, to their credit, got sick of it and left. The rest of us, though, are apparently condemned to sit there in that studio listening to “Get Back” forever.