back to back
Ken Hoffman gets 'Back' into the new 8-hour Beatles documentary
Like millions of others, I’m the biggest Beatles fan in the world. That’s why I was so excited, yet progressively bored, and ultimately disappointed by Get Back, Peter Jackson’s fly-on-the-wall documentary on The Beatles now streaming on Disney Plus.
Get Back promised an intimate six-hour close-up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr writing, rehearsing and recording 18 songs while joking, bickering and breaking up, plus the pressure of a three-week deadline for their final album, Let It Be, in January 1969.
The documentary ultimately runs closer to eight hours. The Beatles really came up with only a handful of new songs and, most curiously, why is this documentary presenting Let It Be as The Beatles’ swan song, with the closing scene their last concert in public on the roof of their Apple headquarters?
One would think the Beatles climbed down from the roof, pushed the button for the ground floor, and never saw each other again.
The documentary’s final scene is hardly a concert, anyway. Over 40 stop-and-start minutes on a London winter afternoon, The Beatles perform nine songs — three takes of their upcoming "Get Back" single, two tries at "Don’t Let Me Down," Lennon’s main contribution to the project, which somehow wasn’t included on the Let It Be album, two versions of "I’ve Got a Feeling" and one each of "Dig a Pony" and "One After 909."
The stage was set toward the back of the roof, not exactly in public, out of sight of the crowd drawn to the street below. It may as well have been performed on radio. Apple staffers had to tell fans that the music was indeed coming from the Beatles.
As for writing, rehearsing and recording 18 new songs for their “final” LP, only eight songs written from scratch during the documentary period made the 12-track Let It Be album. Other songs, like "One After 909" and "Across the Universe," were written long before the Let It Be project. "Dig It" appears as a 50-second outtake, and "Maggie Mae" is a 40-second send-up of an old Liverpool folk tune.
Beatles fans and historians argue whether Let It Be actually qualifies as the group’s farewell album. While it was their last album released more than a year later in May 1970, that was because The Beatles were unhappy with Glyn Johns’ original production and brought in legendary producer Phil Spector to finish the tracks with added strings and choir voices.
The actual final album with all four Beatles in the studio together was their acclaimed Abbey Road album, recorded in February-August of 1969 and released that September.
Were the Beatles really under a three-week deadline for the Let It Be album? There’s an old joke: a doctor gave a man three months to live. When the patient didn’t pay the bill, the doctor gave him another three months.
Reportedly the three-week deadline was imposed because drummer Ringo Starr was scheduled to begin shooting a movie called The Magic Christian, starring Peter Sellers in February 1969.
But really? If the Beatles wanted to run over an extra week or two or however long they wanted, who was going to tell the biggest, most successful act in music history they had to stop? A record company executive once told me that the Eagles were running late on delivering an album. The executive said, “What are we going to do, fine them? They’re multimillionaires. And we need the Eagles.”
Was the Beatles record label going to fine the Beatles? The Beatles owned the record label.
So, while there is a field day of nitpicking to be done, I watched every minute of my favorite four people creating timeless music. The film is beautifully restored, you can see the pores in their faces and relationships with each other. Their voices soar when the red light comes on, however.
Contrary to the arguing and death knell presented in the first documentary from this period, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Me, Jackson’s version, culled from 57 hours of never-seen video, shows the Beatles upbeat, getting along and clowning with each other. They had been through a lot together, from the sweaty Cavern Club in Liverpool to raucous dingy bars in Hamburg to unprecedented global superstardom. Sure there are tense moments, like George quitting the band, but you don’t believe this is a band on the brink.
While historically there was nothing new to be learned – hundreds of books have been written about The Beatles – there are insights into their personalities and quirks. McCartney, hands running through his combed-back hair, indeed had become the band’s musical director and his bossy nature especially annoys George Harrison and Ringo Starr until Lennon takes his gaze off Yoko Ono long enough to put McCartney in his place.
All four Beatles were chain smokers in the studio, something that never would be allowed today. Lennon had to be a two-pack-a-day guy. And he’s kissing Yoko, every chance he gets, with that mouth?
George Harrison comes off a bit whiny, snarky under McCartney’s thumb, unhappy about his songs being ignored on previous Beatles albums, not wanting to travel to Northern Africa for the Beatles closing concert, even voting against climbing two flights of stairs to the Apple rooftop. Yoko Ono isn’t the unwelcome, meddling harpy breaking up the Beatles. More than anything, she looks like a bored spouse during Bring Your Wife to Work Day.
McCartney clearly is deferential and kind toward Yoko. He realizes that Lennon loves her and the Beatles will just have to deal with it. That’s unlike Ringo and George who want her gone from the studio and would prefer her out of Lennon’s life. They say they can’t communicate with Lennon with Yoko at his side. They want their old “Johnny” back.
For all the controversy and criticism of the original Let It Be project from 1969, it deserves to be noted that the album went to the top of Billboard’s charts and included three No. 1 singles, "Let It Be," "Get Back," and "The Long and Winding Road."
Ironically in a documentary about this album, two of the biggest hits, "Let It Be" and "Long and Winding Road," weren’t performed during the rooftop concert because the makeshift stage couldn’t support a piano.
All three installments of the Get Back documentary are streaming on Disney Plus, which charges $7.99 a month and you can cancel anytime — as in exactly one month like I’m doing.