Correspondence: ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ (2021) dir. Peter Jackson

by Will Sloan, John Semley, and Jesse Hawken

FROM WILL

Hello John and Jesse,

I know from your social media feeds that you are both, to some degree or another, fans of the Beatles, and also that you recently watched Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back. I’m interested to know more about your relationship with the “lads from Liverpool,” but to kick things off, I will tell you where I stood before embarking on Jackson’s 471-minute behemoth. I was an obsessive fan throughout my undergraduate years, memorizing the albums and immersing myself in all the offstage lore. There were times in those years when I would be listening to Sgt. Pepper on my iPod while in line for a garbage meal at McDonald’s and think, “Why do I listen to anything else?” Their music seemed to have everything.

And then, one day at the age of 25, I have a distinct memory of listening to an album and thinking, “I think I need a break from this.” Something about it was suddenly rubbing me the wrong way. I think it must have been a Paul song, because occasionally in the years after I would crack a joke about their “boop-dee-boop-dee-boop” music. I was hoping that circumstances would eventually revive my love for the Beatles after a seven-year break, and I’m happy to say that Get Back has pretty much done the trick. What a pleasure to be reminded of how exciting and varied their music was, and to see how only these four wildly different sensibilities coming together at this time could have produced it.

This documentary is built from 160 hours of footage shot during the production of Let It Be (1970). That Michael Lindsay-Hogg-directed documentary chronicled the making of the Beatles’ penultimate album, and the one on which their working relationship began to fracture. I was initially surprised that all this footage had somehow gone unexploited for 50 years, but clearly it would have been meaningless without a filmmaker great enough to make the thousands of small but crucial editorial decisions to shape it all into something that conveys what the energy of the room probably felt like; addresses the narratives we’ve all internalized about this moment of the band’s existence; and depicts the slow, unglamorous business of art-making while not being boring. Over the eight-or-so hours, a story emerges of four guys who can be the absolute best friends and greatest band in the whole wide world when they’re just sitting down together doin’ the work, but who nevertheless can no longer have the same friendship they once had because it’s not Hamburg circa 1962 anymore.

Now, here’s something I want to ask you both about. In Film Twitter circles, there has been much debate over Jackson’s decision to use digital trickery to “modernize” the footage, which he hopes will help audiences relate to the footage not as a historical artefact, but as something vital in the here-and-now. Do you think the experiment was a success? Also, do you have any larger qualms with this? To be honest, I’m concerned that this might become a landmark in our corporate overlords’ insidious campaign to normalize the “modernization”  of any material from the pre-digital era. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater with Get Back, but I’m a little tired of seeing Seinfeld and The Simpsons cropped to awkward new dimensions, and I suspect I will start resenting Jackson if we get to the point where some streamer is cropping out Charlie Chaplin’s feet or digitally smoothing his face to make his films “relevant” to some hypothetical modern audience. Is this alarmism on my part?


FROM JOHN

Hi Will,

Nice to speak with you, here in this shared Google Doc.

Let me take up the first part of your inquiry…uh…first. I was–and suppose, I still am–a massive Beatles fan, Lads-head, Fabs-freak, etc. As with most things, my fandom has peaks and troughs. And in my 20s, and into my 30s, I tended to gravitate towards their solo output (McCartney’s especially). For some reason I find a song like “Magneto and Titanium Man” more listenable than “Mean Mr. Mustard” nowadays. Though I still find time to enjoy my favourite Fab 4 records–Revolver, Help and Let It Be, especially.

My first real exposure (beyond ambiently hearing their music on the classic rock radio waves emanating out of Toronto and Buffalo) was the airing of the Anthology documentaries on ABC. Later, I’d purchase and devour the Anthology CD box sets, which I think nurtured my fandom in a way that was a little obsessive, right out of the box. It wasn’t just about the music, but the documentation: the sense that this band was its own historical project. This guided my approach to music for a long-time, for better or worse, as I gravitated towards acts like Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, and The Grateful Dead: artists whose every half-formed fancy is an object of utter obsession.

So, from this perspective, Get Back was highly anticipated. It was not just another “Beatles movie.” It was an honest-to-goodness archival project. And I think this leads me to your second point, re: the modernization and digital facelifting. I agree that it certainly looks “weird” in places. The digital painting over ruddy 16mm footage can make the lads look a little like waxworks versions of themselves. Ringo seems to fare especially poorly? I’m not sure why. And I agree–in general terms—about the concern that everything must seem new and shiny in order to find an audience. I think it’s interesting to compare the look and approach of Jackson’s film (if we’re calling it that) to another of my favourites of last year, Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground documentary. That film repurposed old 8mm footage so extensively that some people chirped that Andy Warhol should have been credited as a co-director. The difference is that Haynes’ appropriated this footage as such. He wanted to create a real sense of the New York art scene in the ‘60s, and I think he did so very effectively. Peter Jackson’s m.o. is entirely different.

I was extremely fond of Jackson’s last big documentary techno-bauble, 2018’s Great War documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Yes, there’s the stunning way in which he is able to revive ancient, rat-a-tat camera footage to make 100 year-old reels documenting men in trenches eating tinned food seem “new.” But there is also the larger effect of this newness. Certain stories–The War, The Beatles–can settle into convention and cliche. We know what happened, without even really having to know anything at all. Jackson’s approach tweaks these assumptions. They Shall Not Grow Old is not some tribute to the bravery of “the boys.” It’s a radical re-conception of the Great War, and war in general. It shows the troops not as brave soldiers, but as fraily, gangly and human. Add to this the way in which the story itself consistently drives home the pointlessness of the conflict, and the way these men were basically press-ganged into shipping out, only to return home as total loser nobodies. It’s deeply humanizing, without redeeming the war itself. I liked it.

Get Back is up to something similar. It’s keen to depict The Beatles as something other than a museum act. The story of the album’s recording, and its effect in precipitating the group’s demise, is itself tweaked. We’ve all heard about Yoko Ono’s presence being an annoyance. Here, we see her basically chilling, or being welcomed in to jam with the group. We’ve heard about Paul’s bullying control tactics. Here we see a guy who feels his way is the best way, because that way has always worked. And what’s more, he’s aware of his failings and how he can sometimes steamroll his bandmates (the hidden mic teapot scene is especially revealing here). Instead of getting the same shopworn story, we’re treated to a more nuanced depiction of the Lads’ last gasp, which shows their creative energies developing in different directions: Paul wants to steady on same as ever; John wants to diverge (or just stay in bed…”resting”); George just wants to be heard; and good ol’ reliable Ringo (always the first one on set in the morning) just wants to keep the peace, and the time. The story not only looks new, it feels new.

And I think this approach–however garish it may seem at times–works on a deeper level. Seeing the band jam, noodle, and generally be creative feels fresh. The scene of Paul plucking “Get Back” out of thin air has been widely cited. I’d also check George helping Ringo “resolve” the melody of “Octopus’s Garden,” a case of two junior partners in The Beatles machinery exhibiting charming camaraderie. Get Back makes these Olympian legends seem like real people, digitally-matted warts and all. That Jackson even includes a scene of George Harrison discussing how rotten 16mm film looks when expanded to 35mm shows a bit of self-criticism here. He knows it’s not perfect. But he’s trying something.

So, in short, Will, I think your alarmism is generally warranted, but misplaced in this specific instance. It would be bad if all documentaries looked like this. But they don’t. Again, we can compare Jackson’s approach to that of Haynes, or Questlove, whose Summer of Soul music doc beautifully restored long-lost TV footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, without “modernizing” it. I think that Jackson’s gift to the cinema is primarily that of a talented technician. And seeing him apply these talents to “old” footage–as opposed to pushing relentlessly forward, as a contemporary like James Cameron does–remains compelling to me. For now.

What do you think, Jesse?


FROM JESSE

How are you gentlemen? 

First off, I have a different experience with the four mop-topped Lads from Liverpool, as I was born a few months before the events documented in Get Back, so the Beatles actually broke up in my lifetime. And I grew up in a Beatles-heavy household, not just all their albums on LP but, things like all of John Lennon’s books of comic prose like “A Spaniard In The Works” were on the shelves. I was regularly exposed to their music, and I remember trips to the library on movie night to watch Yellow Submarine and yes, even Let It Be, on 16mm. Let It Be has been very hard to see in the last couple of decades, but used to be on tv periodically. The very first album I bought with my own money as a kid was Wings At The Speed of Sound. And I followed a fairly common trajectory for people my age: loving Paul the most at first (such perfect pop songs like “Got To Get You Into My Life”!) then gravitating towards John (who had extra significance for people my age because we also remember the night he was murdered and the collosal shock of that). As I got older I renounced John and also took some time off from even listening to the works of the Beatles, together or separate. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them anymore, but they just felt overexposed and overplayed…like I’d had plenty of exposure to them, no need to keep listening. Then a few years ago I started to love Paul McCartney again; I was ‘pilled’ by “Temporary Secretary” after not hearing it for eons, and realized it was kind of a secret template for the sound of tomorrow. 

This summer I started becoming obsessed with the Beatles again, and Twitter was a big part of that. I’m generally predisposed to anyone on Twitter who makes good Beatles jokes and references, and this part of me heated up once the trailer to Get Back was released. I found myself ODing on the Giles Martin remixes of their albums on Spotify and reacquainting myself with their bangers. Although I must say that I held minor reflexive negative reactions to the Get Back project at first. I was not so concerned about them cleaning up the material as I was about this being a project of revisionist history, as the original Let It Be seemed to be the film that wrote the legend for the final days of the band; that this session was fraught with tension, that they all hated each other, that Yoko was a negative presence in the room. My concern, possibly spurred on because Disney was underwriting it all, was that this film would whitewash it and be a revisionist hagiography about how Paul was the only thing holding it together, or worse, that the Lads all had a great time together.

And in some parts of Jackson’s mammoth project these two things are true. Paul seems to be fully engaged, coming up with new material and overseeing this proposed televised concert while a checked-out John is rolling in every day with nothing but snark, and George is no longer able to hide his frustration stuck in the back seat; a shocking moment in the film is where John Lennon craps all over “I Me Mine”… a fresh and beautiful song literally written the previous night while George was watching some random shows on BBC2, the programming sparking sudden inspiration. 

This is the kind of detail that would have meant nothing to Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s team when they were editing this material in 1970, but Peter Jackson’s team would do backflips to discover 50 years later, and this documentary is full of such moments. It’s clear that Jackson has been extremely faithful to the truth about what actually happened in that month, and far from a whitewashing, it even brings up some stuff that you wouldn’t expect to get cleared to play on Disney+, like John openly discussing his heroin use (in front of an aggrieved and impatient Paul), or the stunning reveal that “Get Back” was originally a song making fun of the National Front and anti-immigrant sentiment in England, and was a companion piece to another horrifying song called “Commonwealth” that mocks Enoch Powell; both extremely clumsy attempts at ironic humour that would have been misunderstood by the public and weaponized by the hard right if they had been released officially. This information isn’t revealed to expose the Beatles or damage our feelings about them, because this is simply the process of creation, which can sometimes involve spending a long time on a bad idea. 

And this gets me to what I most appreciated about Get Back – how it documents one of the most important aspects of an artist’s creative process: learning from failure and knowing when the work is finished. Knowing when you can do better. We see Paul hit on the song “Get Back” almost as if it was conjured by magic, but then we see the band get carried away with it, going down the worst possible road with lyrics ironically complaining about Pakistanis. And then we see it get further refined, and then alchemized by the arrival of Billy Preston, who comes in almost in the middle of the movie like a classic screenplay arc, to give them a new direction and energy, after we’ve already watched a couple of hours of a disintegrating band. A highlight from that first third of the movie is when George ups and leaves the group, dropping the devastating exit line “See you round the clubs”, and then we cut to John, Paul, Ringo and Yoko coming up with some primal scream rock, a reaction from the remaining band  that we would describe today as “Not Mad, Actually Laughing”. 

As Get Back continued I knew this movie was working on me as montage because as the TV show plan was cancelled and a new plan to perform on the roof of Apple HQ was being developed and carried out I was kind of thinking to myself “Gee, I hope the boys put on a good show!”, completely forgetting that yes indeed they would. It’s an extremely generous documentary that for me felt wholly immersive, like you were having this vivid dream where you just hung out for a few hours with the Beatles in January 1969. I watched this movie on a 13 inch laptop and not on a giant tv, so I don’t take issue with the “Smooth Ringo” complaints that the film is too artificial looking, it worked for me, it actually enhanced the dreamlike qualities of the whole project. It was a necessity to give the film this kind of treatment considering the condition of the surviving materials, the ancient 16 mm prints now brown and pink, some black and white reels, some frames missing or damaged in the prints. It’s frankly miraculous that you don’t see any evidence of this in Jackson’s restoration. I think as well they wanted the film to look modern so that modern audiences who may think of the Beatles as a cliche or a boomer band would realize how accessible their music and their personalities still are, transcending generational stereotypes and cultural baggage. And as impressive the visual restoration is, the sound work is fittingly even more so, with Jackson’s team able to harness the power of the computermachine to split the mono recording into a multi tracked, mixable environment, able to isolate voices from music, or even distinguish between guitars played on the track. What sorcery is this? 

Let It Be the album was never one of my favourites, and I had been exposed to it from childhood with the dreaded Phil Spector version where he poured syrup all over “The Long and Winding Road”. But this film has led me to better appreciate the individual songs from that album. Watching them come together (sorry) in this documentary helps you hear them properly. For weeks after watching the film I could not get “I’ve Got A Feeling” or “Dig A Pony” out of my head, they kept on floating back. (I hadn’t realized that 3 of these rooftop performances were the ones released as the official singles and tracks!) And it’s interesting to see glimmers of their future solo careers in the context of songs originally composed as possible Beatles material like “Another Day”, “All Things Must Pass” and “Jealous Guy”, originally titled “On The Road To Marrakesh”.  But one thing I do want to mention about this movie is how hilarious it often is, with Paul doing his funny comedy voices (what a repertoire! I vastly prefer his mugging to John’s), the killer deadpan wit of George (the legit funniest Beatle), the UK Office vibes from the scenes with Lindsay-Hogg trying repeatedly to convince the Lads to do a torchlit concert in Libya in front of “2000 Arabs” or suggesting a performance for a charitable organization  “What about a hospital? Not for the very sick, I mean, like kids with broken legs”.  And the strange touches on the periphery of this whole month, like George’s Hari Krishna sentinel keeping a sitting vigil in the room, his presence barely explained. Or the wonderful Mal Evans, their personal assistant and mood lightener, dispatched to go get an anvil and then delightfully included in the recording clanging it for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (one of the songs that gets workshopped for a seemingly disproportionate amount of screen time in the film). But for me the most privileged moment we get let in on is the sequence where John and Paul are being themselves, unaware that their chat in the commissary is being recorded via a hidden mic in a flowerpot. For the thing that is ultimately most remarkable about Get Back is how it reveals how refreshingly normal and human these incredibly famous people were, how perceptive and candid they were about their own conduct in driving George away. The film affirms that beyond their gifts and their special chemistry as a unit, that they were really just people, still amazingly young for all that they had achieved together. In 1969 it may have felt like any road could have been taken from here, a new phase for a band? Maybe even Billy Preston joining the group? But it has a poignancy when seen today as capturing that moment when friends realize they don’t really need each other anymore, another deeply human rite of passage. 


Will Sloan lives in Toronto. He has written for such publications as Cinema Scope, NPR, Harper’s, and Screen Slate, and has two – count ‘em – two podcasts, The Important Cinema Club and Michael & Us. You can follow him at @WillSloanEsq.

John Semley is a writer and researcher based in Philadelphia. His writing on film has been published in The Baffler, The New Republic, and elsewhere.

Jesse Hawken is a writer in Toronto. He is the host and producer of the Junk Filter podcast, and you can follow him on Twitter at @jessehawken

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