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Film Review

The Beatles: Get Back

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The Beatles
Get Back
Apple
2022

Following Thanksgiving weekend 2021's much-ballyhooed Disney+ streaming premiere of Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back, the announcement of its physical release came off slightly anti-climactic. The prospective excitement was further dampened by the fact no additional content was to be included over and above the original eight-hours or so, then further muffled by the delay of issue by technical glitches in the first run of duplication.

Thus, when the DVD and Blu-Ray finally hit the street in July 2022, the two distinctly different package designs seemed to mirror the respective attention spans of the potential viewership. For the former, a slim-line keep case contains the three discs all on one spindle on a single tray, the only other enclosure a double-sided color one sheet advertising the companion pieces of coffee table book and audio box set released coincidental with the TV premiere. In its own way, the relative simplicity of its design may allow more focus on the front photo itself, its deliberate similarity to that on the Beatles' very first album (plus the not-so readily apparent double images visible therein, an aspect of which design those with only passing interest may not notice).

On the other hand, the noticeably heftier Blu-Ray set is emblazoned with the description of "Collectors' Edition" on its outside wrap-around sleeve and what's inside fits that label: a glossy hard-board sleeve holds a slip-case of similar finish, within which is a triple-fold enclosure holding the three-discs, all those surfaces adorned with photos of the Beatles and the surroundings in which the work inside took place back in early 1969 (plus picture cards of similar imagery).

It's not described as a deluxe package, but it might well be, and it's ideal for the viewer who brings some memories of the group in its heyday as well as its somewhat tumultuous end. For those only superficially familiar with the circumstance in which the Beatles were working on a project originally titled Get Back—it only turned into Let It Be much later in its development—it might be as much overkill as the duration of film itself. But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for each demographic: the rabid can luxuriate in the footage from start to finish and also stop/start/surf individual scenes in the way the more casual viewer may prefer to approach the film.

That said, The Beatles: Get Back is a marked contrast to the previous multimedia, group—sanctioned documentary The Beatles Anthology (Apple, 1995). Whereas that effort was deliberately conceived and executed to be as revelatory as possible, the impact of this piece of cinema by the director of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings may well rely on how conversant with the backstory of this late-career project of the Beatles are the devoted aficionados and/or the casual film watcher/Beatles dilettante. There's precious little spelled out, notwithstanding some captions identifying the figures as they appear on screen, so the latent satisfaction in watching this, in whole or in part, is something of a risky proposition.

In that respect, it's arguable how many owners/watchers of the video packages may have availed themselves of the hardcover coffee table book and boxed set of audio released coincidental with the initial screening. The film provides a subtly different perspective than either of those aforementioned items, so the three pieces become complementary almost by default: with The Beatles: Get Back (Callaway Arts & Entertainment, 2021), the juxtaposition of Ethan Russell's photos and all the dialogue from the movie can be particularly advantageous, while the audio-only portions of The Beatles: Let It Be—Super Deluxe Special Edition (Apple, 2021) condense the music-making activity of the Beatles to its essence (the sound of which is uniformly nuanced but hard-hitting in the latter and in the movie).

The first truly dramatic moment of the movie actually doesn't occur until about an hour in. After seemingly aimless talk and musical interaction, the foursome falls into a muted conversation about the 'doldrums' that have afflicted them since the death of "Mr. Epstein" (as they all call late manager Brian.) It's eye and ear-opening in a way that renders comparatively mild the now famous sour exchange between Paul and George, but it is so quiet a discussion it might go unnoticed if not for the footage that precedes and follows.

During those segments it becomes abundantly clear the Beatles did not enter into this project with a wholly lucid plan at hand. In keeping with the title, they did agree the concept of Get Back was to feature the band playing together without recording overdubs so extensive as on, for instance, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967), Yet, in contrast to the sharing of their prospective new material for The Beatles (Apple, 1968) at George Harrison's home prior to repairing to the studio to record, the unspoken sentiment within the four in January of 1969 when first convening is that there's a paucity of new material at hand.

On the contrary, as successive days of the twenty-one total unfold, plenty of tunes appear, not the least of which include "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," "Oh Darling!," "Octopus' Garden" and "Something," these in addition to those receiving immediate attention, such as John Lennon's "Don't Let Me Down;," all four of the former would subsequently appear on Abbey Road (Apple, 1969), sessions for which would commence fairly shortly after these end.

Former director of British television staple Ready Steady Go! (and Beatles promo videos) Michael Lindsay-Hogg is as unflagging as film producer Denis O'Dell in attempts to convince "the boys" to present a grand performance once they've fine-tuned and recorded upward of 14 to 20 or more songs. It's repeatedly clear by the camera pans from one dour expression to another that none of the quartet seem wholly enthused about the notion, not even McCartney, who earnestly wants to play a show, but has no practical scenario to do so (aside from showcasing the relative abundance of new compositions he has at hand).

It is no illusion that each part of this film proceeds at a more or less sluggish pace. The effect is less for a viewer fascinated with the recording process, and the musicians involved in that, but even then the iconic band's work moves at a decidedly stop-and-go tempo. As such, however, this approach is the most obvious means for Jackson to allow the footage to speak for itself. And, invariably, startling moments regularly occur that not only render moot the passing of turgid intervals, but indiscernibly generate momentum through the course of the film. Just such a segment is the conversation between Lennon and McCartney alone, recorded by Lindsay-Hogg and his crew, unbeknownst to the two Beatles.

And notwithstanding, it doesn't take long to realize that, in some very substantive ways, the Beatles are much the same people who became world famous in '64 (though much hirsute than at that time we might've imagined possible): in turns, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr are all charming, maniacal, petulant and stoic, Above all, however, they bonded by the shared experience of making music even if, at this point in their career, that very unity is more restrictive than they might've anticipated.

The ostensibly erratic pace pervades the three parts in total. For instance, it's more than a little confounding when footage of songs like "Two Of Us" suddenly materializes in much more polished arrangements, when only the most skeletal form(s) had previously appeared earlier on. But perhaps that's less arbitrary than purposeful on the filmmakers' part as, in stark contrast, the relatively quick evolution of the song "Get Back" is less surprising with its various in-process stages sequenced in fairly quick succession.

Apropos of Harrison's comment on how group projects seem to take on a life of their own, the wealth of footage available—fifty-five hours of never-before-seen video and one hundred-forty of audio—suggests the resulting continuity (and occasional lack thereof) manifest itself in the editing process; while that thought might seem fatuous on the surface, the fact is that another pivotal moment, George's decision to quit the band, arrives and departs almost unnoticed. The low-key capture of the moment he exits and the protracted, stunned reaction of the remaining threesome is exactly the drama an expert filmmaker aims for. A viewer selectively choosing scenes from the disc menu, however, might well miss the sequence.

Needless to say (or perhaps not), The Beatles: Get Back is more than enough content for even the most voracious Beatles follower. And it's fair to state that the inexorable progress the Beatles make in writing and recording wouldn't reveal itself so fully without having it all at hand. Certainly the role of co-producer/engineer Glyn Johns wouldn't seem so integral to the proceedings: he is particularly discerning in terms of composition and arrangement. On the other hand, long-time producer George Martin's somewhat peripheral role is more than a little puzzling (then again, his role had diminished during the work on 'The White Album' the previous year).

As the nebulous plans for a TV special are scrapped, the idea of a documentary about the making of a Beatles album turns into a feature film. To that end, the move from the cavernous atmosphere of the Twickenham Film Studios to the group's own recording space, set up within their office building, seems counterintuitive. Yet the mood of the group brightens considerably as they become happily ensconced in the intimate environment; Lennon especially becomes more fully engaged with the process at this point (though, as before, Yoko Ono remains close to his side virtually all the time), while Harrison is also distinctly upbeat upon his return to the fold.

The idea of the Beatles playing on the rooftop of the London edifice thus turns more than a little providential. There is no source identified for that idea— despite the fact Ringo Starr gets the credit in some quarters—but the new concept, outlandish as it first sounds, appears to further inspire the quartet. Still, the uplifting effect remains somewhat sporadic: in further dialogue, there arises the nagging sense the group is not truly doing anything new apart from simply making another album. As a result, everyone involved becomes anxious to complete this project, even apart from scheduling concerns involving Ringo's participation in The Magic Christian movie (the star of which, actor Peter Sellers, shows up briefly during an uncomfortable juncture). Still, the performance plan coalesces, almost of its own accord, toward the end of "Part 2" and its evolution is genuinely suspenseful if the viewer knows what the end result is.

For those well-versed in Beatles lore, it's no doubt difficult not to play these three discs in their entirety in quick succession once the viewing starts ( the less knowledgeable may be inclined to search for particular scenes). The camera work helps in either regard, though admittedly in a somewhat perverse way at times; in particular, during the first week in residence at the film studio, long shots and a panoramic view or two reveal the Beatles, along with their staff and crew, dwarfed by the empty open space and even more so when pastel colors are projected on the wall, ostensibly to warm the atmosphere in otherwise clinical surroundings.

In contrast, it's difficult if not impossible to feel in the thick of things at Apple, a sensation accentuated with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison arranged (more often than not sitting) in a circle, with Starr behind baffles (but not hidden) just a long arm's length away. Anyone watching who proceeds on the premise of friction in the group (a notion left by the original Let It Be movie) may find it more than a little wondrous that, in such these close confines, the foursome begin to play and sing—not to mention communicate verbally—in a more forthright and cohesive fashion.

Ironically, Harrison himself remarks upon the improvement, in the specific context of the musicianship (albeit with no false modesty), attributing the improvement to rehearsing and jamming every day. Thus, the deceptively stray comment about how long it's been since the four had played together while recording becomes significant. Ultimately, The Beatles Get Back does illustrate how the group achieved its goal of making a live-in-the studio album, thanks in no small part to the chance (?) appearance of keyboardist Billy Preston: his contributions ensure the success of that spontaneous approach, not the least of which is how his presence enhances the potential validity of a public performance.

Naturally, the mythic rooftop concert—presented here for the first time in its entirety except for a digital-only release prior to release of the title—ends up the grand denouement McCartney speaks of near the midpoint of this exacting cinema. In fact, the abbreviated set high above Savile Row has never seemed more of a payoff: unglamorous as it looks with the musicians huddled against the cold and wind, their camaraderie is unmistakable. As is the musicianly chemistry at the heart of their relationship, a virtue perhaps most striking in the fraternal harmonies of Lennon and McCartney, the blend of which offsets the occasionally ragged nature of the playing and singing.

With split screens utilized judiciously to contrast the band in closeups with long shots of the street below, plus the vantage point of a camera at the top of the building next door (which ruffles the feathers of its owner who appears in the foyer to complain during this interval), it's all rendered with good humor aplenty, even in the face of the police coming upstairs to call it all to a halt. On that point alone, Peter Jackson and his co-filmmakers hit their own bullseye in substituting the utmost positivism to counteract the heretofore prevailing negative impression left by this film's antecedent.

Reference to future business manager Allen Klein's arrival is a harbinger of the otherwise well—documented discontent to afflict the Beatles, but that nuance may only be telling to the most devoted. It's certainly far less of a notable precursor of things to come than the seemingly random pan upward to the future site of the 'show,' without explanation, far in advance of its occurrence. To pick up on such nuances requires close attention to detail when it otherwise might be flagging in the perusal of The Beatles: Get Back.

But picking up on such subtleties of significance unquestionably enhances the viewing experience. Two quick discussions of Ethan Russell's photos as the foundation for a book published as companion piece to the film and album are an inkling of things to come as well: one such collection was eventually enclosed with some of the initial LP releases of Let It Be (Apple, 1970), while the other aforementioned tome preceded the initial releases of music and movie.

Rumors persist about the release of a modified version of the now fifty-plus year-old cinema. But such a move would only seem to muddy perceptions clarified by the assiduous efforts of Peter Jackson and company (aided by the surviving Beatles and their spouses). Better to append some bonus features to sharpen the focus of their own work and thus provide more close-up perspective and insight into the machinations behind this conscious effort on the part of the Beatles to rekindle the spark of inspiration that gave birth to their creativity.

For instance, a legend of sorts would illuminate the significance of some of the now famous personages involved with the project. The aforementioned Johns, for example, had just overseen the first two longplayers by the original Steve Miller Band and would go on to work in similar roles with Led Zeppelin, The Who. The Rolling Stones and Eagles. And the arc of Preston's professional life, going back to his tenure with Ray Charles, might well deserve more elucidation based solely on his participation in this project.

While such a scholarly approach might come across pedantic to some, the half-century that's elapsed since all this activity took place leaves many of those encountering the Beatles for the first time, in general and in specific, less-than-fully cognizant of their history. So, considering the otherwise endlessly fascinating nature of the subject at hand, there's really no way to overstate the obvious.

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