The Beatles Documentary


The Beatles: Get Back is a 3-part, almost 8-hour, documentary that was filmed over a period of about 21 days. It is a piece of art that requires some context to fully appreciate.

The project was born from Paul McCartney’s attempts to reunite the band after some disagreements had led them to stray from each other. These disagreements have been much debated and written on and it is the ageless question that has become the bane of many a band: Why did The Beatles split up?

The easy answer is complicated, but for the sake of the documentary all that is needed to know is this:

1: George Harrison was getting increasingly frustrated that his work was not appreciated by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. John and Paul are the main songwriters behind most of The Beatles’ songs. This is not for lack of talent in the other two members of the band. The problem was a lack of collaboration. George wanted to stretch his proverbial wings but was not allowed to do so by John and Paul.

And 2: Yoko Ono was a source of discomfort. Yoko was John’s girlfriend at the time, who John brought to every recording session. She was an artist herself but one who did not vibe or connect with the band’s main drive and feeling. In the documentary, Paul prophetically opined that in the future they will ask why The Beatles broke up and he would respond that it was because of a girl.

Besides those two main conflicts, there were other elements which added to the rising tension and disagreements within the band. Ringo taking acting gigs while playing with the band lead to scheduling conflicts. There was also the whole deal with Apple Records, which is a long and complex story.

The point of the documentary, both as a modern viewer and as those creating it, was not to detail the fall of The Beatles. Those who ‘made’ the documentary did not think that The Beatles were going to split up after ‘making it’. The documentary was not filmed with the objective of detailing the downfall of The Beatles.

For the directors and film crew filming The Beatles making the album, it was a time for coming together and for sharing talent to create something new and better. Let It Be is The Beatles’ last ever released album, one which was officially released after they had split up. But at the same time Let It Be is their second to last album recorded. What makes this particular album special and in turn the documentary is that it was filmed and documented.

Paul’s original plan with the documentary was to have the band come together and make music as they used to make it, without the use of specialized recording technology. This meant that the band had to play separate instruments together and then use music production to bring the sound together. Paul wanted to make and record music as they used to make music, composing it together and then recording it live as a group and then releasing that live recording as an album.

This was not the only special part of the project; it was going to be filmed and edited into a feature-length documentary to be released with the album. This was known as The Get Back Project.

The Get Back Project has a total of 60 hours of film footage, and about 150 hours of audio recording on it. The Disney Plus documentary was produced by Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and a passionate fan of The Beatles. The original documentary was eventually released but was considered a sloppy product. It focused more on the drama around the break-up rather than the creative process.

The driving force behind Jackson’s rendition of The Get Back documentary is to highlight the creative process and their collaboration — along with their conflict — not letting the conflict define them but letting their creativity be the spotlight for their artistry.

The Beatles: Get Back is 8 hours of pure creative bliss. It’s a symphonic dance across the artists’ world, one full of covers of other famous artists songs interspersed with their own creative output. Random snippets of what will then become full songs were played, elaborated, and practiced on, only to be abandoned for something else. As an audience member watching the documentary, you already have the full song within your mind. Hearing them work through the process of finding that song is beautiful. It goes from iteration to iteration, changing form dramatically in a way that you wouldn’t expect, but throughout it retains its beauty.

The entire documentary has no voice-over explaining anything. There is only a short intro introducing the documentary and its framing, but this is done with text and not with a voice-over. There are no inter-snippets of interviews giving context to what is happening on screen or what will happen later on. This is cinéma vérité  “truthful cinema”, a cinema which films things as they happen and presents them to the audience as they happen, without superfluous material or framing. Some might call it the raw unfiltered truth, but even those who study and make cinéma vérité admit that this is not true.

Cinéma vérité is not journalism. It is not a “documentation of real events”. It is always art. It is always framed from a certain perspective, and it is always creative. However much you might want to ground cinéma vérité, it is still tainted by those who created it. There are choices that are made in what to shoot, for how long to shoot it, how to edit between shots, how to move the camera between moments, zooming, focusing, and everything else which comes with the manipulation of the camera. This is not clean or clear of manipulation. The whole thing is filled with artistic intent. Truthful cinema is an art form and The Beatles: Get Back is an artistic piece.

If you want to know the truth of how The Beatles split up, or their history in the later years of their career, there are better sources you can tap. Journalistic pieces which dissect and study the history of this legendary band with an academic rigor. Jackson’s Get Back Project is a beautiful artistic statement. It presents us beautiful moments of collaboration between musicians who should not be working together, who should be hating each other, who should want to leave each other at any moment.

When you watch John tell Paul how to play a particular part of the song, and Ringo is listening along matching his drums to what they are doing at all times, and George is adding flourishes on his guitar which betray his incredible skill, there is something beautiful there. They are all artists at their prime, who when they fall into that zone you can see beauty come out of their actions. At the same time throughout all this beauty there is a deep pathos here as you just know that this cannot last. They won’t be together forever. They will eventually split up and they will each take their own path.

John will be shot and killed  as well as suffering his own host of controversies both alive and dead  George will become a great guitarist until his untimely death, Ringo will fall from grace as his name is found on the Panama papers and throughout Paul will be remembered as the artist. One who had such a complete grasp of his art form that he was able to grab a guitar and, out of frustration that John didn’t show up on time for the recording session, will begin to improvise the hit single of the album, Get Back, all on his own. This is not to idolize Paul and demonize the other members of The Beatles. It is to highlight their complexity both within the documentary and beyond.

There is a beautiful and incredibly sad part of the documentary where once more John hasn’t presented himself and neither has George Harrison. The only ones there are Ringo and Paul. They sit and wait for them to present themselves and as the hours pass and no one arrives, Paul begins to get increasingly worried. He begins to ramble and talk, and here is where he says that The Beatles split up because of a girl. The man who fills the silence with music can’t fill the silence with anything anymore.

The camera focuses on him, deathly still as he stares out into nothing, wondering if they will ever present themselves, next to him is his wife-to-be Linda. As the camera focuses on Paul and he looks around, you can see the sadness on his face. A deep silence falls on the documentary then. You can’t help but feel for him as he sits there wondering what went wrong and how he can fix it, but also feeling hopeless to do anything about it.

But the documentary is not all doom and gloom. As any Beatles Aficionado will know, their final ever live concert was played on the rooftop of their recording studio. That final live concert was never released to the public since its debut; a final unannounced concert, an impromptu decision, one made in the spur of the moment to satisfy the previous decision to record the album live in a concert style fashion. There is a lot of context around this final rooftop concert that has to do with delayed deadlines and disagreements within the band itself and between the band and executives.

Regardless, what is important to know here is that this was not supposed to happen. They did not have the permit to do so. They simply set themselves up on the roof of their recording studio and began to play the new music. This was done in February. It was the dead of winter. It was freezing cold and no one from the street could see them play. No one knew it was going to happen.

All of a sudden those who were walking the streets of London, either going to work or going to the store, would all of a sudden hear The Beatles playing from the rooftops. And not playing something which was recognizable but something wholly new. This obviously attracted a huge crowd, both on the street below and on the surrounding rooftops, eventually drawing the attention of the police.

They knew that the police would eventually come and they tried at every step of the way to stop them from stopping the concert. They delayed them before entering the building. They delayed them at the entrance of the studio. They delayed them on the stairs to the roof. Eventually they had to cede, otherwise everyone on the roof would have been arrested. They were permitted one final song before having to shut down and close everything.

And the final song that was played before stepping off the roof of the studio was Paul’s lead single. When they reached the bridge of the song, Paul changed and improvised the lines to directly mock the police who had come to shut them down.

And so, with this act of defiance, The Beatles played their last live concert. They stepped down, finished recording their last album and then released it only after releasing their real last album to be recorded. In a strange turn of events: Abbey Road is The Beatles’ last album to ever be recorded but the penultimate album to be released, and Let It Be is the penultimate album to ever be recorded but the last album to be released. The reasons for this are complex and worthy of their own discussion.

In the end, The Beatles: Get Back is an excellent piece of film-making, one which justifies its 8 hours of runtime, one which is fascinating for both fans and non-fans. It is beautiful in many ways and presents the Beatles’ creative and artistic energy front and center.

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