Kemmeter Column: Beatles’ film has something for everyone
By GENE KEMMETER
The Beatles, the English rock band with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, come to life again in a new documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back.”
The documentary, directed by Peter Jackson, utilizes 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio recordings left in storage since 1969. The video is being live-streamed in three episodes on Disney+ and runs nearly eight hours in length.
Each episode runs at least two-and-a-half hours and unspools in chronological order, counting down from Jan. 2 to Jan. 24, 1969. The director uses a calendar to cross out the end of each day, and the sessions cover 22 days.
Back in 1969, the Beatles got together in a London studio to begin filming. They had three weeks to create and rehearse 14 songs to play in front of a live audience for a TV special. The deadline is set because Ringo is scheduled to star in “The Magic Christian,” a movie that would begin shooting on Jan. 24.
Initially, some of the video recordings became the 80-minute documentary “Let It Be,” directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg that was released in 1970, revealing the group’s creative process, camaraderie, disagreements and jubilation during the period before the Beatles broke up.
In the new film, the audience becomes voyeurs, hanging out with one of the greatest rock bands in history as the Beatles work on the project that was destined to be their last public performance. They spend their time joking around with one another, rehearsing the songs they’re trying to write, jamming on their old songs or rock ’n’ roll classics, and reading gossip columns out loud about themselves.
“Get Back” reveals the various factors that led to the ultimate breakup of the Beatles and the individual efforts to keep the band together, although they all seemed to sense that their futures would be as separates, despite their camaraderie. It also dispels the theory that Yoko Ono caused the breakup.
The first episode begins with the Paul, George and Ringo coming together to begin the project in a movie soundstage, mulling over the director’s idea to have the project culminate in a live performance, possibly at an ancient amphitheater venue in Tripoli. John misses the first two days because he has other business to attend to.
At that first session, Paul introduces an idea for a new song that is running through his head. He sings the words “Get Back” and plays the melody of a song that later became a million-seller, but admits he had no more lyrics. Throughout the remaining episodes, the lyrics are slowly added, then tweaked.
As they ponder what their new songs will be, the Beatles also play snippets of their popular songs, as well as some they’d written before they were the Beatles, wondering if they couldn’t be reworked into a new release. George says he’s got 10 albums worth of songs to record.
At the beginning of a lunchbreak before the end of that first week, George quietly announces he’s quitting the group and walks out, leaving the others to talk about getting him back.
The second episode reveals that the other members have talked George into rejoining the band and they will move from the cavernous quarters of the soundstage to the compact basement studios of Apple Corps, the recording company they’ve formed.
The return of George and the shift to the studio lift the mood of the group. The live TV show switches to the idea of an outdoor concert in a local area. The sessions produce more songs like “Let It Be,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909” and “Dig a Pony.”
The productivity is further bolstered when pianist-keyboardist Billy Preston, an old friend they met in Germany when he was playing piano for Little Richard, stops to visit while he is in London. He continues to return to other sessions while he’s in town, bringing new energy to the project.
The final episode reveals the outdoor concert will now take place on the roof of the Apple building because a more public concert location is unavailable. The mood in the studio is upbeat.
The Beatles have picked the songs they will perform and now spend the time rehearsing the songs, while continuing their playful attitude, including John and Paul singing “Two of Us” (“On Our Way Home”) with their teeth clenched and trying not to move their lips.
Throughout the film, the Beatles also perform snippets of songs that would be included on the future “Abbey Road” album, including “Something,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh! Darling” and “Octopus’s Garden.”
The film comes to an end with the public performance at lunchtime, including footage used in the original 1970 “Let It Be” documentary that utilized 10 cameras at street level and on rooftops in the Apple building area. Two London bobbies are also shown as they try to quiet the performance because of noise complaints.
Beatles fans will likely love the new documentary despite its length because it shows the numerous steps it takes in the songwriting, performance and recording process. Others will undoubtedly enjoy it also. It’s like binge-watching a television series or mini-series.