The long and winding Beatles docuseries will enchant die-hard and casual fans

Nov 29, 2021
Originally published on November 30, 2021 10:40 am

As I see it, there are two very different audiences for Get Back, Peter Jackson's new documentary about The Beatles' Let It Be sessions. There are the most rabid fans, who will watch it and recognize instantly the stuff they've never heard or seen before. And for them — well, for us, because I'm part of that group — this Disney+ docuseries is a true treasure. For everyone else, the first part of The Beatles: Get Back may be slow going.

What you're basically doing is watching John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr rehearse, revise and procrastinate. They debate a lot about where to stage their planned concert and even what songs to include. At one point, they decide to revisit a lot of compositions they wrote and abandoned much earlier in their careers, in case they could use some to pad out the set list. One such song, "One After 909," makes the cut, and ends up being one of the album's high-energy highlights. Another number with a blatant country flavor, "Because I Know You Love Me So," surfaces for the first time here, with Paul dismissing it as soon as they finish performing it.

There are joys even in this early stretch, because you get to see the original Let It Be documentary, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, take shape. At first, The Beatles and the film crew assemble on a cavernous movie soundstage to rehearse, and on Day 1, Lindsay-Hogg actually approaches the Beatles and asks them to play more quietly so that he can record their conversations.

As tensions rise during early rehearsals, the cameras captures everything, including the moment when George responds to a casual call for a lunch break by telling his fellow Beatles, just as casually, that he's taking a break from the band — effective immediately. He ends up gone for days.

The tension behind that temporary breakup is the drama that dominated the original Let It Be film, but it's only one of three major elements in Jackson's expanded three-part docuseries. Part one, the first day of the TV series, is about the breakup. Part two is about the reconciliation — and the energy infusion that comes when the group moves to a smaller and friendlier rehearsal space, and when keyboard player Billy Preston drops by and instantly is invited to sit in on the sessions. And the focus of part three is the complete concert, which The Beatles finally decide to hold as an impromptu event on the roof of their own building.

The rooftop concert here, with much more music and material than in the original Let It Be movie, is the part that should excite and enchant even the most casual Beatles fans. The concert is amazing — and so is the group's joyful reaction listening to the playback immediately afterward. It's a great end to this particular story, but not to the story of The Beatles. Earlier, this documentary shows them rehearsing not only songs for the Let It Be album, but for three of their respective upcoming solo albums. They also rehearse lots of songs that would end up on Abbey Road, which they would begin recording immediately after that rooftop concert. And to me, watching and hearing songs like Harrison's "Something" take shape, with input from Lennon, is priceless.

So my final verdict on The Beatles: Get Back documentary is this: Even if you don't know much about The Beatles, or don't care much about them, you should watch the final third of this new TV show — then, after you're persuaded of their brilliance and are hooked, then work your way backward. But if you know and love the group enough to get excited by learning about their creative process, and by witnessing it in real time, this new documentary is made for you. And for me.

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In the first week of January 1969, the Beatles embarked on an ambitious new project. The idea was to write and rehearse an album of all-new songs, then unveil them in what would be their first live concert in years and, at the same time, record the writing and rehearsal process for a behind-the-scenes TV special. The songs got written, but the plans changed, eventually resulting in a 1969 film documentary and a 1970 album, both called "Let It Be." Now, half a century later, "Lord Of The Rings" director Peter Jackson has gone through more than 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio recordings from that project and emerged with a three-part, six-hour documentary series that premiered Thanksgiving Day on Disney+. It's called "The Beatles: Get Back." And our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: As I see it, there are two very different audiences for Peter Jackson's new "Get Back" documentary about the "Let It Be" sessions. There are the most rabid fans, who will watch it and recognize instantly the stuff they've never heard or seen before. And for them - well, for us because I'm part of that group - this six-hour Disney+ documentary is a true treasure. For everyone else, the first part of "The Beatles: Get Back" may be slow going. What you're basically doing is watching John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr rehearse and revise and procrastinate. They debate a lot about where to stage their planned concert and even what songs to include. At one point, they decide to revisit a lot of compositions they wrote and abandoned much earlier in their careers, in case they could use some to pad out the setlist. One such song, "One After 909," makes the cut and ends up being one of the album's high-energy highlights. Another number, with a blatant country flavor, surfaces for the first time here, with Paul dismissing it as soon as they finished performing it. It's called "Because I Know You Love Me So."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECAUSE I KNOW YOU LOVE ME SO")

BEATLES: (Singing) Wake up in the morning, I don't feel blue 'cause I know I've got you. Such a funny feeling all day and night. I get the funny feeling you don't treat me right. Should have read your letters and then I'd know I would have felt much better because I know you love me so (ph).

PAUL MCCARTNEY: Don't think that I ever got to edit it (ph).

BIANCULLI: But there are joys even in this early stretch because you get to see the original "Let It Be" documentary, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, take shape. At first, the Beatles and the film crew assemble on a cavernous movie soundstage to rehearse. On day one, the director actually approaches the Beatles and asks them to play more quietly, which raises a key question from George.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

MCCARTNEY: Michael.

MICHAEL LINDSAY-HOGG: Can you turn down your amps a little bit more than that?

JOHN LENNON: Why?

LINDSAY-HOGG: The conversation is just being drowned a little bit.

GEORGE HARRISON: Are you recording our conversation?

BIANCULLI: Yes, their conversations, as well as their songs, were being recorded. And as tensions rose during early rehearsals, the cameras captured everything, including the moment when George responds to a casual call for a lunch break by telling his fellow Beatles just as casually that he's taking a break from the band effective immediately.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can we go to lunch?

(CROSSTALK)

HARRISON: I think I'll be leaving the band now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When?

HARRISON: Now.

BIANCULLI: He ended up gone four days. The tension behind that temporary breakup is the drama that dominated the original "Let It Be" film, but it's only one of three major elements in Peter Jackson's expanded three-part miniseries. Part 1 - the first day of the TV series - is about the breakup. Part 2 is about the reconciliation and the energy infusion that comes when the group moves to a smaller and friendlier rehearsal space and when keyboard player Billy Preston drops by and instantly is invited to sit in on the sessions. And the focus of Part 3 is the complete concert, which the Beatles finally decide to hold as an impromptu event on the roof of their own building.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You know, whatever. I'll do it if we've got to get on the roof.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You're the (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, I don't want to go on the roof.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I would like to go on the roof.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You would like to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yes, I'd like to go on the roof.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You diverse people.

BIANCULLI: The rooftop concert here, with much more music and material than in the original "Let It Be" movie, is the part that should excite and enchant even the most casual Beatles fans. The concert is amazing, and so is the group's joyful reaction listening to the playback immediately afterward. It's a great end to this particular story but not to the story of the Beatles. Earlier, this documentary shows them rehearsing not only songs for the "Let It Be" album but for three of their respective upcoming solo albums. They also rehearse lots of songs that will end up on "Abbey Road," which they would begin recording immediately after that rooftop concert. And to me, watching and hearing songs like George Harrison's "Something" take shape with input from John Lennon is priceless.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

HARRISON: (Singing) Something in the way she moves attracts me like a moth (unintelligible) Something in the way...

What could it be, Paul, the something in the way she moves? What attracted me at all?

LENNON: Just say whatever comes into your head each time - attracts me like a cauliflower - until you get the word.

HARRISON: I've been through this one like for about six months - (singing) attracts me like a pomegranate.

BIANCULLI: So my final verdict on "The Beatles: Get Back" documentary is this - even if you don't know much about the Beatles or don't care much about them, you should watch the final third of this new TV show. Then, after you're persuaded of their brilliance and are hooked, then work your way backward. But if you know and love the group enough to get excited by learning about their creative process and by witnessing it in real time, this new documentary is made for you and for me.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed "The Beatles: Get Back" on Disney+. On tomorrow's show, Rebecca Hall talks about directing the new film "Passing," which she adapted from a 1929 novel set in Harlem about two Black women, one of whom is passing for white. Rebecca Hall's maternal grandfather passed for white. Hall grew up in theaters. Her mother was an opera singer. Her late father founded the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Later in the week, beginning Wednesday, we'll begin a three-day tribute to Stephen Sondheim, featuring interviews from our archive with Sondheim and those who worked with him. I hope you can join us. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks (ph) and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.