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“The Beatles: Get Back” is a three-part documentary series from Peter Jackson that asks a simple question: How much do you love the Beatles? And honestly, the answer has to be “a lot” if you’re going to sit through another supersize Jacksonian trilogy, in which the “Lord of the Rings” maestro gives us three installments that average more than two-and-a-half hours each to dig deeply in the Beatles’ rocky journey through January 1969.
And if the answer is “a lot,” as it is with plenty of us, you might find yourself asking a second question: How great would it have been if Peter Jackson had gotten his hands on this much footage of the Beatles recording one of their best albums rather than one of their worst?
But no, there were no documentary cameramen hiding in the studio when the Fab Four made “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or the White Album or “Abbey Road.” The blanket coverage – more than 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio – came in early 1969 as the Beatles rushed through the recording of an album that was eventually released as “Let It Be” in 1970, 16 months after it was recorded and a month after the group broke up.
Despite the presence of such classic songs as “Get Back,” “Across the Universe” and the title track, “Let It Be” is a haphazard album recorded during a stressful period in the band’s existence. Those three weeks were exhaustively documented by filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who was brought in to shoot what was envisioned as a TV doc that would follow the Beatles as they made a “back-to-basics” album and then gave their first live concert since 1966.
The cameras rolled, the Beatles almost broke up and the concert turned into a 42-minute performance on the roof of the band’s London headquarters, a gig about which none of them were particularly enthusiastic. Lindsay-Hogg turned his footage into the 1970 doc “Let It Be,” a grim chronicle of a fracturing band that didn’t satisfy the group or the audience.
In recent years, the “Let It Be” album has gotten a couple of makeovers, from the Paul McCartney-driven “Let It Be… Naked” version that was released in 2003 to a new box set with five discs of alternate takes and remixes.
You could think of “The Beatles: Get Back” as Jackson’s film version of the box set: It expands the “Let It Be” film to make a case that there was a lot more interesting stuff going on in January 1969 than we saw in that movie. And with access to all of the original footage and no two-hour time constraints, the filmmaker has both restored the footage to startling clarity and produced a massive seven-hour, 48-minute look at 22 days in two studios and on one rooftop.
It’s exhaustive and it’s exhausting, and for a certain type of Beatles fan (like, I suspect, Jackson himself) it’ll be an irresistible delight. It’s thrilling to be in the room as Paul McCartney and John Lennon find the right light touch for “Two of Us,” or to watch George Harrison help Ringo Starr work out his new song “Octopus’ Garden,” or to see “Get Back” begin to take shape. (Remember Jojo, who left his home in Tucson, Arizona? His last name was once Jackson, which didn’t leave enough syllables in the line to give him a hometown.)
While Lindsay-Hogg’s film is widely considered a downer, Jackson’s is too many different things to be summed up that way. It shows the bonds that tied the band together and the pressures that were pushing them apart; it includes the moment when Harrison (temporarily) quit the band with a terse “See you ’round the clubs,” but it also goes out of its way to include montages that focus on the apparent joy these men had in playing music together.
(And while McCartney makes a prescient joke about people in the future thinking that the Beatles broke up “because Yoko sat on an amp,” in other conversations he goes out of his way to defend the relationship between Lennon and Yoko Ono, who spends much of the movie sitting silently by Lennon’s side.)
At the beginning of each episode, “Get Back” includes title cards that concede, “Numerous editorial choices had to be made during the production of these films” and then promise, “At all times, the film-makers have attempted to present an accurate portrait of the events depicted and the people involved.”
It does feel like a true picture of people who couldn’t stop squabbling and who overthought everything, but who also had a bond that came from sharing favorite records and spending countless nights doing shows in dingy clubs – until those clubs turned into stadiums and they became the only four people on Earth who really knew what it was like to be a Beatle.
The thing about “Get Back” that may well deter a lot of people, though, is that Jackson is such a completist that he has trouble leaving anything out. To embrace these near eight hours, you need to completely surrender to his pacing, to glory in every day of the Beatles’ sessions at Twickenham Studios and then at the smaller recording studio in the basement of their Apple headquarters. You may find yourself wishing that the boys would please shut up and play their instruments on a number of occasions, but the film clings to those endless conversations with the tenacity of McCartney trying to coax the right guitar line out of Harrison.
The first episode kicks off with a 10-minute history lesson that begins in 1956, when a 16-year-old Lennon formed the Quarrymen in Liverpool, and it zips through the next decade-plus in clips and songs before it slows down and settles into 1969. The band has been booked into a big soundstage at Twickenham to make an album and plan a show, Lindsay-Hogg has the run of the place and nobody’s very happy with the acoustics or with the very vague plans for their return to live performance.
Lindsay-Hogg is a central character, and he doesn’t come across very well: While the Beatles seem inclined to keep things simple, he can’t stop harping on his grand idea to sail an ocean liner full of Brits to Syria and do the show in some ancient ruins by the seaside at Sabratha. (This is supposed to happen in three weeks time, mind you.)
The first episode takes place almost entirely at Twickenham, with songs popping up at random: old rock ‘n’ roll covers, Dylan songs, some tunes that’ll end up on “Let It Be” or “Abbey Road” and others that are destined for ex-Beatle solo albums: John’s “Gimme Some Truth,” Paul’s “Another Day,” George’s “All Things Must Pass.”
It’s awfully scattershot for all but Beatles obsessives, even if there are plenty of fun moments and even a few revelatory ones. This is real fly-on-the-wall stuff, and Jackson lets it play out at such length that by hour three I was starting to wonder if anybody who needed that opening history-lesson section was still watching.
It’s also tricky because, as the opening titles admit, Jackson was working with 150 hours of audio and 60 hours of video – which means that it’s pretty common to notice that a Beatle’s lips aren’t matching what we’re hearing, and that the filmmakers have re-created the scenes using different video to almost match what we’re hearing.
Part 1 ends with a cliffhanger in George Harrison’s exit from the band, and Part 2 finds the group (spoiler alert: George came back) moving into the smaller and friendlier confines of Apple Studios, where they’re joined by keyboardist Billy Preston. They’re happier there and the music-making gets more energetic, but it’s also rough and sloppy and a little angry.
The longest episode at two hours and 53 minutes, this is also the toughest to watch at times: It’s not intimate as much as it’s claustrophobic, with the musicians crammed into a small room with no space and no relief from each other or from their deadlines.
Part 3, the shortest at a mere two hours and 18 minutes, is essentially the countdown to the rooftop concert, with tons of conversations about whether they should even be doing it: George says no, Ringo says yes and Paul is just desperate that all of this work be building up to something other than just another album.
We get the whole 42 minute rooftop performance in “Get Back” rather than the abridged version that served as the climax to “Let It Be” – but considering that the songs Lindsay-Hogg left out were simply the second versions of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” it’s debatable whether we’ve gained all that much.
But that’s typical of the series. Peter Jackson loves this band, he loves showing as much as possible of what they did in early 1969 and he loves long trilogies. Like Smaug’s cave in Jackson’s interminable “Hobbit” movies, “The Beatles: Get Back” is full of an astounding amount of treasure, and wading through it all will wear you out.
The three episodes of “The Beatles: Get Back” will premiere on consecutive days beginning on Nov. 25.