(L-R): Paul MacCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in THE BEATLES: GET BACK. Photo by Linda McCartney. © 2020 Apple Corps Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
At 468 minutes, does Director Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back overstay its welcome? Carolyn O’Donnell looks at what critics and viewers have to say…
During The Beatles: Get Back, Paul McCartney says how comical it will be in 50 years’ time that people will say The Beatles broke up because Yoko Ono sat on an amp. What’s really funny, is that 50 years later millions are still obsessing over why the Beatles broke up, and watching a documentary almost eight hours long for clues.
Beyond debate is that Beatle doings are still big news five decades after the Liverpool band split. What other group would even consider putting out a documentary of this length about making an album and expect anyone to watch it?
Oscar-winning Director Jackson defended Get Back’s running time on culture site NME, saying it was necessary to include everything “important”. He said “anything I don’t include in this movie might go back in the vault for another 50 years”.
Many watching will know the broad details of how The Beatles story goes. But when it comes to The Beatles it seems details are everything.
Composing The Long and Winding Road, Paul makes it look easy on piano, stretching for lyrics while singing “second verse that I haven’t got yet”. Later on, Paul wonders if that tune, and another familiar one called Let It Be, aren’t a bit “ploddy”.
The creative path can be a long and winding dawdle, but it can also proceed at a brisk trot, as when Paul summons the essence of the song Get Back from a few chords on his bass. George is about to nod off, Ringo looks like all his puppies have died, and suddenly they’re invigorated. A late John enters, grabs his guitar, and joins in.
Comedian Omid Djalili on Twitter said just when the documentary was testing his patience, Paul “magics Get Back out of nothingness” and “it’s one of the most extraordinary things ever captured on film”.
James Parker in The Atlantic described Get Back as “almost eight hours of symphonic tedium and fiddly revelation”. But on the rooftop for their final public appearance, “magnificent” in furs and beards, he concludes: “My God, they’re beautiful.”
Get Back humanises these men in their twenties, who despite being the biggest act in the world can’t get an 8-track recorder. There’s much to relish; John and Paul’s chemistry, George resplendent in psychedelia and tripping over equipment, Ringo’s patience. Mal Evans bangs an anvil – later an ashtray – during Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. Paul and Ringo duet on the piano; George and Ringo work on Octopus’s Garden. Smoking is constant, and the entire enterprise is kept afloat on an ocean of tea.
Get Back was a Paul-driven project following the acrimony of making The Beatles, their 1968 double album. Widely known as the White Album, Paul also referred to it as “the tension album”. The Get Back project was intended as a return to the rock’n’roll propelling their initial success.
Brian Epstein, the manager who put them on the road to that success, died in 1967. His passing is noted in Get Back, and the void he left.
Get Back is consolation for those who loved The Beatles and rejoice to see this phase not entirely characterised by bickering – as depicted in the 1970 film Let It Be. There is joy and banter and of course, great music.
There’s also resigned grief, knowing the group’s in its death throes, that John and George get what they want – to strum forth free of Beatle encumbrance. We know nothing they’ll achieve individually surpasses the brilliance of the Fab Four.
Many factors contributed to The Beatles’ demise, but during Get Back a three-phase Beatles rescue still seems possible:
1. Take two years off: Rest, lie around in bags, and miss Beatling.
2. Heal the “festering wound” of George’s third-wheelitis and give his stuff more attention.
3. Find a competent manager not called Allen Klein or Lee Eastman (soon to become Paul’s father-in-law).
When producer Glyn Johns tries to warn John about Klein – eventually jailed for fraud – I imagine muffled screams directed at a thousand video screens.
Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker referred to the documentary as “an astonishing success”, an “unexpected echo of the original Beatlemania in America” when some 73 million people watched John, Paul, George and Ringo first perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964.
Not everyone was impressed. Alexis Petridis, music critic at The Guardian, said interesting moments were “marooned amid acres of desultory chit-chat”. While he expected Beatlemaniacs to like it, “for anyone else, its sheer length can feel like a schlep”.
Carl Wilson, music critic at Slate, mused that he’d been asked where anyone was supposed to find the time to watch it, and only The Beatles could make such “absurd demands upon the culture’s attention”. A Radio Times review suggested Get Back might be a slog for casual spectators, but still gave it four out of five stars.
Yet on Twitter, one viewer at pains to point out he was no fan of The Beatles, said he’d watched Get Back all the way through – TWICE. Another said the only fault “is that it’s too short. I wanted it to last for the rest of time.”
Entertainment news site Screen Rant declared Get Back “impressive but excessive”, and said Jackson had “lost touch with what audiences actually enjoy”.
A disconnect between what critics and viewers think is not new. On IMDb, Get Back has a rating in the masterpiece zone of 9.2. By comparison, Citizen Kane, often considered to be the best film ever made, has a rating of 8.3. One IMDb user said Get Back “will be admired not for years, but for centuries”.
Vulture’s Jen Chaney wrote that Get Back was drawn-out, but needed to be so viewers could feel the “vibe”. She said: “The fact that it goes on for so long may seem like the show’s major bug at first, but after a while, you realize it is actually its greatest feature, and a true, generous gift.”
True, not everyone is admiring. One viewer quoted in Mail Online said they wanted their eight hours back. But a comment on the same article said the show was an “amazing visualization of genius”.
Watching Get Back is the closest most of us will ever come to hanging out with these titans of music. Owen Gleiberman in Variety said Get Back is “an extended love letter to everything that made the Beatles real”. There’s no narrative arc, but this is The Beatles – all you need is love.
You can stream The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+. Take a look at the trailer below to see what you think.
What do you think of The Beatles? Will you be watching Get Back? Let us know in the comments section below!