The Beatles: Get Back Rewrites the Fab Four’s Ending

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Peter Jackson’s revelatory new doc paints an intimately surreal portrait of the band in its final days.

The Beatles
Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in The Beatles: Get Back, photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.

In January 1969, the Beatles convened in Twickenham Film Studios with the ill-defined goal of getting back in front of a live audience, somehow, for the first time since 1966. It had been a hard, dispiriting 18 months: Brian Epstein, their beloved manager, had died of a drug overdose in August 1967. Since then, they’d released the Magical Mystery Tour film, their first flop, and bickered endlessly over the tracklist for what would come to be known as “The White Album.” The Get Back sessions were the equivalent of a last-ditch retreat to save a marriage. There was going to be a documentary, or maybe a TV special, and then a live performance somewhere—maybe on a boat, maybe in a torchlit African amphitheater. Maybe an orphanage? Maybe they wouldn’t perform at all. They weren’t sure what they were doing, but it had to be something: Here they were, and here was the camera crew. Surely they would figure it out.

In the canonical Beatles story, the film and album Let It Be has always been a chapter about foundering and malaise, the first moment when the Fab Four couldn’t figure it out. This was supposedly when Paul’s increasingly authoritarian grip drove everyone else crazy, eventually leading to George quitting the band. This was when the seeds of their  legal struggles began, as John started taking meetings with Allen Klein, the manager of the Rolling Stones and one of the best snake-in-the-garden figures in rock history. This was the beginning of the end. When the original film was released in 1970, after the band’s breakup, it was received as grim evidence for just how bad things had gotten.

But when director Peter Jackson was asked a few years ago by the surviving Beatles to revisit the footage shot for Let It Be, and cut it into an all-new documentary, he combed through more than 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio, and found an altogether different story. This was not the Beatles in misery, he told reporters—this was the Fab Four laughing, reconnecting, rehearsing not just the songs for Let It Be but half of Abbey Road and many numbers that would go on to dot John, Paul, and George’s solo records. The story as we knew it was totally wrong. When Jackson screened the results for McCartney, McCartney himself was blown away by what Jackson had found. He felt vindicated. “It was so reaffirming to me,” he told The Sunday Times in 2020.

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The fascinating thing about watching Get Back, the eight-hour documentary that starts streaming this Thanksgiving on Disney+, is how capacious the actual story feels. The original version was not wrong, it turns out, just incomplete. Sometimes, the Beatles indeed seem to be in hell, or at least some kind of purgatory. At others, they seem happier than they’ve ever been, laughing and embracing. The intimacy of the footage is not just astonishing, it is surreal. Jackson has labored over this footage for untold hours, piecing together bits of audio with pictures and using AI to isolate and clean up formerly inaudible tracks. He has, in other words, created a narrative. But Get Back flows with the feeling of unmediated reality, of simply being in the room with the Beatles as they existed.

Never before have they been so complex, so human, so intimately attuned to each other onscreen as they are here. At one point, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the original documentarian behind Let It Be, marvels, “I don’t know what story I’m telling anymore.” “You’re telling the autobiography of the Beatles, aren’t you?” Ringo answers. As always, Richard Starkey was the wisest one.

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