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.
The first episode begins at Twickenham, the cold and unpromising space where they start their work. As they meet, they are rusty, they are estranged, they are wary. There’s a lot in the air: hints of flop sweat, flashes of joy as they rediscover the joy of each other’s company, smoldering resentments. No one has much material: John Lennon has seemingly one song—“Don’t Let Me Down,” which is little more than an arresting chorus and a compelling middle eight. Paul keeps bringing back “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which consists of even less: a few hummed snatches of melody, a turnaround, and a soul shout or two.
“Is that one called ‘I’ve Got a Feeling?’” asks George, possibly poking fun at the lack of other lyrics.
“It’s called ‘I’ve Got a Hard-On,’” deadpans John.
“Everybody’s got a hard-on except for me and my monkey,” Paul says, giggling at himself. John’s eyes light up, he and Paul share a shy smile.
It is touching to watch them so tentative, stepping gingerly around each other’s feelings, trying to find each other’s groove, and granting each other small, strained kindnesses (“Happy New Year, Ringo”). On the second day of rehearsals, Ringo sits down next to Paul at the piano. Paul is playing “Tea for Two,” and Ringo does an impromptu soft-shoe. At another point, Ringo breaks off chatting with Lindsay-Hogg to listen to Paul, who is working through an early version of “Let It Be.” “You see, I’d watch an hour of him, just playing piano,” he says, and his smile is parental.
When things go bad, as they do early on, the sense of immersion in Jackson’s footage is so complete that you don’t feel you are eavesdropping so much as sitting at the table during someone else’s family argument. Paul, as ever, will take work whenever inspiration will not come. John seems content to sullenly sit it out and wait patiently for something—a thunderbolt of inspiration, or maybe just a handful of aspirin—to arrive. George just looks like a kid who has been dragged to a Saturday field trip.
When Paul tries to coax George into playing a different chord during a rehearsal of “Get Back,” because the one he’s chosen is “passé,” you can almost feel the diffident Quiet Beatle shrink into himself. Eventually, George gets up and leaves, calmly, announcing, “I’m leaving the band now.” The other three break for lunch and come back, a little in shock but still smiling and laughing, somehow, as they bash through a power-trio version of “I’ve Got a Feeling” that strongly resembles Nirvana. George returns in a few days, and in the interim, we are treated to a conversation between Paul and John, captured by a hidden microphone in a flower pot, where the two of them admit that their egos have blinded them to George’s feelings and caused them to minimize him.
As a Beatles fan, I lost track of the moments like this, where I could not believe what I was hearing, or seeing. The four band members are loose with their own mythology, aware of it and seemingly able at all times to riff off of it and draw from it: There’s a prolonged, fond conversation at one point where Paul wonders aloud what they were ever doing in India, how false it seemed they were, how self-conscious. George and John laugh along with him. When George compliments John on a suggestion of his for “For Your Blue,” he quips “I’m full of ideas like that, I’m famous for them—literally a Beatle, you know.”
There is a deeply meta aspect to the eight-hour documentary, in which you watch the Beatles debate exactly what kind of documentary you are watching, and if it will culminate in a live album, a performance or what. In these moments, the Beatles seem to be acting out their own existentialist play about how it feels to be a Beatle after Beatlemania has bitten the dust. It’s their own Waiting for Godot, but the only people they are waiting on are themselves.
After George briefly quits, Paul once again bemoans the lack of a father figure for the band, someone to make them clock in and clock out. “What we need is a schedule,” he says at one point. “Achieve something every day.” His belief in the power of a schedule to fix the current problem—a bandmate who won’t return (George), another who is there in body but not in spirit (John), and another, Ringo, who at the moment is literally asleep—is touching and nearly heartbreaking. “We really do need a central Daddy figure,” Paul says. There is real pathos in watching him struggle to fill that role without becoming the overbearing father to his three former best friends. Of the four of them, only Paul seems to see the way forward, or at least a way forward, and in the context of Jackson’s full, nuanced portrait, it’s hard not to empathize with the so-often hated Beatle.
When they relocate out of Twickenham to their own Apple Studio on Savile Row, the mood brightens considerably. George has returned to the fold, and they’ve had a rehearsal (off-camera) that went well. They run through a lewd version of “Shout” that is just “Shag” (Paul: “A little bit harder now, a little bit softer now”). George mockingly reads a tabloid account of their rehearsal, said to have ended with “vicious” blows. John jumps up, hair flopping, and pretend-boxes George, both of them laughing. After recording a take of “I Dig a Pony,” Ringo and John walk into the playback room with their arms around each other, John skipping a little.
They could still summon the magic, if they needed to, and there are half a dozen moments across the eight-hour expanse of the documentary where you watch them do exactly that. A song is arduous right up until the point that it becomes effortless. When Billy Preston stops by to say “hi,” he winds up filling in a hole in the Beatles’ arrangements. They’ve needed a keyboard player and here he is: When he starts laying electric piano over the tracks, you can see everyone come alive. Suddenly this is a band again, for the first time in years. Cigarettes are burning; the air is hot; John is no longer complaining about having to work over the weekend. George even decides to help Paul finish “Get Back,” the song that prompted his sniffy walkout. He calls out to Paul that the song needs a catchy riff, so Paul noodles one out, and sure enough, George was right. At another moment, Paul suggests they do “Two of Us” with no bass guitar, just two guitars, and voila—a demo that has been staggering along for weeks on baby-deer legs suddenly rights itself and starts sprinting.
But maybe those moments weren’t the point of Let It Be. Maybe this final full year of Beatledom was about finding moments of peace, and ways to enjoy each other’s company. The music, in the documentary’s warmest moments, seems to just be the common interest that has allowed these people to let each other back into their lives. The goofier the music, the happier everyone looks. With Paul’s soon-to-be-adopted daughter Heather running around, playing Ringo’s cymbals and shouting with funny voices into the microphones, Linda Eastman pulling faces at the camera, the band stumbling in lockstep through half-remembered covers of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Twist and Shout,” the stakes seem no higher than a group of dads picking up instruments late into the evening at a family barbecue.
The love of early rock’n’roll is a constant, bittersweet undertow—when Paul remembers that it is Elvis’ birthday, John stands up straight and salutes. When George rejoins the band on Savile Row, John welcomes him by singing “You Are My Sunshine” in a funny voice, grinning at George. George, grinning back, joins in with harmony. When engineer Glyn Johns spends too long setting up equipment, they keep their spirits up bashing through songs like “That’s All Right Mama,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Milk Cow Blues.”
The rooftop performance that provides the climax to the documentary, and the Let It Be experience, is a perfect encapsulation of the project. It’s clear, from the shuffling gaits, nervous smiles, and general air of uncertainty that nobody knows exactly what they’re doing up on that roof. It’s not the sea of 2,000 waving fans in Libya; it’s not even Primrose Hall, which they missed on out booking as they agonized over what to do. It’s the roof of an old building in the middle of a work day, a fairly blustery one at that. Paul jumps up and down on the boards, presumably to make sure he doesn’t fall through them. The cameras positioned at street level are probably intended to capture an outbreak of latent Beatlemania. But the people who glance up from the street seem bemused, as if it were a band of street performers performing a Beatles song and not the Beatles themselves. “Why are they playing on top of a roof?” one young woman asks, reasonably.
It’s maybe the funniest possible conclusion imaginable: Here they are, the Beatles, the most important rock group of all time, reuniting for their last-ever public performance on a rooftop, and no one cares. They are, possibly, making fools of themselves. As they launch into the three-part harmony of “Don’t Let Me Down,” which they’ve been breaking their backs over for weeks, they sound incredible, but down below, there are only a few puzzled stockbrokers, drab fathers of Beatles fans, squinting back at them and wondering when the noise will stop.
But the real point of the rooftop performance becomes clear when the camera zooms in on their faces. As they try “Get Back” for the second and then the third time, the song seems to warm up their frozen fingers. Paul lets loose with a few goofy shouts. John busts a few moves and peels off his little solo. As John and Paul grin at each other, the audience—that notional sea of Beatlemaniacs somewhere out in the world—ceases to exist, has never existed. There is only the four of them. They have accomplished the only thing they truly set out to do—find their way back to each other, at least for the moment.