The Only Peter Jackson Film I Wished Was A Little Longer
I’m sad. I just spent the weekend, a-ha, with The Beatles. Peter Jackson’s much-hyped dig into the vaults of the footage that already gave us the Let It Be film (whatever that was) and the Rooftop Concert, was released over American Thanksgiving weekend on the streaming service Disney Plus. Thursday night’s part was one was two hours and thirty-seven minutes, Friday’s part two was just under three hours and Saturday’s concluding piece, replete with rooftop concert footage, was a spry two hours twenty.
Many of us around the world watched, agog frankly. The colour, the sound, the cigarettes. The cups of tea. And toast. It was all so alive. It was all so boring and vital all at once. Beatles, living, breathing – all of them – and bit by bit assembling not only the tracks for the hodgepodge final album (Let It Be) but also good slices of Abbey Road and also the first proper solo albums from Lennon, Harrison (his triple masterpiece; the bank of songs that piled up in his frustration to be taken more seriously than just ‘kid brother’) and Paul’s first two post-Beatle projects (McCartney and the Linda/Paul album, Ram).
Work was slow and the hits didn’t tumble – for a while. But add it up. This is an extraordinary and exciting body of work.
Though the story many of us know is that this is The Beatles only in disarray. They hated each other. They struggled to care. They were off track. The death of Brian Epstein had rocked them to a place they never quite recovered – Yoko’s permanent fixture by John’s side was a hindrance (when actually she was the guardian angel that kept him at the dance – but see way back to my second week of sending newsletters for my thoughts on how Yoko has been unfairly treated).
Yes, some of this is true – but Let It Be, the film and album, was lost in the edit, washed over, buried, then resuscitated, delivered only as death-letter.
Get Back – this new film, which focusses more on footage and audio we have not seen and heard previously (some 60 hours of video, 150 bonus hours of audio) – is the revelation so many Beatles fans have waited (literally) 50 years for. We knew this side of the band was there. We knew it existed – and meant a whole lot more than the headlines. We knew John was nodding off to a habit and Paul went into Super Beast Mode to keep the band going. We knew George was always moody but was getting darker and growing a huge resentment for getting ignored. We knew Ringo was affable always, the funniest and friendliest and the one most realistic about his own level of talent – so he sat in waiting, in service, so happy to be there. Sometimes he even let his face show he was happy to be there.
But whatever we knew means so much more to actually see. And so much more comes with it.
Paul just grooving with a pick. His bass, his own headspace, waiting for John, so just strumming into place the bones of the song Get Back. This was to see magic happen. This was some close-up wizardry. Or Paul noodling away on Let It Be, shaping.
Imagine being George and presenting All Things Must Pass – which shits on most of the Let It Be album and means more than many of the songs the group ever made, in terms of an individual weight, but only to have the leaders of the group essentially say, “that’s nice, dear”. Imagine being Ringo and having to present your song efforts as kids-music send-ups, because to sneak them in with full self-effacement might just give them a chance since you’re in a band with the unofficial godsons of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, since you’re presenting your work to modern-day Mozart and Beethoven.
And yes, such lofty chat over the years is precisely what sent so many bumbling hacks to Twitter to talk about how bored they were without even watching it. These days all you need to be a critic is Wi-Fi after all.
But to call The Beatles overrated is not even a snide putdown, it’s to misunderstand the ongoing cultural relevance. You might take more from The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry or DJ Kool Herc. But the world didn’t. The world fell in love with The Beatles, as brand and band. And when all the backstory and all the marketing and all the convenience drifts away, the music is forever standing. And if it’s not for you that’s fine. But it isn’t just the world to many of us, it’s responsible for so many further musical worlds.
And Peter Jackson’s edit – and I know the term Peter Jackson’s edit seems also like a snide putdown – shows a fan in thrall to it all; Peter Jackson has never been my favourite filmmaker, though I’ve certainly loved some of his (early) work. Here he deserves a humanitarian award for bringing this side of The Beatles’ Story to the wider public. For serving the fans at the same time. For throwing it all at the wall (and of course it’s not all of it, it’s still so heavily edited, selected) and allowing us to bask in what sticks. We get the fragile egos of The Beatles. They put their newspaper criticism to music. They try to impress one another. They snip and gripe. But they also love each other and that bond between McCartney and Lennon and the shared muscle they developed for creating music is here as lightning rod once again.
We are, finally, the flies on the wall. Something so many of us have always wanted to be. And Jackson allowed us in, created that space for us in a magic trick similar to Paul strumming Get Back into existence.
Peter Jackson also strummed Get Back (the film/s) into existence. With sweat and grit and hours at the wheel. The same 10,000 hours got him to this dance. For The Beatles it was three and four sets a night in Hamburg. For Jackson it was making fake blood and shooting movies with his mates over weekends.
I saw Paul going easy on Lennon because he was aware of his musical best friend developing feelings not only for Yoko but for heroin.
I saw George hating Paul with every fibre of his being because Paul was mansplaining how songs work. (And more annoyingly, he was usually right).
I saw Ringo as babysitter not only for the actual children (Heather McCartney nearly steals the show at one point) but for the band members he loves so much.
I saw John come back – following Paul’s lead so to speak – and be vital again, be spurred on to exist in the band, to want to create. Even when the spirit was weak, his flesh was willing. He didn’t have the songs so effortlessly at his fingertips, but he could summon music just by clicking those tips together. Paul could help him, as they’d always helped each other. They would fashion these offcuts and half-pieces into songs. They would fight to make music. Because it had always been about a fight.
And so, the film is both absolutely and always about The Beatles. And yet it’s also a towering monument to the safety and struggle of sitting in a room and creating. The bond. The heartbreak. The privilege and seclusion, the dread and isolation. The commitment and selfishness.
There’s been some phoney Beatlemania over the years, of course. But the clash of hearing people not willing to give this piece a chance couldn’t stop my joy over this weekend. I watched. And I watched. I laughed. And shook my head. I nearly cried. I was genuinely gobsmacked. And I was a fan all over again. Thinking about how for my entire life The Beatles have meant something. Sometimes they’ve meant everything. I finished part three and reached for the first Beatles book on the shelf that I haven’t already read. I listened again to the new Deluxe Edition of Let It Be – with some of the offcuts and alt-versions we hear in the film or from similar sessions. I thought of several other Beatles books I want to read – or read again – over summer…
I also started watching this film again. I’m one hour in on part one for the second time. It’s possible that among all of The Beatles’ achievements they just might have created Reality TV too.
The Beatles: Get Back is now streaming on DisneyPlus