What is happening to the Beatles? Whose idea was this? What is going on? It’s January 1969, and look at them: stuck on a soundstage in Twickenham Film Studios—the Beatles!—sitting around like a bunch of YouTubers, idly generating content. They burble; they dawdle; they pick up their instruments and put them down again. They are of the ’60s and they are above the ’60s. “I think your beard suits you … man,” George says to Paul. Planes of shifting color light up the white screens behind them, viridescent splodges and blooms of moody fuchsia, as if they’re trapped at the end of a rainbow. Everybody’s watching, everybody’s listening: nosy cameras, nudging mics, cables and crew members all over the place.
Marooned in this quasi-industrial environment, the Beatles are trying—insane proposition—to write an album. Or get some songs together for a live show. It’s not clear. McCartney, it seems, had a notion that a process like this would get them back to basics, put the estranged Beatles back in touch with one another. Or are these, in fact, laboratory conditions for the dissolution of a creative unit? Kill or cure, maybe. So they’re scuffing through songs; bantering; giggling; eating sandwiches; drinking tea; drinking wine; drinking something orange; drinking something tomato-colored; looking heavily drugged (Lennon); looking beadily alert (also Lennon); ignoring one another; indulging one another; eyeballing one another; having earnest, shrouded, passive-aggressive circular Liverpudlian conversations regarding the future (or not) of their band.
Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, released in three episodes on Disney+, is a film about the Beatles, but it’s also a film about a film. Because while the Beatles are Beatling around on their soundstage, the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is making or trying to make what will eventually become the unloved documentary Let It Be, to be released in 1970 after the band has broken up. He’s filming everything, without knowing—in the pure vérité style—quite what he’s filming. Let it all unfold, man. Let it happen. Let it be. And he too is being filmed: young and round-faced, clean-shaven amid the lusciously hairy Beatles, puffing on a cigar, keeping his cool (just about). “I don’t know what story I’m telling anymore,” he announces at one point. “At the moment we’ve got a movie about smokers, nose-pickers, and nail-biters.”
From the nearly 60 hours of footage and 100-plus of audio produced by the Let It Be sessions, Jackson has quarried the almost eight hours of Get Back: That’s almost eight hours of symphonic tedium and fiddly revelation, of sitting around and diddling about, with a culminating blast of blinding Beatle-joy as the band plays its gig—its last gig—on the roof of the Apple Corps offices. Watching the whole thing, should you choose to do so, will be a tune-up for your negative capability—John Keats’s term for tolerating “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The Beatles are on the Twickenham soundstage (miserable), then they’re in the Apple studio (less miserable), then they’re on the roof (amazing): That’s the narrative arc.
January 1969 is not a great moment for the Beatles. It’s been 15 months since the death of the band’s visionary manager, and as the movie begins the boys are lamenting quite candidly the drift they’ve suffered since the loss of the man they call “Mr. Epstein.” There is talk of “grumpiness” and “doldrums” and jokes about getting divorced from one another. The drift is pervasive: What are they actually doing in Twickenham? If a concert is what they’re working toward, a live show that will also deliver the hoped-for climax of Lindsay-Hogg’s film, where exactly will that show be? In a Roman amphitheater in Libya? (“I think you’ll find we’re not going abroad,” Paul says. “Because Ringo just said he doesn’t want to go abroad.”) Or perhaps on London’s Primrose Hill? Ideas float and expire: The vagueness is enervating. Lindsay-Hogg expresses a need to be “flexible … about every aspect of the enterprise,” that perennial ’60s air of half-baked possibility/potential compounded here by the fact that, as the Beatles, they basically can do anything they want: hire a cruise ship, build a rocket, take over a hill in the middle of North London, commandeer the world’s television networks for a couple of hours. There is a sensation, too, of money flying out of the corners of every frame—Beatle money, Apple money, sacks of it, just flying out the window.
You find yourself thinking a lot about Ringo during Get Back, because he is the quietest and the stillest, and the most camera-aware. His face, his melancholy deadpan, is a permanent reaction shot. The other three are in a huddle, eye to eye, fur to fur, at ground level. But Ringo’s up on his drum riser, arms loose, in desolate repose, in his characteristic rubbery slouch. He is waiting, he is waiting, for something he can drum along to. Then out of nowhere it happens: his perfected ponderous groove, the leaden splash of his hi-hat, his beautiful shapely/shapeless fills and mysterious swing. Then it stops, and once again he is watching and waiting, drolly doleful and dolefully droll. It occurs to you that while John, Paul, and George are artists at work, Ringo is a work of art. And you begin to understand his Ringoisms, his absurdist inversions, his Heraclitean fragments, as little bulletins from a unique condition: the condition of being Ringo. “That’s the first thing you ever said to me,” Lindsay-Hogg remembers. “You said, ‘What kind of tree is that?’ and I said, ‘It’s a yew,’ and you said, ‘No, it’s not; it’s a me …’” Ringo nods sagely.
The Beatles are definitely breaking up, both in Lindsay-Hogg’s movie and in Jackson’s. It’s like watching six different marriages fall apart: John-and-Paul, Paul-and-George, John-and-George, Ringo-and-John, Paul-and-Ringo, etc. Froideur, awkward jokes, jabs of insight. What’s the problem? Is it the owlish presence of Yoko at John’s side? Not really. Is it George, who shortly after sharing his hymn to mutability “All Things Must Pass” and getting not much reaction, takes off in a huff? Not really. It’s just the second law of thermodynamics. The inevitability of entropy. One scarcely believable scene finds the Beatles sitting around as if for an interview, slurping drinks, joined briefly by the actor Peter Sellers. The dialogue is Waiting for Godot via Joe Orton:
Lennon: Your chance to win a fab free Beatle, send in 39 disc tops.
McCartney: Wake up, Lennon.
Lennon: Wake up, Lennon. It’s about time.
McCartney: We just sit here and allow ourselves to be embarrassed.
Mal Evans (assistant): Who wants tea?
Sellers (who has had enough): Very kind of you, but I must be off.
[More chat. Lennon mentions being “stoned and high and watching films” the previous night.]
McCartney: Is there any need to do this in public, Mr. Lennon?[More chat. Lennon starts reciting the lyrics to “Help!”]
[Ringo’s eyelids droop.]
McCartney: We can’t carry on like this indefinitely.
Ringo (rousing himself): We seem to be.
Subversive, countertextual John; managing-the-situation Paul; nodding Ringo; brooding George; and a scarpering Peter Sellers … They really couldn’t carry on like that indefinitely, could they? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Things improve when they get to their pokey studio in the basement of the Apple building. Billy Preston arrives, grinning radiantly, and adds a bluesy-gospelly pulse of electric piano to the proceedings. The music, and the musicians, perk up. “You’re giving us a lift, Bill!” exclaims a grateful Lennon. The songs take shape—“I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Don’t Let Me Down”—those great, late, decelerated, weight-of-the-world Beatles songs. It’s odd to watch: You see them coming together, these songs, take by lumpy take, but still you can’t shake the feeling that they arrived fully formed, direct from Beatle heaven. And then someone has the idea to play them on the roof. And quite suddenly there they are, the Beatles, five stories up, wind-ruffled and magnificent in their furs and beards, harmonizing, enjoying one another, with the grayness of rooftop London feasting on their final flaming-out colors. Everybody had a wet dream, everybody saw the sun shine … My God, they’re beautiful.