I’m a critic, but that doesn’t mean I reflexively come at things from a negative angle. I like to accentuate the positive, to see the part of the glass that’s full. So when it was announced, on June 17, that Peter Jackson’s long-awaited, long-delayed Beatles documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back,” would no longer be a movie — that it would now be a six-hour mini-series, shown in three two-hour parts on Disney Plus over Thanksgiving weekend — I did all I could to seize on the bright side. Instead of two hours of mostly never-before-seen footage of the Beatles at work and play in two London recording studios in 1969, we were now going to get six hours. And that might be a great thing.
As a teenager in the ’70s, I used to order from an underground catalogue of bootleg rock records, and much of the stuff I bought was culled from that seemingly bottomless treasure trove of archival Beatle-iana known as “the Get Back sessions” (the multiple hours of studio sessions for what would become “Let It Be”). Each time one of those bootlegs arrived in the mail, in its plain white sleeve, I would sit and listen to it as if panning for gold. The bootlegs always contained a lot more sand than gold, but if you were as much of a Beatles fanatic as I was (and still am), they promised a glimpse behind the curtain, a deeper plunge into the magical mystery of the Beatles. When “The Beatles: Get Back” arrives in November, Beatles fans all over the world will soak up every minute of the new film footage, parsing it as a kind of sacred verité text. I’ll be one of them.
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So here’s a question. Since we just learned that we’re about to get more of the Beatles, why, in my heart and gut, does it feel like less?
Let’s talk about the thing we now know we’re not getting: a movie. In 1970, “Let It Be” was a movie. An extraordinary one, if you ask me. It was grainy and moody and desultory, it showed the Beatles bickering (in a few scenes), and it also showed them singing and playing together quite movingly. It contained moments that, after multiple viewings (I probably saw it three times that summer and have seen it five or six times since), are lodged in my soul: John and Paul singing their raggedly touching duet on “Two of Us,” making us feel just how far back the two of them went; John and Yoko dancing, hand in hand, to the saturnine waltz of George’s “I Me Mine”; Paul staring into the camera, as if gazing directly at every one of us, as he sang “Let It Be”; the way the group looked in the rooftop concert at the end — John in his billowy fur coat, Paul in his dark jacket and beard, the two legendary partners now so visually and spiritually different, the whole band making just enough noise to bring out the police, which played as a dry British joke since it seemed an acknowledgement of what the rebellion of the ’60s had come down to: the most famous musical group in human history inspiring the forces of the establishment to say, “Turn it down!”
“Let It Be” hasn’t been available to see in recent years, but it has a place in film history; it’s a scraggly elegy, capturing a certain wistful moment of reckoning that’s part of the Beatles’ story. From the start, though, the premise of Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” has been that the 50 hours of footage originally shot in 1969 by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg actually tells a different story: a more complex and upbeat one. As any Beatles fan knows, the aura that surrounds “Let It Be” is a kind of mythology. The film showed the Beatles near the end, and it was released after the group had broken up (so it felt like we were seeing them “together for the last time”), but, in fact, after the “Get Back” sessions went south, the Beatles went back into the studio to record “Abbey Road,” an album as pristinely gorgeous in its joy as “Let It Be” was knowingly ramshackle in its melancholy.
The hope, which I (and millions of others) have, is that Jackson will give us a more intimate and revealing portrait of the Beatles at that time, one that adds to the group’s mystique. And that’s why “The Beatles: Get Back” is — or was — a movie I dreamed of seeing in theaters. Today, most music documentaries are streaming only, but the Beatles remain larger-than-life. They turned the entire world into a community, and still have the power to turn an audience into a congregation. If the Beatles aren’t worthy of the big screen, I don’t know who is.
But that’s no longer going to happen. Now we’ll all sit at home, watching the Beatles separately, on three separate nights. Beyond that, I’m compelled to ask: Six hours? It’s clear that Peter Jackson fell in love with this material and was eager to give us more of it, which sounds like a generous impulse. But six hours of “Get Back” is a lot of “Get Back.” (My curiosity is at fever pitch, but no one pretends that this was the Beatles’ greatest record.) Jackson’s last film, “They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018), was a brilliant documentary reconstruction of World War I that elevated the cataclysmic experience of that war to a newly heightened immediacy, and did it in just 99 minutes. It was a transcendent film. In general, though, Peter Jackson tends to be dominated by his go-big-or-go-home side, which first showed itself in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (which I think of, in my snarkier moments, as nine hours of folks riding through the woods), then in the bloat of “King Kong,” and then in the jaw-dropping grandiosity with which he inflated “The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s slenderest Middle-earth novel, into three damn epic movies. Do you sense a trend here?
I’m not prejudging “The Beatles: Get Back.” I, of course, hope that it presents a revelatory vision of the Beatles. But I do have a trepidation, one that I feel justified in saying out loud. My fear is that Jackson, in chopping the “Get Back” footage down to a gargantuan six hours, hasn’t done the disciplined and demanding work of editing, of shaping, of putting an exquisitely honed movie together. My fear is that he’ll be giving us not a Beatles documentary but a Beatles document dump, the film equivalent of an overstuffed special-edition box set. Making “The Beatles: Get Back” into a must-see event on Disney Plus reduces the Beatles, on some level, to eyeball-driving artifacts of the newly commodified streaming world. We’ll see if that’s a fitting form for a group that was (to quote John Lennon) not just bigger than Jesus, but bigger than all of us.
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