To cite Peter Jackson’s stunning Beatles documentary Get Back as the year’s greatest music doc — or even one of the best films, generally — somehow falls short of identifying its special status. For those of a certain age and a certain degree of manic fandom, the aptly named Get Back takes on the function of a mind-altering visit to a memory bank we never knew existed, revealing previously unrevealed truths and textures about a cultural moment and zeitgeist. The “you are there” illusion is almost overwhelming, for those of us in whom this music literally lives and hums on.
Jackson, weaver of magic both in fantasyland (Lord of the Rings) and inventive doc work (They Shall Not Grow Old) was the right Beatlemaniac for the job of dealing with a mountain of footage originally gathered for a film about the making of their second-to-last album, Let It Be. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg delivered a compact 1970 film which seemed surprisingly dark. What Jackson delivers, from the heap of unseen footage, is a much more joyful, gleefully anarchic, and balanced view of this volatile band of geniuses at work, play, and leaning into its impending abyss.
Nominated for five Emmy Awards, in those eight episodes (with never a dull moment, at least for Beatle-heads), Get Back zooms backward to the nitty-gritty of the Beatles toward the end of their run as the Great Pop Band, easily lapsing into musical mischief, absurd humor, and freewheeling jamming on old songs — their own and from the historical pop/R&B jukebox. Yoko Ono lurks peacefully in the periphery, and Linda McCartney and children show up, as does Billy Preston, playing the then-new-fangled Rhodes electric piano. Tensions flare, including George Harrison’s frustrations leading to a near-mutiny, and, in one amazing scene, we watch as Paul McCartney riffs on possible lyrics for “Get Back” in real time. Hidden microphones and cameras capture unexpected moments, as when John Lennon and McCartney ponder the state of things in the band.
Climactically, the full rooftop concert, replete with party-dousing bobbies, fleshes out the bits we know and love (e.g. John’s parting quip: “Thanks Paul, and I hope we pass the audition.”). Consider Get Back one of the greatest and sneakiest “behind the scenes” docs ever made. But that could at last partly be the Beatle-maniac talking.