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The Beatles: Get Back is now streaming on Disney+.  

When Peter Jackson restored and colourised World War One footage for his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, the effect was strangely morbid, a digital summoning of the long dead. He uses a similar approach in Get Back, giving an absolutely grainless sheen to Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 16mm footage of the Beatles in 1969. Here, though, the effect is different: it creates a sense, however artificial, of transparency, making us feel as if we were not gazing into the past, but immersed in the present of a process whose outcome is uncertain.

In reality, we know the outcome, which is what makes Get Back so affecting. We know these laborious sessions would result in the Let It Be album and film, and that a band seemingly low on inspiration and patience would then produce the sublime Abbey Road. We know that, just when they seem to have regained unity – with a restless George Harrison leaving, then rejoining – they would split, and that Lennon and McCartney, despite the closeness visible here, would soon fall out bitterly.

Still, what emerges from these sessions is a sense of hope, and of resilience in the face of absurd circumstances. The band had agreed to be filmed writing, rehearsing and recording in preparation for a live performance three weeks ahead, location still undecided. Lindsay-Hogg, a somewhat abrasive presence often visible here, is convinced it should take place in Libya; McCartney suggests somewhere forbidden they can get thrown out of, like Parliament; Harrison doesn’t want to play live at all. That the performance finally happened on the Apple roof is both anti-climactic and a triumph of sanity. What’s remarkable is that a band this prominent could go about things in such an ad hoc fashion: the resulting desperation suggests anything-goes 60s spontaneity seriously running out of puff.

A central idea of Get Back – heavily promoted in pre-publicity – is that the notorious group tensions of this period are refuted by the footage, which shows them having a pretty convivial time. Yes and no: Ringo Starr often seems disengaged and bored, while Harrison is understandably tired of being junior partner to the main writing duo. After he walks out in the quietest of huffs, we hear Lennon and McCartney, both ruefully aware of how off-handedly they have treated him, wondering whether they can heal the “festering wound” of his discontent (this conversation, conveyed in captions, was recorded on a microphone hidden in a flowerpot).

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in The Beatles: Get Back
Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in The Beatles: Get Back
© Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd

This is a band caught between past and future. They constantly hark back to early days playing in Hamburg (although McCartney cautions against nostalgia: “We’re like fucking old age pensioners”) and burst into songs from their pre-fame repertoire. Meanwhile, the future lies ahead in songs that would flourish on their post-split solo albums – like Lennon’s angry ‘Gimme Some Truth’, here partly sung by McCartney.

At nearly eight hours – culled from over 60 hours of original footage and 150 hours of audio – Jackson’s three-parter, with its extended stretches of observation, at times resembles a Frederick Wiseman film, but it doesn’t aspire to the uninflected detachment that would suggest. It is larded with rhetorical touches. A caption primes us to watch for the miracle moment, as it were, when McCartney, tentatively strumming his bass, hits on the pattern that, within minutes, will become the basis of ‘Get Back’.

One suspects that Jackson’s film has been shaped to maximise the celebratory aspect and omit harsher material: after all, McCartney and Starr are credited as producers, along with George’s widow Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono Lennon (often seen on screen perched very close to John). For some viewers, the cinema verité aspects will be a turn-off – not everyone will want to hear this many takes of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – but it’s partly the carving out of musical form that makes Get Back compelling. Songs that begin as desultory sketches later catch fire – especially when keyboard player Billy Preston turns up to provide the galvanising extra spark.

The film’s great value to fans will be its depiction of the Beatles’ dynamics at this stage – not just the story of Harrison’s frustration, but the real tenderness (its days poignantly numbered) between Lennon and McCartney. At one point, McCartney comments that he has detected a hidden narrative in the material the band is working on, the songs seeming to respond to each other. “It’s like you and me are lovers,” replies Lennon. Neither could know then how star-crossed they were.