Karl Puschmann: Is Peter Jackson’s 8-hour Beatles doco fab or folly?

Karl Puschmann: Is Peter Jackson’s 8-hour Beatles doco fab or folly?

11/25/2021

OPINION:

“At the moment,” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg says addressing the four Beatles with a healthy dollop of exasperation in his tone, “we’ve got a movie about smokers, nose pickers and nail biters.”

Just to be clear, Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy The Beatles: Get Back, which is now streaming on Disney+, is also about those things. Masterfully constructed from Lindsay-Hogg’s unused footage, there’s plenty of scenes of the Fab Four scratching, picking, fidgeting, itching and dozing in its almost eight-hour running time.

Befitting our most successful storyteller, it follows a stronger narrative arc than Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary Let It Be. Jackson’s placed big cliff-hangers at the ends of part one and part two, for instance, and dates being crossed off a calendar adds tension and suspense to a story we all know the ending of.

Jackson spent four years restoring the grainy film and crafting his tale from more than 60 hours of footage. Painstaking work I’m sure, but relaxed because he knew the story fades out after The Beatles triumphant, historic, roof-top gig.

Lindsay-Hogg on the other hand was in dismay. His cameras had been in the studio filming the Beatles muddling towards not very much for almost two weeks. The band was supposed to have written 14 songs by then and be rehearsing for an imminent live TV concert.

Instead, he had oodles of footage of the group not doing that. The TV idea has been canned among ongoing disagreement of where to actually film it. He’d been pushing for the spectacle of an amphitheatre in Libya saying, “If you do a show it should be the best show. Because you’re The Beatles. You’re not four jerks.”

He wasn’t wrong, but he was repeatedly shot down.

“Ringo said he doesn’t want to go abroad,” McCartney says, ending the conversation, “he put his foot down.”

Musically, they weren’t faring much better. With only vague sketches of four or five songs they were far from their 14-song target. They’d drunk a lot of tea and consumed a considerable amount of toast but that was about it. One Beatle had quit, only to rejoin a few days later after the other three brokered peace.

“I don’t know what story I’m telling anymore,” Lindsay-Hogg moans to drummer Ringo Starr, who simply replies, “You’re telling the autobiography of the Beatles, aren’t you?”

For five decades Let It Be was exactly that: the insider look at the final miserable month of the biggest band in the world, it’s dour vibe heightened by the scratchy grain of its picture. Even with its thrilling rooftop conclusion Let It Be was a film coloured, perhaps, by Lindsay-Hogg’s own stress at making it and the fact that the Beatles officially called it quits three short months after its release.

“The things that’ve worked out best for us haven’t really been planned more than this,” guitarist George Harrison tells him, in an attempt to explain the chaos. “You just go into something and it does it itself. Whatever its gonna be, it becomes.”

It’s hard not to feel that now, 51 years on, the work has finally become what it was always supposed to be. This is no slight on Lindsay-Hogg’s film. The footage he captured is truly remarkable. But he only had a taut 80 minutes to tell his story. Jackson, on the other hand, wallows in a luxurious 468 minutes. Consequentially very different stories emerge.

Yes, we see their ample frustration with each other and the cold, cavernous, concrete-block movie studio Twickenham where they spend a mostly loathsome two weeks writing, culminating with Harrison’s quiet announcment, “I think I’ll be leaving the band now.”

“When?” splutters John Lennon.

“Now.”

But there’s also so many more moments of the group having fun together, hamming it up and amusing each other with silly voices and insider gags and occasionally even getting it together enough to knock out a batch of classics like Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down, The Long and Winding Road and, of course, Let it Be. Seeing how these iconic songs slowly take shape is one of the real treats of the trilogy.

Jackson’s counter-narrative hits its stride after Harrison returns and the band relocate to the cosy environment of their own Apple Studio on London’s hip Saville Row. But the real game-changer is the recruitment of the smiley American keys player Billy Preston whose presence and musical contribution lifts the group and their songs.

“I’d just like him in our band actually,” Lennon remarks during a conversation about what to pay him. “I’d like a fifth Beatle.”

Jackson’s restoration work is incredible, with a vivid image that brings out the colour in their fabulous shirts and fluffy fur coats and a superb sound mix that truly does justice to the historic weight of the material, whether that’s candid dialogue, stunning performances or loose and exploratory jamming.

The Beatles: Get Back is a brilliant, fascinating and engaging documentary filled with insight, humour, cracking tunes and ample info about a band you wouldn’t think there was anything more to learn new things about. It is, in fact, quite fab.

“All we’ve got is us and a documentary where we happen to be singing,” Lennon tells Lindsay-Hogg. “You see what happens when we’re just grooving to the music,” Lennon continues. “The whole place changes.”

The director needn’t have been so worried. Along with the love Jackson clearly brought to this project, it turns out those two things really are all you need.

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