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Five Lingering Questions About ‘The Beatles: Get Back’

Nearly three weeks after the docuseries’ release, there are a few things we can’t shake: What did ‘Get Back’ teach us about the Beatles? And should we lament the band’s breakup?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’ve had a hard time putting The Beatles: Get Back behind me, and not only because it’s eight hours long. Almost three weeks after the docuseries’ debut on Disney+, a piece of me is still stuck in 1969. Get Back’s got a hold on me partly because the Beatles, in addition to having many other virtues, were a really great hang. Their charisma and rapport can’t be separated from their recordings—the former influenced the latter—but their appealing (if partly performative) public personas have almost as much to do with their undimmed legend as with the music they made. When soon-to-be Beatles manager Brian Epstein watched the band perform for the first time in 1961, he was struck not just by their appearance and sound but by their sense of humor and “personal charm.” Even though the band was approaching the precipice when it made Let It Be, Get Back is bursting with Beatles allure. (Note: I know some of you must be sick of hearing and reading about the Beatles by now. Give it a few centuries for the fuss to die down.)

The intimate nature of the three-act epic, which director Peter Jackson presents without the distancing effects of 50-years-later talking heads or narration, deepened my parasocial bond with a band that broke up long before I was born. Watching Get Back is a passable facsimile of sitting in a studio with an engaging group of friends who happen to be some of the best songwriters ever. Spend enough time bathed in the incandescent creativity at the nexus of ’60s culture, and the present can’t help but seem drab by comparison. To trot out an overused expression, The Beatles: Get Back is a vibe, one that’s difficult to forget and impossible to replicate in real life.

I’m also still savoring Get Back because I’m worried that I’ll never see something quite like it again—not just about the Beatles but about anything. In an era when most media is instantly accessible, popular IP is endlessly recycled, and virtually every archive has been picked clean—when every album from rock’s heyday, including Let It Be, has been reissued and remastered and adorned with demos and rarities as many times as Baby Boomers’ checkbooks will bear—Get Back is a rare rich and untapped treasure. Watching it is like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, except instead of snippets of text on brittle parchment, it’s crystal-clear audio and video that looks like it could’ve been captured last week. Get Back’s fidelity is deceptive—it took years of painstaking work with proprietary technology to make the decades drop away—yet it still seems miraculous that most of this footage sat almost unseen until now. This is the world’s most celebrated band in one of its most momentous months, extracted from amber and brought back to life (in a nonthreatening way).

And so, instead of consigning Get Back to my towering pile of completed content, I keep turning it over in my mind. I’m left with some silly, inconsequential questions, such as: Should I be eating more toast? And: If the Beatles hadn’t voluntarily left the rooftop, would those beleaguered bobbies still be awkwardly waiting for them to stop playing? Or: Which was original documentarian Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s worst suggestion of a venue for a rock concert, an orphanage or a children’s hospital? But the docuseries stirs thoughts about some more substantial subjects, too. So before we close the book on the Beatles—until their inevitable next revival—let’s consider five lingering questions prompted by Get Back.

What did Get Back teach us about the Beatles?

If there’s anyone in the world who wouldn’t have stood to learn a lot about the Beatles from Get Back, it’s Mark Lewisohn. Lewisohn, a leading Beatleologist, is the author of a shelfful of books about the band, including The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and The Beatles: All These Years, an in-progress, three-volume, comprehensive chronicle that makes Jackson look like a dilettante. Yet even Lewisohn had his eyes opened.

“No one knows everything about anything,” he says via email. “Even in this instance, where I’d listened to close-on 100 hours of the audio spools from the month, I knew that seeing the footage in Get Back was going to tell me a huge amount. If anything, I underestimated that. It’s nothing less than the Beatles education primer, ultimately instructive to me and anyone else who really wants to see and hear who they were and how they worked. Get Back provides an immeasurable contribution to our understanding of what made the Beatles so remarkable.”

Like everyone else alive (including, probably, Paul and Ringo), I know less about the Beatles than Lewisohn, and I found Get Back revealing in some respects too. Just not necessarily in the way that much of the prerelease hype promised.

Much of the coverage that set the scene for Get Back focused on the series’ potential to reshape the public’s long-standing conception of the sessions that led to Let It Be and the Beatles’ breakup in general. The former members of the Beatles had helped create that impression by slagging the sessions and the resulting documentary for half a century or so; in 1970, John called making the movie “hell” and “six weeks of misery,” and early this year, Ringo dismissed the doc as a “very narrow” view with “no joy in it.” Get Back contradicts the idea that the sessions were a depressing slog. Then again, so does Let It Be, which is available in various formats via Archive.org. Although Let It Be features a couple of the contentious exchanges that show up again in Get Back, Ringo’s review doesn’t really ring true. Lindsay-Hogg’s response to Ringo is right: There’s plenty of levity, ridiculous voicework, and productive collaboration in Let It Be, and its balance between tension and silliness, fractures and affection, doesn’t strike me as meaningfully different. As Jackson acknowledged, Get Back is in some respects actually a “lot tougher movie than Let It Be,” which didn’t even note that George had briefly left the band.

Lewisohn says that Get Back is “honest” and “maintained maximum integrity,” which suggests that Jackson didn’t distort what went on (even though Paul, Ringo, and the widows of John and George served as producers). For all its cinema-verité trappings, Get Back is still a work created by practiced performers who knew they were being observed, so what we see might not accurately reflect the way the Beatles experienced the sessions. Outwardly, though, they appeared to have a lot of love (or at least cheerful tolerance) left for one another, and despite their growing grudges, they were still largely working well as a band. The idea that Let It Be was an unrelenting downer was mostly a myth born of negativity bias, the mid-breakup context in which the original documentary came out, and the inaccessibility of the original print over the intervening years.

Whether or not Get Back corrects a real record (as opposed to a vaguely and selectively remembered record), it’s still a useful counterpoint to people printing the legend. By the time the band convened at Twickenham, most of its members had been close companions and collaborators for more than a decade. They’d endured the crucible of Beatlemania together, matured together, and made amazing art together. Theirs wasn’t a bond that could be broken overnight—or ever, really. Yes, there were years of estrangement, diss tracks, and sniping in the press, but most of the Beatles still socialized and recorded with one another both immediately and long after the breakup, and even Lennon and McCartney eventually reconciled to some extent. As bad blood between former bandmates goes, the Beatles don’t really rank with Simon & Garfunkel or Waters and Gilmour.

If anything, Get Back reinforced my preexisting impressions of the understandable strains that would soon splinter the group, a natural death caused by outgrowing a group formed when they were no-name teens: John’s drug use and devotion to Yoko; George’s frustration with being underestimated as a songwriter; Paul’s sometimes domineering attempts to keep the trains running. The movie isn’t a definitive document of the Beatles’ breakup, because the band’s relational low point didn’t come during the sessions that produced Let It Be. The Beatles made another album after that—Abbey Road followed Let It Be but preceded it in stores—and until their business differences drove them apart, they intended to make more. In early ’69, the worst was still ahead, foreshadowed in Get Back by John Lennon’s fateful infatuation with Allen Klein. Ultimately, though, it’s much more rewarding to analyze how the Beatles blossomed and why they burned as brightly as they did during their decade of continual reinvention than it is to obsess over why they weren’t partners for life. (Nothing drives home how quickly the Beatles remade music than to hear them revisit their oldies as if they were artifacts of an ancient time, less than six years after recording Please Please Me.)

Fortunately, Get Back is much more than a ticktock of the band’s decline. It’s an extended, singular look at the act of creation—both the magical moments when inspiration strikes, and the more tedious stick-rubbing sessions when those tenuous sparks are fanned into flames. The series brings the Beatles’ late-’60s creative process to the screen in a much more nuanced and compelling package than the 80-minute Let It Be, which lacks Get Back’s narrative structure, riveting visuals, and carefully cleaned-up dialogue. It doesn’t really write a new story so much as it enriches and adds depth to an old one, the ending of which the world has been hearing for years. But well worn as these songs are, it’s still wondrous to see them be born.

Get Back showed me how memories are made. It reminded me that history is haphazard, and that the lyrics and tracklists and performances that seem preordained to those who came along later were actually in flux up until the second they were set in stone. (As George says, “You just go into something and it does it itself. Whatever it’s gonna be, it becomes that.”) It emphasized that the Beatles weren’t ahead of their time only as music makers but also as multimedia artists who made their mark from fashion and album art to movies. (Although they thought they were shooting a more conventional TV special and documentary, the Beatles composing and recording an album on camera was essentially reality TV before An American Family, or streaming 40-plus years before Twitch.) And it also drove home how aware at least some of the Beatles were of where they had been, where they were going, and how they would probably be remembered long after the fact. The interpersonal problems that fans and scholars still debate today aren’t subtext in Get Back; they’re discussed by the band in real time. But even though the Beatles were aware of what was pulling them apart, they couldn’t undo the damage. Life can be cruel like that.

Who looks the best in Get Back?

That’s easy: George, when he wore this.

But I’m not talking about who had the best outfit. Which Beatle’s stock climbed the most because this footage finally came to light?

It could be a coincidence, but Get Back’s biggest Beatle beneficiaries are the two who survived to see it. I wrote last week about how Get Back boosts Paul: He has the most luscious hair, the most ambitious vision, the most indomitable work ethic, and most of Let It Be’s best songs. It’s not surprising that Paul is pumped about Get Back, because it’s helped him walk back a PR misstep he made in 1970 that helped create a lasting perception that he’d broken up the band. In reality, he was the last to leave and the most committed to keeping the group together. Get Back makes clear that while Paul’s controlling tendencies were pissing off George and John, they were also the impetus for the Beatles to be where they were, making music and movies for us to enjoy. And no, he wasn’t looking at Yoko when he was singing “Get Back.”

And then there’s Ringo, the Magic Christian star, who quietly conveys why he was the missing piece that put the group over the top. As Linda McCartney observed, he was the easiest Beatle to be around: the oldest, the most mellow, and the quickest with comic relief. Some people might find it humbling or maddening to be the mere mortal plunking out the chords to “Taking a Trip to Carolina” while your pals are composing “Something” and “Let It Be.” That disparity in songwriting skill didn’t seem to bother Ringo, who was happy to be in a beloved band and to make its music better. He showed up on time, open to input and prepared to play. And when he wasn’t catching some shut-eye or passing some gas, he was working out the chords to “Octopus’s Garden” (with a little help from his friends). Ringo was the glue guy and an invaluable buffer between the more combative Beatles. The way he took his band’s drama in stride helps explain why he looks about 60 at age 81.

Is Get Back the ideal length?

When Let It Be… Naked came out in 2003, it was accompanied by a 22-minute bonus disk called Fly on the Wall, which cut together assorted studio chatter and excerpts of songs from the Let It Be sessions. I found Fly on the Wall so seductive that I tracked down the Beatles bootleg Thirty Days, a 17-disc collection of the “best” of the same sessions. Twenty-two minutes wasn’t nearly enough, but as it turned out, 17 discs (and 18-plus hours) was way more than I needed. Is eight hours the sweet spot?

Jackson was the one with unfettered access to almost 60 hours of video and more than twice as much audio, so he has the best sense of the directorial roads not taken. On the one hand, anything Beatles-related is historically significant, so it must have been difficult to stick most of the footage back in the vault. On the other hand, Jackson isn’t known for his economical editing, so whatever he couldn’t find room for must have been boring or redundant indeed.

Jackson is ultra-enthused about all things Beatles, and it’s clear that he made Get Back with fellow Fab heads in mind. Beatles fans are a big demographic, but there’s still a significant barrier to entry here. Some people aren’t willing to watch eight hours of anything. Others would be down for a standard-length doc about the Beatles but would balk at devoting a third of a day to the making of a middling album (by Beatles standards). And even as a Jacksonian Beatles obsessive, I’ll admit that a trim here or there could have kept my mind from wandering. Look, I like “Don’t Let Me Down,” but I know how it goes. (Given that approximately 18 takes of that song survived, I’d love to know what wound up in the digital trash bin.)

This sounds like a stretch, but all in all, I’d argue that eight hours isn’t far from the optimal length. An eight-hour run time makes Get Back an event, a gourmet meal to be digested and discussed over several sittings. It’s long enough to include the unproductive days that provide a more complete picture of the Beatles’ time at Twickenham, and it’s long enough for viewers to feel like they’ve taken a trip and been immersed in a milieu. The length also sets it apart in a saturated Beatles nostalgia market: There’s no shortage of regular-length movies about the Beatles already out there if that’s what you want, and it would have done a disservice to those with bottomless Beatles appetites to bury much more of this gold again. Plus, once you’re seven hours in, what’s another hour? Heck, who am I kidding: I’d watch the extended edition and re-live it in VR.

Would Get Back’s format fit anything else?

Get Back is a testament to the brilliance of the Beatles. But its message is more universal than that: Music is amazing. No, that’s not news. But I can’t recall a more persuasive illustration of what makes music special than this series.

I’m sure you remember the moment when McCartney starts strumming, borrows a line fragment from Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea,” and suddenly finds himself singing the song that would soon be “Get Back.” It’s the most jaw-dropping documentary moment since Robert Durst’s faux confession in The Jinx, though this one is as thrilling as that one was chilling.

Even among the songs on Let It Be, an album slapped together quickly, “Get Back” is a bit of an outlier. Although the movie makes it sound as if the Beatles were starting from scratch, many of the songs that ended up on the album (or on Abbey Road) had been bouncing around their brains for months or years. But when Paul played “Get Back,” he really did do it live. It’s the clearest look at music history happening in the studio since Bruce Dickinson demanded more cowbell.

Granted, it’s not as if you or I could make cranking out a hit look as effortless; this is Paul McCartney, whose combination of genius and practice helped him write timeless songs in his sleep. (“I had one this morning,” he says before playing the complete melody of “The Back Seat of My Car.”) So yes, the Beatles set a high bar. But bands will be formed because someone saw Paul write “Get Back” or Harrison stroll in and announce that he wrote “I Me Mine” or “Old Brown Shoe” overnight. You can’t write a book or make a feature film or (probably) program a game by yourself in one night. But if you’re diligent, talented, and lucky, you can write a song on the spot that people won’t stop singing for 50-plus years.

Which work of art do you wish you could watch springing into existence, the way we can lurk in Let It Be’s delivery room? Even if every artist had hired a Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the Get Back model wouldn’t work for everything. You could film a novelist in the midst of a masterpiece, but it wouldn’t be fun to watch someone sit silently and type. The magic of making music, as depicted in Get Back, is that it’s an intoxicating, spontaneous spectator sport: You can see and hear it happening, whether it’s Paul (“Tucson, Arizona!”) or George (“Attracts me like no other lover!”) fumbling for a line or the whole band trying out a faster tempo for “Get Back.”

Watching Bob Ross paint can be calming, but I don’t know whether one could make a compelling equivalent of Get Back—a chronicle of creation that speaks for itself—about any other kind of art. There’s already too much TV to keep up with, and a lot of documentaries are too long as it is. But here’s hoping more bands will keep their cameras on when they’re working, just in case inspiration strikes.

Should we lament that the Beatles broke up?

Sometimes it seems as if the Beatles never called it quits. Get Back is the latest in a long line of recent reasons to re-celebrate them: The Beatles Anthology, or 1, or Love, or The Beatles: Rock Band, or their catalog gracing music streaming services, or Yesterday. Yet even though they’re inescapable, Get Back is bittersweet—not only because it documents the Beatles getting very near the end of their formal alliance but because it’s a portrait of four spiritual siblings on the verge of falling out of friendship, at least for a while. It’s hard to hear McCartney tell Lennon, “Probably when we’re all very old, we’ll all agree with each other, and we’ll all sing together,” and not regret that he and Lennon would (almost) never sing together again after the Beatles broke up, or that Lennon didn’t get to grow old at all. It’s also hard to hear the Beatles run through inchoate or nearly fully formed versions of future solo songs such as “Gimme Some Truth,” “Jealous Guy,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Another Day,” and “The Back Seat of My Car” without dreaming about the Beatles albums that could’ve been. Combine the highlights of the albums that John, George, and Paul put out in ’70 and ’71 alone and you’d have the makings of the best Beatles album ever (if not the top two).

I’d rather dwell on what we gained than what we lost. Here’s my more positive take: I don’t think we missed out on much music because the Beatles broke up. If the band had stayed together for a few more years, they would have separated themselves even further from their closest competitors in the musical career rankings. But it’s not as though the Beatles could be much better regarded than they already are. Say the group had mended fences, stuck it out for five years, and kept recording at something close to their previous pace. They might have had six or seven solid albums in them after Abbey Road. Individually, though, the ex-Beatles made roughly 13 albums over that period that I would classify as good to great. (Your mileage may vary.) I’d argue that the pressure to succeed as solo artists and the urge to one-up each other contributed to that productivity. Even if the average quality of those solo albums is lower than the average quality of the hypothetical Beatles albums would have been, it’s hard for me to imagine the Beatles together making much more good music during that span than the ex-Beatles did on their own.

The fact that the Beatles got together during their formative years as musicians made it possible for them to reach the heights that they did. But by ’69, they were mostly writing separately. (In Get Back, some of their songs improve with input or significant contributions from others, but most are fairly fully formed when they’re introduced to the group.) On top of that, they all sang their own songs. Granted, it would have been nice to hear what the other Beatles brought to the others’ solo songs, but although the Beatles had a distinctive sound, the absence of that sound was arguably less costly and transformative than, say, the Stones or The Who splitting up at the same time would have been for early-’70s Jagger, Richards, or Townshend solo songs. The Beatles together would have written some music that never actually came to be. But would Beatle John have felt free to record the screams and confessional lyrics of Plastic Ono Band? Would Beatle Paul have brought the band to Scotland to preserve the pastoral beauty of Ram? Would Beatle George have convinced John and Paul to make room for every strong song from All Things Must Pass?

More broadly, would it have been better if the Beatles had plateaued, slumped, and fallen out of favor in the ’70s or ’80s, as most of their peers (and their own solo output) did, instead of ending on an ever-evolving upswing? Could there have been a more appropriate ending than “The End”? There may be a better Beatles timeline than this one in the musical multiverse, but as McCartney once sang, “This wasn’t bad, so a much better place would have to be special. No need to be sad.” Especially not now that whenever we want, we can time travel back to where the Beatles once belonged.