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Why Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back had to be nearly eight hours long

  • Some critics and even some Beatles fans have criticized Jackson's three-part docuseries for being too long. But, says Carl Wilson, "the length of Jackson’s Get Back proves crucial to its effect, just as duration is key to the books of Marcel Proust and Elena Ferrante, a great cable TV series, or many immersive art installations. You couldn’t improve upon The Sopranos by condensing it into a two-hour movie. The original Let It Be film itself confirms it. Directed by hired hand Michael Lindsay-Hogg—who serves as a frequent onscreen goad and even antagonist in Get BackLet It Be has long been remembered as a dour document of the band breaking up, which is part of why they let it go out of print. In fact, that film was mainly a string of song performances, interrupted occasionally by short exchanges among the members, a few bitchy and some buoyant. It came out only after the Beatles did break up in 1970, and as a result, a whole storyline was read into it retrospectively, one it actually had no time to tell. It is easy to find sections that plausibly could be cut from Get Back, but anybody who’s ever been party to a long rehearsal or recording process in any artistic field is aware how inextricable the inventiveness usually is from downswings of boredom, tetchiness, and misfired dead-ends. It takes that tedium to emphasize the wonder of how mindbogglingly productive the Beatles’ January actually turned out to be. That’s especially true once they get out of the dreary Twickenham film studio and into their base at Apple, a demand George makes after he temporarily quits the band at the end of Part One. The next week, John asks how many songs the band has finished so far, thinking the answer is five or six. Their usual producer, George Martin, currently hanging around in an unofficial capacity, pulls a list from his pocket showing two or three times as many. The tracks include not only most of the eventual Let It Be album, but also what will become the core of Abbey Road and even some of their future solo material, not to mention all the snippets of other songs like Lennon’s 'Madman' or something called 'Suzy Parker' that are never to be heard of again. What Get Back lets the viewer experience is the invisible work that may not seem like work, as it slowly transforms even the faintest inspirations into art."


    • Get Back is a vibe -- it wouldn't make sense to reduce it to a two-, three-, or even four-hour version: "One of the many things Get Back does really well is to provide a sense of what it was like to float in the orbit of John, Paul, George, and Ringo at a moment when the Beatles as a unit were beginning to disintegrate. A lot of that time seems frustrating, tense, and uncomfortable. With its sometimes sleepy pace and awkward silences, Get Back makes you sit in those feelings for a while and, to the extent that such a thing is possible, feel what the members of the biggest rock band of all time were feeling. The title Get Back refers to the well-known Beatles song and the original name of the album that would become Let It Be. But in line with the transportive nature of the material, Get Back also feels like a command instructing us to go back in time and just exist for a while in the first month of the last year of both the 1960s and the band whose music helped define it. To see only the more dramatic moments in the 22 days that unfold in Get Back, first at Twickenham Studios and then at Apple Corps, would not provide a proper sense of the surrounding vibe. Get Back is a lot of things: a concert movie, a mountain of archival footage, a new resource for engaging in deep Yoko Ono analysis, a treasure trove of lewks. But it is also, most definitely, a vibe. You don’t watch Get Back so much as hang out with it and let it wash over you. It’s the equivalent of a long-playing record that fills the room and is still going even after you leave for a few minutes to make a snack. (That snack obviously should involve toast and tea. So many cups of tea in Get Back!) Or, to put it in a more modern context, as my esteemed colleague Dee Lockett did during a Slack conversation, 'Really, this doc is a Twitch stream.' What it’s asking us to do is akin to what the last track ('Tomorrow Never Knows') on the best Beatles album (Revolver) suggests: Relax and float downstream. Surrender, if not to the void, then to the flow of wherever Jackson’s shaping of 60 hours of rarely seen Beatles footage takes us. The Beatles: Get Back also serves another function, which may ultimately be its most enduring contribution: It shows us what the creative process looked like for some of the most prolific and gifted artists of the late 20th century."
    • Get Back is a show about process and compromise, and the mercurial nature of creativity and the value of an edifying work-life balance: "Sometimes — often — great work takes time, and inspiration won’t show face until the distractions in your periphery are sufficiently quieted," says Matt Zoller Seitz. "There is just no predicting what will happen when you sit down to create, no telling what you’re in for. Watching the Beatles work is very illuminating. They’re brilliant writers, performers, interpreters, and musicians, and the three weeks in the weeds depicted in Get Back showcases this and more."
    • Get Back may prove to be the greatest rock documentary ever: "We’ve seen our share of rock documentaries that brilliantly captured an artist at a singular moment in time, and/or looked to unwrap a riddle wrapped in an enigma (see the entire Bob Dylan filmography)," says Chris Willman. "But a film project that lets us look in, at leisurely length, on the creative process as well as personalities of genius-superstars who really are Just Like Us? In 60 years’ worth of pop music movies, that’s something we’ve never really gotten. Until now. Peter Jackson’s Get Back is the only mega-movie you’d really need to show to an alien wanting to understand the creativity and psychology of the rock ‘n’ roll that’d been coming through on radio waves across dimensions."
    • Get Back is a (new) happy ending to a story we all know: The docuseries disrupts the legend of The Beatles' bitter decline, says Sasha Frere-Jones. "The only mistake in Peter Jackson’s Get Back is the first ten of its 468 minutes: a summary of the Beatles career rendered as a bang-bang-bang montage," says Frere-Jones. "That’s what Google is for, if you want it. After that, Get Back (released in three installments on Disney+) is sweet Yukon gold, a gentle wildlife documentary about waiting for songs and working with friends."
    • Jackson's penchant for bloat is on display in Get Back: "Peter Jackson might not have been the right person for the job," says Alex McLevy. "Watching Get Back, one gets the feeling he’s torn between serving two different audiences: the average viewer who wants a compelling narrative about a difficult and near-final chapter in the life of one of the all-time great bands, and Beatles aficionados who’d like nothing more than to spend as much time as possible with these musicians. He ends up decisively siding with the latter, which means anyone who isn’t a Beatles completist will presumably—at multiple points during this series—get bored."
    • Here are the 24 most memorable moments from Get Back
    • Peter Jackson recalls making an 18-hour cut back when Get Back was originally supposed to be 2-1/2 hours

    TOPICS: The Beatles: Get Back, Disney+, Peter Jackson, The Beatles, Documentaries