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Hanging out with the Beatles in Get Back

Eight hours with the lads from Liverpool in Peter Jackson’s new documentary.

A picture of the Beatles, who are sitting in a circle with their instruments, looking over at a camera.
Paul, Ringo, John, and George, just hanging out.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Midway through the second episode of The Beatles: Get Back — the longest of the three, at nearly three hours — Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who shot the original footage in 1969, is talking to the Beatles about the movie they’re currently in. The group is sitting around at a makeshift recording studio on a movie sound stage. “There’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s no story yet,” Lindsay-Hogg tells them. He’s been filming for a week and a half or so, and most of what he has is the guys noodling on guitars and singing half-formed lyrics, plus some internal fighting. Plans have changed several times. They’re not really sure what’s going to happen by the end.

Out here on this side of the screen, we do know, since this all happened more than 50 years ago. The band is just a handful of months away from the last time they’d play together as the Beatles. You could watch this film — Peter Jackson’s sprawling, eight-hour, three-episode fly-on-the-wall saga crafted from 60 hours of Lindsay-Hogg’s footage — with that history in mind, turning over various fan theories in your mind, watching faces for clues, scrutinizing the minutiae.

But I’ve got to confess that it’s at least as fun, and maybe more, to simply relax and accept the invitation of its genre. The Beatles: Get Back is, in the end, the consummate hangout movie.

The Beatles laughing together in a recording studio.
The Beatles do a lot of hanging out in Get Back, and so do we.

Some critics tend to treat documentaries about musicians (rockumentaries, if you will) as though they’re all one big subgenre, musical ruminations on the band’s or performer’s history, a little treat for fans. But if there’s justice in the world — a big if, but I hold out hope — 2021 will end that habit. At least four of the year’s most talked-about nonfiction films are about musicians, and they all take distinctly different forms: Summer of Soul is an epic concert doc that functions as a crystallization of a pivotal cultural moment; The Velvet Underground takes a mildly avant-garde approach to a portrait of a group; Listening to Kenny G verges on gentle satire at times to explore a big idea.

But Get Back fits best into the “hangout movie” genre, a term usually attributed to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who has described it as the sort of film where “you hang out with the characters so much that they actually become your friends.” Hangout films, he says, tend to run long precisely because it takes a while to get to know someone and like them. Think of Dazed and Confused, or The Big Lebowski, or Everybody Wants Some!!

And that’s exactly what Get Back is, as a few critics have noted. It’s a rock doc, crafted by Jackson from footage shot by Lindsay-Hogg for the 81-minute 1970 documentary Let It Be, about the making of the album of the same name. Get Back pokes its nose into the band’s working process (and takes its title from Let It Be’s working title). Jackson has called Get Back a “documentary about a documentary,” and he’s not wrong. Shot entirely in January 1969, the film at times feels like it’s aimed at generating playful agita in those of us who like to have a plan, stick to it, and hit our deadlines — something the band keeps failing at as deadlines slip. (Poor, exasperated Paul and I seem to share this quality.)

Long-swirling stories about a strife-filled recording session — Let It Be was the group’s final studio album, released a month after they officially broke up — are partly supported, partly refuted by the film. There are fights (polite British fights) and tensions, and also a lot of laughter and camaraderie and generally funny screwing around. Mostly we’re just watching John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr — and their various producers and collaborators and girlfriends and buddies — make a whole bunch of music, really fast, while a film crew hovers around.

The band, plus Yoko Ono and several crew members, listen to Paul McCartney talk.
A recording session with the Beatles in Get Back.

The band’s original aim is to write, arrange, and rehearse 14 songs inside of just over two weeks, then perform them live on TV after years of basically not performing live at all. But things get messy; George briefly quits the band; they move locations after struggling to work on a cavernous soundstage and rebuild recording equipment when mysterious feedback appears. It’s all very self-contained, just the lads and their close associates, until the last hour or so. Then they wind up at their own studios, culminating in that famous January 30, 1969, rooftop performance, at which point Jackson widens his editorial lens to include footage of man-on-the-literal-street interviews with people who are either delighted or annoyed by the music emanating from the building.

As a casual fan of the Beatles — I’ve listened to the albums, I own that big remastered box set, but I don’t dabble in the trivia and ephemera and I have no opinion about Yoko Ono — I at first found myself antsy watching Get Back, especially after I realized how long it would take to finish. Rocker documentaries have trained me to follow the arc, understanding the music through the usual structure — the rise and fall and rise again of an influential band.

Soon, though, Get Back’s pleasures started to bubble to the surface. I am invited to be one of their pals, perched quietly on an amp, listening to them mess around. John and Paul do funny voices at one another as they work out the lyrics to “Two of Us.” Ringo falls asleep in a chair nearby. George comes in with a song he wrote while watching some program on the BBC where people waltz. (It’s “I Me Mine.”) In a lull, the band starts playing snippets of songs by Elvis or Bob Dylan or Ray Charles. They make small talk about headlines from the paper or jokes about famous people on TV. It’s very meandering, and also oddly soothing.

From this perch, I start to notice things about the Beatles I never had cause to notice before — chiefly, to be honest, how young they are, all still in their 20s. Smooth skin, easy smiles, loping speech. They’ve been stars their whole adult lives, and they’re certainly not opposed to acting like stars, but in this studio they seem a lot more like a bunch of guys who were friends in high school trying to do a group project, with all the attenuating dynamics.

And by the end, they feel like they’re my friends, too. In hour eight, I’m smiling at new ways John sings a line or a face Paul makes while trying to play in the rooftop wind. Their characters haven’t developed all that much, but that was never really the point. The story of Get Back is that four guys who’ve known each other since they were kids are obvious geniuses, and that even though we know they’re on the edge of breaking up the band, there’s still a lot of life there, even love.

The Beatles perform on the roof as onlookers watch.
By the end, they’re performing on the roof.

That’s the charm of Get Back, and I think what makes it distinctive as a music documentary. One feature of a hangout film is that it rewards rewatching, because the point is to chill with the characters, not just follow the plot. Jackson does choose to give all narrative clues through text on screen, so if you’re not watching it at every moment, you might miss what exactly is going on (especially when George briefly leaves and then rejoins the band).

But on the other hand, you could pop Get Back on in the background while you’re eating some snacks or knitting a sweater or sitting around chatting with your family, and when it’s done, you can just start over again. It’s as well suited to a close watch as it is to being in the background at a chill party. It’s full of treats, jokes, and even so-called “Easter eggs” for the hardcore fan, but every time you watch it, you get to know the guys better, and you might see something newly delightful. It’s not hard to imagine rewatching it many times over.

I’m not sure I’ve ever praised a film before for being good to not watch too closely. But it’s unassailably true that a great film stimulates curiosity and rewards the returning viewer — and that standard applies whether the movie is a tight 90-minute thriller or an eight-hour legend. The Beatles made music that we’ve continued to listen to, mull over, and revisit for decades; no wonder their working process serves up the same kind of delight.

The Beatles: Get Back is streaming on Disney+.