I was in high school when Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered. It was the first Star Trek film, and the first fix for fans since the TV show had ended a decade before. I was never much of a fan but stood in line with everyone else on opening night, and I will never forget the man in a wheelchair, ahead of us, who rolled up to the ticket counter, handed the clerk a paper bag filled with change, and shouted, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life!”
These moments are not to be scoffed at or downplayed, and I am having one now as I wait for the start of the remastered documentary The Beatles: Get Back, which runs November 25, 26, and 27, on Disney+. (I am told these three episodes run 157 minutes, 173 minutes, and 138 minutes.)
Director Peter Jackson’s documentary comes, famously, from footage shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg that was originally cut into the contentious film Let It Be (1970). Lindsay-Hogg has gotten a lot of grief over the years for making a grim film that showed the tensions in the band, and the film was buried and was very hard to find, even in bootleg. (Jackson hints the Beatles themselves buried it. Paul McCartney in interview with Terry Gross implies the film was a chief reason for him getting the blame for The Beatles breaking up, which he thinks was unfair.)
But Jackson makes clear (as in this interview) that we all owe Lindsay-Hogg a debt for capturing the history-making footage. (Lindsay-Hogg was also the director for a couple of the Beatles’ earliest music videos, 15 years before MTV, and for many of the Rolling Stones’ videos, including the Rock and Roll Circus, which Lennon appeared in with his band The Dirty Mac.)
Jackson reminds us that it made world news a couple of years ago when 11 seconds of lost footage of The Beatles lip-synching on Top of the Pops was found. Now, he says, think of how he was given access to 55 hours of footage (“in a secret, undisclosed location”), most of which no one has seen in 50 years, and which he has restored and then edited. For many Beatles fans, this is a larger moment than the Anthology project, which aired in 1995.
Jackson is interesting on his use of artificial intelligence, which made his film possible in ways Lindsay-Hogg could never have achieved. Not only did it refresh and preserve the film stock; Jackson and company taught the software to strip out individual instruments from mono film audio, then taught it the difference between John’s and Paul’s voices. Not only did this allow them to balance rehearsal takes—pulling back Ringo’s drums so other things could be heard, eg—but also to hear conversations that the group meant to remain private at the time by whanging away at a guitar that covered their voices.
I do have worries about his editing. When I reviewed They Shall Not Grow Old, which he made from restored WWI footage and oral histories, I pointed out, “No one is identified by name, unit, geographic location, action, or even which year of the war they speak about or appear in. Footage is a jumble of all these, and the veterans speaking in voiceover are not speaking about the footage shown. Jackson says this gives it all a ‘generic’ quality, by which I think he means universal. But it is generic, or worse, when he treats experience as interchangeable and with no context. […] He makes it a point…that his is not an ‘academic’ film, that he is not an academic, and his audience are not academics. Fair enough, but there are reasons historians, documentarians, writers, poets, and others impose form on themselves.”
In one of the trailers for The Beatles: Get Back, it looks as if a visual segment of John singing “Don’t Let Me Down” does not synch with the audio. Did Jackson use different takes to create one effect? There is also a sequence where John gives Paul venomous side-eye, as Paul tries to improvise lyrics for the song “Get Back”; later, John joyously and playfully responds to Paul as they play. An edit out of context—a laugh or a “yeah!” of agreement from another time—could change reality.
Still, the film looks packed with music, color, energy, love of process, and deep friendship, and I welcome it as I have not done for a film in years. In fact, I have said, in the gallows humor of the pandemic, that I hoped to live long enough to see it, since its release was delayed more than once.
The Beatles are present in some of my earliest and otherwise most important memories—riding with my beloved sister when she first got a license; listening over and over at a corporate job and imagining my way forward; introducing the music to my own children, so The Beatles are bound up in my experience of my sons’ childhoods.
I keep saying it: we did not listen to pop music from 60 years earlier when I was a kid, or return to it at key moments later in our life. The Beatles were just four guys from a depressed port in northern England, and what they did, they did for only about eight years. But they were a wonder, and they will continue to last.
Now I am like that guy with his sack of change: Take my money; I’ve been waiting for this a long time.