'The Beatles: Get Back' is a long-form love letter to creativity : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Beatles: Get Back captures the tumultuous process of writing and recording some of their best-known songs. Directed by Peter Jackson, the mammoth three-part docuseries shows the day-to-day boredom and grind and thrill of life in the studio — plus, lots of goofing around and never-before-seen footage of The Beatles. If you didn't have opinions about Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, you surely will after watching The Beatles: Get Back, which is now streaming on Disney Plus.

'The Beatles: Get Back' is a long-form love letter to creativity

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"The Beatles: Get Back" captures the tumultuous process of writing and recording some of the band's best-known songs. Director Peter Jackson took nearly 60 hours of unseen film and more than 150 hours of unheard audio and whittled it all down to a still mammoth three-part docuseries. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "The Beatles: Get Back" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


THOMPSON: Joining me today is NPR Music's Ann Powers. Welcome back, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hello, Stephen.

THOMPSON: It's great to have you. Also joining us is NPR TV critic, Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: Oh, my gosh, it's a joy. I'm so glad we're getting to talk about this. So "The Beatles: Get Back" is the second documentary to capture the process of making much of what would eventually become the album, "Let It Be." The first is Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1970 film, "Let It Be." That movie showed The Beatles essentially falling apart amid internal tensions and the stress of a very aggressive deadline. They had to write 14 new songs in about two weeks in preparation for their first concert in more than two years.

Now, more than 50 years later, director Peter Jackson uses Lindsay-Hogg's footage, all of it shot in January 1969, to tell a more nuanced story about the creative process, the many pressures on the band from within and from outside, and the famous rooftop concert that would prove to be The Beatles' final public performance. Along the way, we see the day-to-day boredom and grind and occasional thrill of life in the studio, plus lots of goofing around and never-before-seen footage of The Beatles as they write and perform their work, as well as bits and pieces of other people's songs. If you didn't have opinions about Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, you surely will after watching "The Beatles: Get Back," which is now streaming on Disney+.

DEGGANS: So in tribute to Peter Jackson, are we going to go on for, like, eight hours? Is that the deal?


THOMPSON: I was thinking, you want the discussion to actually be longer...


THOMPSON: ...Than the work itself, so I think we need to go at least 10 or 12.

DEGGANS: I'm down, dude.

POWERS: In tribute to Yoko Ono, I'm going to be reading a newspaper and...



POWERS: ...Knitting...

DEGGANS: Doing your taxes.


POWERS: ...While we do this. Yes, doing my taxes, exactly.

THOMPSON: Just the entire time, you should be doing paperwork...


THOMPSON: ...And sitting nearby. OK, Eric, I'm going to start with you. I know that you're a Beatles fan. Are you a fan of this epic, nearly eight-hour-long documentary?

DEGGANS: I am a fan of it because first of all, it's a treasure trove of time with The Beatles. And for people who are fans of The Beatles, being able to just kind of hang out with them for this length of time, of course, is wonderful. But I will say, as a critic, Peter Jackson needs an editor.


DEGGANS: I wish he had done two versions. I wish he had done a more streamlined version that's for the casual fan and then given a - the eight-hour epic to The Beatles fan who really wants to marinate and hanging out with the Fab Four - because it is an experience - so that we could get to all of the wonderful moments in here without spending so much time with The Beatles when they're doing jokey versions of their songs or when they're messing around in the studio. I mean, great gobs of time is eaten up in this project just watching The Beatles kind of mess around in the studio. And for fans, that's a wonderful thing. But for people who want to get to, you know, the coolest moments, it can be tiring. As a musician, I know that that's, like, the way the studio is, really (laughter).


DEGGANS: It can be very tiring, especially, like, look at Ringo's face.


DEGGANS: Through these eight hours, just look at, like, when they finally get to the point where they're almost done recording and they do the rooftop concert, just look at his face. He just has to keep playing these songs, even though he's not really involved in writing most of them. You know, he's there because drum machines don't exist back then...


DEGGANS: ...And he had to be there to play so they could hear what the songs sound like. And they just keep running through, running through, running through. And it very much tracks with my experiences recording in the studio.

POWERS: Interesting.

DEGGANS: It was giving me flashbacks is what it was doing (laughter).

POWERS: (Laughter) And not in a good way (laughter).

DEGGANS: No, no. So I'm a big fan of the doc, but I have some very pointed criticisms of it, as well, as we will discover as we go on.


THOMPSON: All right. How about you, Ann?

POWERS: First, I'll say, Eric, I feel you. And I had to cram the doc because I was doing a little review of it for Morning Edition, and that was an interesting challenge, especially right before Thanksgiving. If I put on a hat as a television critic or a film critic, I would completely agree with you. As a music critic, I thought of it as another form of an archival box set kind of. And I immediately longed for liner notes. I immediately longed for that fan who was going to go through and timestamp everything for me and say, OK, at hour 4:30 minutes, this happens. George is wearing this fur coat, and he and Ringo are working on "An Octopus's Garden."


THE BEATLES: (Singing) It would be nice. Paradise. And I often stay all day in the shade.

POWERS: So I think as something to revisit, as something to treasure, like an archival document, that is what it does best. Although I would love to hear both of your opinions on Jackson's point of view because it is not true that there is no point of view or that this is strictly verite, he edited way down, and he is telling his version of this story. So...


POWERS: ...That's a bit of a ruse that I think is very interesting.

THOMPSON: I have heard commentary from a lot of musicians about this, that this is - does as good a job as just about any work in capturing what it is like to be in the studio and the mix of boredom and excitement and creation and goofing around. I agree with Eric that we probably got a little bit more of the goofing around, playing in the studio than we probably needed. If you ever want to hear The Beatles perform a song in, you know, with, like, fake Scottish accents...

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

POWERS: Right.

THOMPSON: ...This is the project for you.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Oh yes, darling. Two of us wearing raincoats, standing solo in the sun. Yes, boy. You and me chasing paper, getting nowhere. On our way...

POWERS: Or sing a song completely through gritted teeth. That's my very favorite moment...


POWERS: ...When John and Paul are staring at each other and singing "Two Of Us" without separating their teeth...

THOMPSON: (Laughter)

POWERS: ...You know, that's what I needed.

THOMPSON: In a way, I kind of agree with both of you. I feel like I'm often, like, runtime cop on here...

POWERS: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...And so then to come in and talk about a literally almost eight-hour documentary, and I'm here kind of to defend that. There is a version of this film that is streamlined, and that would be a lot more accessible to people who are more casual fans of the Beatles, or people who don't necessarily want to know exactly what it's like to create something. But I found it really useful and interesting, and I kept having flashbacks. I am not a musician. I have not made a record in a studio, but I have worked on creative projects. I had constant flashbacks to working at The Onion...


THOMPSON: ...Watching this movie, and you would not think that one would have constant flashbacks to working for The Onion...

POWERS: Stephen, were you the Paul of The Onion?


POWERS: You got the hair.

DEGGANS: (Imitating British accent) Lads, we just need a plan for writing this satire of Chris Cuomo.


THOMPSON: I was grafting the personalities I worked with at The Onion onto Paul...


THOMPSON: ...John, George and Ringo the whole time. And so for me, even in a lot of the moments where you're like, you know, any editor other than Peter Jackson would have cut that out. But I'll still think like, oh, that's there because they want to establish - and you mentioned the collaboration between Ringo and George on "Octopus's Garden."

POWERS: Right.

THOMPSON: And you're suddenly seeing a side of this band you've never seen before, and you're watching two people who are often relegated to the sidelines, you know, with these two powerhouse songwriters at the center of the band, and watching the way they collaborate is really interesting. I mean, Peter Jackson - look; when I think of Peter Jackson, I think about how he took "The Hobbit," a not-very-long...

POWERS: (Laughter)

THOMPSON: ...Book, and turned it into a nine-hour trilogy...



THOMPSON: ...Because Peter Jackson likes to build worlds and then just swim around in them for eternity.


THOMPSON: But I don't think it does that without insight, and I don't think it does that without, as you said, a point of view.

POWERS: Right.

DEGGANS: You know, what's interesting is, like, the moment in the third episode where Linda Eastman's kid shows up...

POWERS: Heather.

DEGGANS: ...And she's messing around in the studio. And she - you know, she's playing with Ringo, and she's, you know, saying all this stuff and everybody's - John's kind of messing around with her. And just when you get to the point where you're like, man, I am tired of seeing this kid...

THOMPSON: Never got tired of that kid.

DEGGANS: ...She gets on the mic, and she does this impersonation of Yoko, basically.


POWERS: So good. She's inspired by Yoko.

DEGGANS: And I was just like, wow.


JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Come on, Heather.


LENNON: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HEATHER: (Vocalizing).

DEGGANS: OK. That's why we're getting so much of this kid because, in that moment, I think what she was doing kind of highlighted the weirdness of Yoko being there but also the acceptance of her being there, and it just summed up sort of the bizarreness of that situation in a really interesting way. And so you get the sense that even when there's a lot of tedium, that there's a reason why he's subjecting you to that. But like I said, I wish that there had been a version of this where you didn't have to go through that because I think a lot of people are just not going to do it, and they're going to miss out on some really cool stuff.

POWERS: Well, that brings up something I'm so curious to talk to both of you about, which is who is the audience for this documentary? Because I was immediately plunged into endless discussions on my social media, which includes quite a few, I don't know, let's say boomer, X-er, older millennial rock music fans, many of them white, not entirely, who are just obsessed with this thing and, you know, endless conversations about who had the best fur coat, you know, or...


POWERS: ...Or which version of "Two Of Us" was the best, or out of the extra players, whether it's the wives, the family, or Glyn Johns, my new crush, the engineer...

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

POWERS: ...You know, or George Martin.

DEGGANS: Yeah, I've seen your...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: ...Posts about that (laughter).

POWERS: I know. OK, so - OK, I confess - endless discussions about how fine Glyn Johns in his hipster clothing is.

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

POWERS: But what I'm asking is - who was included and excluded in this explosion of nostalgia and joy at The Beatles return through this documentary? And what does that have to do with - Eric, what you're talking about - the length, you know, and the structure of this documentary?

DEGGANS: Well, one thing that struck me - and maybe I was affected by the press that Peter Jackson did leading up to the release of it - this project seems determined to prove that, A, those sessions were not as gloomy and dark and terrible as fans thought and as even the surviving Beatles remembered, that they had a lot of fun and that they enjoyed each other and that they seemed to have a good time. Now, to me as a musician, particularly watching them at Twickenham Studios, you know, they started out in this big, cavernous...

THOMPSON: This cavernous room.

DEGGANS: ...Space that sounded terrible...

POWERS: Totally.

DEGGANS: ...And they had all these people coming in and out, and they were facing each other on these chairs, trying to figure out how to write songs. And Yoko's right there, attached to John's hip. You know, I could see the tension. I've been in rooms like that.


DEGGANS: And they're trying to be nice because they know they're on camera. They're always aware that they're on camera, Paul in particular.


DEGGANS: And so they weren't openly sort of hostile to Yoko. But I do think that there was a sense like, what's going on here? This feels weird. And they were having a hard time sort of connecting with each other in that space. And I could completely sense it. But Peter Jackson wants the viewer to feel these guys are enjoying being around each other. And what I saw was disguised tension that was coming out in weird moments. And then George leaves the band briefly. And they have a meeting with him where Yoko speaks for John.

POWERS: Right. Right.

DEGGANS: We don't see this, but we're told this. And it makes the situation worse. So in trying to sort of paper over this idea that Yoko wasn't, like, the reason The Beatles broke up, he actually gives us a more subtle and definitive picture of her impact, and that it was, at times, disruptive. I could sort of feel Peter Jackson wanting to tell one story. But the stuff he had to use to tell it to us was telling a slightly different story.

POWERS: Well, before we get into the meat of the Yoko discussion, about which I have much to say - since we're talking about Twickenham, we got to talk about Michael Lindsay-Hogg. And, I mean, if anything was breaking up The Beatles in those first few hours of the documentary, it was the presence of this crew, the endless discussions of what the heck this documentary was that they were making. And Paul was interested. Like, didn't he want to be a filmmaker? He was, like, working on soundtracks. Like, he was interested in film. He was getting close to marrying Linda Eastman, who's a photographer. And he's very involved in that. And the others are just like, whatever, you know?


POWERS: And I feel like Michael Lindsay-Hogg - I'm not the first to say this - is kind of the villain.

DEGGANS: I mean, you know, Lindsay-Hogg was sort of the avatar for all these commercial forces around The Beatles trying to push them to do this...


DEGGANS: ...And push them to do that. But there was a sense that Paul had in his head this idea of this all-encompassing project. And he kept getting disappointed with the setbacks that they were having, particularly the idea that they would do some sort of big performance at the end of it all to kind of encompass all the work they had done. So I don't know that he was necessarily breaking up The Beatles. But he was sort of the representative of all these demands that they had outside of the band that was pushing on them and affecting how they were reacting in that rehearsal space, especially when they were in Twickenham. His influence seemed to wane when they moved into Apple Studios and they were in an environment that they controlled more.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the interesting things about him as an avatar for those forces, being filmed changes the way people behave. You have some people who perform more for the cameras and are behaving more passive aggressively or just aggressively as a result. It really does change people's behavior to have that filming.

I want to kind of push back. Ann, you kind of alluded to wanting to get back to a discussion about Yoko. I felt that this film was fair to her. And I felt like it compels a certain reassessment of hers, which has been going on for decades, that in some ways she could be seen as a destabilizing force. I watched this film and felt like she was a stabilizing force. I felt like she was keeping John tethered to what was going on and kind of providing his, like, level of emotional support to be able to engage with the group. So all this kind of narrative that's been going on for more than 50 years about Yoko Ono supposedly breaking up The Beatles, I had the opposite reaction watching this, that I felt like she was helping hold them together.

DEGGANS: Yeah. One of the things I thought was interesting, though, was the rift with George didn't get solved until the three of them went and talked to him without Yoko, No. 1. And then later, you know, Paul talks about how he's not able to spend as much time with John, and it's affecting their songwriting together. So I'm not saying that this simplistic idea that Yoko came in and everybody got upset at her and that's what broke up The Beatles - we see that that's not what happened. But to pretend that she was not a disruptive force at all - if you watch the documentary, you can see that that's not true. It just wasn't the big destabilizing force that I think, you know, a lot of fans tried to say she was.

POWERS: Well, don't you think, though, that this film puts forward George's dissatisfaction as the main reason The Beatles broke up and that that has something to do with John and Yoko but has much more to do with John and Paul and how John and Paul have treated him for years? I hear you on Yoko feeling like a disruptive presence, but I also think that Yoko is kind of a stand-in for the audience for a lot of this film in a strange way. We're sitting there knitting or reading a newspaper or making Thanksgiving dinner (laughter) while we're watching this documentary...


POWERS: ...Just as she is. So that creates a role for her that viewers can identify with. And I also think Jackson just latched on to that George narrative. That George narrative is what interested him, it feels like to me.

DEGGANS: What I also seemed to perceive, again, speaking as a musician, every one of them was growing as composers...


DEGGANS: ...And feeling limited by the fact that this band only had four people in it. And the fact that things got so much better for them once Billy Preston showed up...

THOMPSON: Billy...

DEGGANS: ...To play keyboards.

POWERS: Right.

DEGGANS: Paul's starting to have all this creativity and all these ideas about things that are sort of beyond the scope of what The Beatles could do, and so was John, and so was George. And, you know, the group didn't officially break up until Paul said he quit.

POWERS: Yes. That's why I love those moments when - and they're completely spontaneous, and it's not like they were ever going to put this on a record, although I can dream.

DEGGANS: Right (laughter).

POWERS: But those moments when Yoko takes over the vocals and they're doing those kind of Plastic Ono Band jams of - first, when George exits the scene.


YOKO ONO: (Vocalizing).

POWERS: And, you know, I just think - well, Plastic Ono Band featured two of the Beatles, that record did. I mean, Ringo would play with anybody, any configuration of these guys. So what would have happened if "Abbey Road" had contained a track that Yoko, you know, took the vocal on?


POWERS: I'm living in that fantasy.


THOMPSON: One thing that really struck me watching this movie, you know, when we talk about, like, what broke up the Beatles, it's not necessarily the narrative of this film, but I really felt the absence of Brian Epstein.


THOMPSON: I felt the absence of a manager, the absence of a overarching kind of force of discipline and advocacy - like, having an even-handed manager who could come in and say, actually, you have 14 days; you don't have to write an entire album, shoot a documentary, make a movie, stage a concert and figure out how to do all this stuff yourselves 'cause I just felt like - when you talked about the exterior forces and the interior forces that were causing the collapse of this band, the ambition without anything to check that ambition or just pull the brakes when something isn't working - I just felt like, how can they possibly do this? And the other big takeaway for me - man, I could talk about this movie, seriously, all day - is, how did they manage to write these songs so quickly?


THOMPSON: You know, when you think about how albums are made today, the pace at which bands are allowed and expected to work today is so vastly different. When they're talking about how - we need to put "Get Back" out as a single because it's been five months...

POWERS: (Laughter) I know.

THOMPSON: ...Since we put out "Hey Jude," (laughter) one of the biggest songs in rock 'n' roll history - oh, yeah, the world is going to forget about the Beatles if they don't put something out immediately.

DEGGANS: I know.

THOMPSON: To me, part of it is like, how did this band stay together this long?

DEGGANS: It just felt like Jackson was showing them working out what "Get Back" was going to be, what the lyrics were going to be and all that stuff. We see these songs under construction. What we don't see is how they actually came up with the first idea. Like, we see Paul messing around with "Long And Winding Road," but he kind of has the bones of the song already. Although I've seen some of the Beatles quoted saying when they decided to meet, like, none of them had anything prepared. And so that's one thing, as a musician, that I was like, where did the initial idea for these songs come from?

THOMPSON: I mean, just to push back, we do see the moment of conception for "Get Back," or at least I feel like we do. We see Paul kind of hunched over, strumming on his bass and he starts to sing. And then all of a sudden, he's - what he's singing just suddenly evolves in real time into some of the recognizable melodies we know from that song.


PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Get back. Get back. Get back to where you once belonged. Get back. Get back. Get back to where you once belonged.

DEGGANS: How did Paul come up with that? Did he invent that in the moment or did he come up with it at home and then bring it in and say, hey, guys, I kind of got this thing? Because it's verite and there's not a narrator. Those are some of the things that we don't know because it's so hard to impart that kind of information. You know, we get title cards and writing to sort of tell us some of the things that they can't show us.

POWERS: I'm so glad that you brought this up, Eric, because there is a kind of shadow narrative that I really would love to see a documentary about, which is how each of the Beatles was in dialogue during this time with other musicians, with other scenes and with their own repertoire. You know, throughout the movie, they're constantly breaking into older songs. And most critics and others who've responded to the documentary have said, oh, that's them being nostalgic for their old days, you know? I don't think that's the case. I think it's that - whether it was Chuck Berry or a country song or Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, whoever - that music was what they were making this music out of.

And I just want to check, I think, a dangerous thread that's emerging in the account of this period with the Beatles, which is that they were pulling things out of thin air. They were not pulling things out of thin air. They were constantly listening to their peers, especially Black musicians of the time. I can't remember which song it is that when Billy Preston comes in and he and John are playing a song, and it sounds so much like Sly and the Family Stone. And I went back and looked at the charts, and Sly was up there ruling the charts in the U.S. The Beatles didn't emerge from nothing.


POWERS: The Beatles never worked in total isolation. George was really open about working with Eric Clapton, you know, working with a lot of musicians during this time and even maybe wanting to bring those people into the sessions. There's a point where after George leaves, John's like, well, let's just get Clapton. So they were not this sealed - hermetically sealed unit.

THOMPSON: Right. I think that's one of my favorite things about this documentary, is showing the Beatles just living in the world that surrounds them - in some cases, like, reading their own press...

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Which is such a bad idea. It's very easy to think of, like, iconic artists - they've isolated themselves in some castle, and it's almost like they live on another planet when they're making their work. And I think one thing that this shows so beautifully is how immersed they were in the popular culture of the time and that they were, as you said, Ann, in dialogue with it. As much as you don't get very many moments of, like, Paul coming up with the idea for "The Long And Winding Road" or whatever, you do see this kind of glacial evolution of some of these songs. It may seem like somebody is kind of making something up out of whole cloth, but there's just a million decisions being made between - it seems like this song is going to be called "Get Back," and then maybe it's going to be about immigration.

POWERS: Right.

THOMPSON: And then maybe it's going to be about this, and then maybe it's that. And is there another verse here? Because these people are geniuses, it's really easy to think of geniuses as operating on one plane while the existence of hard work, that's something else. And, like, geniuses have to make the doughnuts. You know, geniuses have to, like, knuckle down and figure out why this chord progression isn't working quite the way that it's supposed to.

POWERS: I think you mean to say geniuses have to make the toast because so much toast is consumed in this documentary.


THOMPSON: There's a lot of toast.

POWERS: It's unreal.

DEGGANS: Toast and tea, yes.

THOMPSON: Toast and tea comes up a lot in this film.

POWERS: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: There's so many small bits of illumination that this film offers about what it's like to create something and what goes into the creation of something. I did want to end with one final question.

POWERS: Who is the cutest one in the documentary? Glyn Johns. OK, sorry.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Linda Eastman.


DEGGANS: Best dressed - I got to say Billy Preston, is what I got to say.

THOMPSON: Billy - oh, my God, Billy Preston.


POWERS: Billy in those striped shirts.

DEGGANS: Billy was styling.

POWERS: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: And you could tell that most of the people captured in this realize, hey, they're filming this.


POWERS: Oh, yeah. Oh, my God.

DEGGANS: Like, I can't come in here looking like I just walked in off the street (laughter).

POWERS: Completely.

THOMPSON: You talk about stabilizing forces, Billy Preston is a stabilizing force in this process.

POWERS: He is sunshine. He is light. He is everything they needed.

DEGGANS: He does what a great backing musician always does. Like, it was a big deal for them to bring in Billy Preston.


DEGGANS: They talked about Eric Clapton, but they never did it. Nowadays, supergroups are always bringing in people to come in and play on stuff, and it's no big deal. Nobody says the band is broken up or doesn't exist anymore or whatever. To me, the tragedy - we now know so many ways they could have managed the stresses that they were under, where maybe they could have stayed together. But nobody had done what they had done before. They were forging new paths. And so they didn't necessarily know that they could go off and do their own solo stuff and then come back together and be a band again.


DEGGANS: They didn't have to break up. And so that's part of it that's always going to be a little sad for me, is that as I'm watching this, I'm just thinking, man, there's more efficient ways to have done this, and they might have stayed together if it hadn't been such an ordeal to do it.

THOMPSON: I got to say, man - I could talk about this project for days. But I think we probably need to bring it in for a landing.


THOMPSON: We want to know what you think about "Get Back." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to both of you for being here.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

POWERS: Thanks so much for having us. This was super fun, and I wish we could do another seven hours.


THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about "West Side Story."


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