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New docuseries gives fans unprecedented access to The Beatles

The Beatles, seen preparing for their final show on Jan. 30, 1969 in London.
Evening Standard
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The Beatles, seen preparing for their final show on Jan. 30, 1969 in London.

Updated November 29, 2021 at 5:01 PM ET

There's a new, three-part docuseries on The Beatles, called Get Back, just released on Disney+. The work was assembled from nearly 60 hours of previously unseen footage by a film crew given unprecedented access at around the time The Fab Four was recording Let It Be, its final record. The film, directed by The Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson, centers around Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as they attempt to write 14 new songs and plan what would become their last live show together.

A Martinez spoke with NPR Music critic Ann Powers about the documentary and the fresh perspective it gives on a well-known tale.

First, Powers sets the scene for us.

To hear the broadcast version of this piece, listen in the audio player above.

Ann Powers: Paul was listening to a lot of soul music and old ballads and stuff. John is exploring noise and art rock with his future wife Yoko Ono. And George - well, George has a stash of songs that nobody's heard, and he wants to make his own record. Ringo's just Ringo. You know, he's the steady beat.

It is really an ambient experience, this documentary [laughs]. It feels sometimes like hours are going by, and they're just working on one verse of one song over and over again. But at the same time, I mean, what a privilege to watch even the most mundane elements of the collaboration among these total geniuses.

A Martinez, Morning Edition: Yoko Ono is in most of the scenes, sitting right next to John Lennon. How is she portrayed in this?

Ann Powers: Well, there's a famous line that Paul says - and it's in this documentary - where he predicts that in future years people will say that The Beatles broke up because Yoko was sitting on an amp during these sessions. It's absolutely true. She is glued to John's side, but I think this documentary really shows that Yoko Ono did not break up The Beatles — definitively, finally. Let's never talk about it again because not only is she actually a great energetic presence, this kind of quiet, patient presence in the room, but also, you know, the real problem was with George. He was very unhappy. And that's all in this documentary. So let's just never say it again. Let's never say Yoko broke up The Beatles.

A Martinez: So we do notice the tension, then, on screen in this documentary because, I mean, 1969 is kind of a fraught time for this band.

Ann Powers: I have to say, A, you know I love Paul McCartney. I [have been] a Paul girl since I was, like, a child. But he's really overbearing. He has so much energy. He's just, like, writing a million songs, but he just pushes the band to the brink. And he's really mean, especially to George. And there's this whole drama around George, too. You know, they're dismissive of him, of his songs, of his spirituality. And at one point, he actually quits the band and just walks out.

A Martinez: So there's thick tension — how does the band resolve it?

Ann Powers: Well, the most profound way they resolve the tension is just by playing music and particularly blues and Chuck Berry songs, Dylan songs, you know — old, kind of music hall, numbers. And over and over again, at a moment when it probably would've been good to talk things out, instead they play music. That is their love language, and we get to see that over and over again.

A Martinez: All this takes place months before The Beatles eventually do break up, and we know the direction the band is headed while watching this. But I mean, it just sounds like there's still so much joy in this film.

Ann Powers: There is a lot of joy. And oftentimes, it comes out of exactly those moments of tension, and even sadness. Sometimes a real gray cloud descends over the room. There's one point where Paul says, "Look, you know, I want this to be great because I know that we're going to walk out, and this is probably the end." And it's just heartbreaking.

The whole film culminates in this rooftop concert, which we all know about. You know, it's a famous concert on the roof of the Apple building on Savile Row. They play a short set, and they are just locked in. And then the police come in and ask them to turn down the volume. But it reminded me of how much live music, it just makes magic in our lives. I almost got misty watching it. And then later, when they're listening to the playback of the live tracks, everyone in the room is just smiling and hugging, and it's just delightful, you know. This is a gift to us as listeners. And it makes that corny thing that The Beatles once said, "all you need is love," feel real. The music is the love.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.