Tuesday, November 23, 2021

film review: The Beatles: Get Back (sneak preview)


Directed by Peter Jackson

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

Delayed by the Covid pandemic for 18 months, and hidden by the band itself for decades since its 1970 theatrical release, the very-long-awaited Let It Be film finally sees the light of day this American Thanksgiving weekend. However, tonight in Toronto, a 100-minute sneak preview of the new eight-hour, three-part docuseries that will stream exclusively on Disney+ on November 25-27 was shown at the TIFF Lightbox cinema #1, one of the classiest movie houses in the city.

This is, in fact, not the 1970 film directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, but re-imagined by Peter Jackson. His reinterpretation is based on 60 hours of 16mm film footage and 150 hours of audio tape that's been restored and enhanced into eight hours. The preview revealed 100 minutes.

It starts with Jackson cradling a Hofner bass and telling the camera how he felt unsure at first about tackling this massive project. Let It Be, he says in so many words, is The Beatles' epitaph, long known as a depressing diary of the band's final days. However, he changed his mind when he began watching the original footage which he discovered dispelled this myth. We see him walk through an underground labyrinth and into a vault containing rolls of the original film canisters, which would make any Beatles' freak drool.

Jackson then explains how technology plays a big role in his film. He demonstrates on the big screen how machine learning or artificial intelligence teased apart a mono track into multi-track audio. In other words, he shows us the Beatles jamming with all the instruments and vocals lumped into a single, sludgy mono track, then he plays only the lead guitar in isolation, then Paul's bass by itself, then Ringo's drums alone, then the vocals. If you've never heard this, it is incredible.

Another breathtaking moment happens when the original grainy, dirty 4x3 film bursts into gorgeous, widescreen imagery. The colours explode and the screen bursts with stunning visual detail. The Beatles come alive before our eyes.

Jackson then introduces a montage, running roughly five minutes culled from the eight-hour series. The tone is overwhelmingly cheerful as the Beatles joke and jam, clearly challenging the long-held epitaph myth about Get Back/Let It Be that Paul McCartney himself has described as "the most miserable sessions on Earth." (More on this later.) The montage feels like a long promo, but at least we see and hear the digitally scrubbed footage on the big screen--and it is stunning.

Jackson then introduces most or all of the filmed session of January 27, 1969 that took place in the basement of the Apple office at 3 Saville Row. What Jackson doesn't mention (perhaps the finished film does) is that the Beatles were miserable filming in the grim Twickenham Film Studios earlier that month, and were delighted to locate to the cosy Apple basement where a studio was hastily constructed. Also enlivening the mood was the presence of an old friend from the Beatles' Hamburg days, keyboardist Billy Preston whom George invited. The jovial Preston lifted everyone's mood which is clearly seen in this footage. This section runs roughly half an hour.

What follows is the jewel in the crown of the original Let It Be and likely Jackson's cut: the rooftop concert. I don't need to introduce. All I will do is applaud Jackson for employing split-screen footage to capture the reaction of the startled/delighted/grumpy crowd in the streets below, the various Beatles onstage having a great time performing live for the first time in three years, and the police who eventually end the show. Jackson does a fantastic job intercutting the footage shot on the street, in the Apple lobby (through a hidden camera), from a rooftop across Apple, and from various angles on the rooftop to create a thrilling sequence. This sequence puts you on the rooftop (at least on the big screen). The audio, remixed by Giles Martin (who did a superb job with the Beatles' box sets starting with Sgt. Pepper) leaps out of the screen. The bass and drums are muscular. The Beatles kick ass on the rooftop.

All in all, the 100-minute preview was a pleasure to watch and hear on the big screen. However, I wonder how Jackson will handle the Twickenham sessions where the Beatles looked glum, John was strung out on smack, George rows with Paul, and apathy gripped the band as Paul sadly tried to rouse his bandmates into another take of Two of Us. 

Disney+ subscribers will know soon enough, starting Thursday when the streaming service premieres part one of the docuseries; Friday will unveil part two, then part three, including the rooftop concert, will be shown Saturday. Remember: this is one part per day. After that, you got to pay extra to see it. It's rumoured that the Blu-ray/DVD set will come out in the new year.

Beatles' fans will be thankful this year, but I will be eager to see if Jackson whitewashes the "most miserable sessions on Earth" or reveals fresh truths of the most controversial, but hidden, chapter of the Beatles' legend.

The Beatles: Get Back docuseries streams exclusively on Disney+ starting November 25, 2021.

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