The Beatles – reimagined

In his seven-hour documentary on the band’s infamous 1969 sessions, Peter Jackson took a sad song and made it better.

The Beatles statue looks out over the River Mersey on Pier Head on April 28, 2020 in Liverpool, United Kingdom [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Nostalgia is the enemy of art since it inevitably tips into sentimentality.

The Beatles understood this. Their art – the hard, enigmatic quest for new sounds to share with each other and the world – was about being in the present, with a grateful, but not stunting, nod to the past.

As such, the sublime cacophony produced by four brilliant musicians – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – evolved and dazzled, always brimming with ingenuity, joy and delight.

That ingenuity, joy and delight – coupled with sharp bouts of friction and prickliness – are on glorious display in director Peter Jackson’s re-imagination of the band’s infamous Get Back sessions throughout January 1969.

Blessed with hours of previously unseen footage of the Beatles at work and play – during what was considered the group’s depressing denouement filled with rancour and exhaustion – Jackson took a sad song and made it better.

But, to be sure, the resulting seven-hour, three-part documentary, which began streaming last week across the universe, is devoid of gooey sentimentality borne of nostalgia.

In a way, Jackson has simply corrected the record by showing the Beatles as they were – silly, serious, patient, impatient, in harmony, and at odds – while transforming the sounds first conjured in their heads into immortal song after song day after day.

Jackson’s opus stands, as well, as an urgent, intimate reminder of just how young John, Paul, George and Ringo were at what was, arguably, the apex of their faculties when they hatched such mesmerising melodies with Mozart-like facility and ease.

There are, of course, quiet moments of wistfulness: Paul softly singing John’s Strawberry Fields Forever for no other reason it seems than to hear the transcendent sound of it once more and George’s plaintive, acoustic version of Isn’t It A Pity drifting over the credits of part one of the documentary, which ends with his abrupt but short departure from the band at a particularly tempestuous time.

Still, these episodes of whimsy pass quickly, replaced by a chronic, attention-deficit-disorder-and-cigarette-fuelled goofy repartee among the “lads” that reminds viewers of the Beatles’ child-like exuberance and defining allergy to pomposity.

The Beatles – bored and restless – dive, helter-skelter, into a Top 40 list of classic rock and roll tunes to try to relieve a dose of the manic, combustible energy they each possessed.

John mugs and mocks his own songs, as well as Paul’s, rechristening I’ve Got A Feeling to I’ve Got A Fever. Paul does the same in eager, ample return while threading his hands, time after time like a nervous tick, through a mane of thick, black hair and picking at an untamed beard.

The effect is that the Beatles sabotage – on gleeful purpose – the profundity of making art and, instead, revel in the silliness as a necessary antidote to the inherent pressures of having to meet or exceed the unparalleled standards they required of themselves.

So, when it is suggested that the Beatles stage their first live performance in a few years at an ancient amphitheatre in Libya, Ringo rejects the plan. He, like the others, wants to stay near the comforts of family and England.

The other, overarching thread that runs through this more fulsome, fraternal archive of the Beatles is the plodding ordinariness of genius.

The Beatles had jobs. Their job was to make music. They got up – usually late – and went to work to make lots of money to pay what, I suspect, were lots of bills. They said “good morning” to each other before sharing tea and toast with marmalade for breakfast.

Then they went to work – often unsure of what they were doing or how well they were doing it – until the sounds they recorded resembled the sounds in their heads.

At first, they worked inside a cavernous film stage set. They hated it. So, they moved to a smaller, ramshackle studio – filled with rivers of cables, empty crates, an anvil and a hodgepodge of debris – to capture sounds on jerry-built equipment, including having to borrow and ferry George’s bulky eight-track recording machine.

Once assembled, the Beatles sat on small wooden stools or the grotty floor in a circle, close enough to talk to one another with eyes that dart here, there and everywhere, looking for some measure of approval or reassurance as they tinkered, again and again, with chords and words.

Their relentless pursuit of the pristine sound they hoped to achieve has an almost pedestrian, workman-like quality about it that belies the permanence of their artistry.

Wonder emerged from these familiar circumstances. That we are now privy to how the Beatles fashioned some of the extraordinary songs that have found a special home in so many ears, hearts and minds is, I think, a privilege and a revelation.

To watch Paul disappear, eyes closed, head and body swaying, into a bassline for John’s I Dig A Pony is a memorable, moving sight. To watch as John summons that unmistakable growl from the back of his throat as he screams Don’t Let Me Down astonishes. To watch as George offers a spare, poignant rendition of I Me Mine confirms his mastery of melody, too. To watch Ringo keep impeccable, intuitive time is to recognise that his thumping beats were the band’s rhythmic spine.

We also see the flashes of frustration and discord that foreshadow the band’s looming and angry rupture months later.

George complains that the Beatles have become a straitjacket, stifling his ability to have his overflowing catalogue of songs heard. Paul bemoans the band’s lack of discipline and direction that their lost manager and father figure – the late Brian Epstein – once provided. The Beatles, Paul says, will “go on forever in [aimless] circles.” John looks, on occasion, distant and spent, more interested in being by, and exploring new artistic paths with, the woman he loves, Yoko. Even Ringo, the genial peacemaker, seems resigned that the Beatles’ magical mystery tour is approaching its end.

That four artists were able to sustain an engineered construct called the Beatles for as many years as they did, given the deprivations, expectations and demands that their immense fame exacted was a remarkable feat of friendship, patience and collaboration.

Yet, all things must indeed pass.

One of the Beatles’ final gifts was a rooftop concert in London’s Saville Row on a grey, blustery late January morning.

The happy idea to perform on that day, in that curious place, came from others. Reluctantly, the Beatles agreed, reasoning that it would amount to a dress rehearsal of sorts for a potential appearance on TV.

One by one, the Beatles ambled onto the rooftop – nervous, cold and a little apprehensive. Soon, they would come together. The worry, fatigue and bickering quickly evaporated as they roared into Paul’s Get Back.

The hypnotic sound that only the Beatles could muster, a consequence of their singular wit, talents and inventiveness began to wash over the lucky Londoners who had gathered below like a soothing sonic tonic.

The Beatles gave in to the sounds they alone could create. They moved and danced with them, laughing and whooping along the suddenly harmonic way. A celebratory mood that, for too long had alluded them, had returned – however briefly.

In that space and time, this was the Beatles as one – fixed permanently in memory. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.