“I want to watch that again,” my wife said, surprising me. We had just sat through the three-part, seven-hour-and-48-minute “The Beatles: Get Back,” a Disney+ documentary on the January 1969 recording sessions that led to the group’s last album. We see the Fab Four trying to knock together new songs while planning a concert to give the TV special that they think they’re filming a big finish.
But where should they perform? On a ship? At some ancient amphitheater in North Africa?
Amazing that a show can be that long and slow-moving — almost nothing happens in the way of dramatic development; George Harrison gets in a snit; there’s that concert to plan — yet also so compelling. My wife and I hurried to the TV after dinner to watch the second and third episodes, as if it were some kind of cliffhanger.
As the musical glacier formed before us, flake by flake, one question kept tugging my sleeve: What does Terri Hemmert think of this?
You know Aunt Terri, the beloved radio disc jockey whose soothing voice has been a fixture on WXRT-FM (93.1) for almost half a century. For nearly two decades, Hemmert has hosted Breakfast with the Beatles on Sunday mornings and been dubbed “Chicago’s #1 Beatles Fan.”
I tracked Hemmert down in her car. To my surprise, she hasn’t finished watching “Get Back.” Too busy.
“I’ve seen all but the last two hours,” she said. “I’m going to see the last part Saturday. I don’t even have a TV.”
Is this not a big deal for you?
“I’ve been waiting for it,” she said. “Anticipating it for a long time.”
And the verdict is?
“It’s a gold mine,” she said. “Really marvelous, it’s really great. Some of these things were available as bootlegs and were barely listenable. [Beatles producer] George Martin’s son did a marvelous job of taking the tapes and cleaning them up.”
That is one of the most appealing aspects of the documentary. It isn’t some faded Kodachrome footage that’s been decaying in a barn for 50 years and someone dug up. It’s so crisp, you feel like you’re in the room, on a stool next to Yoko Ono, drinking tea.
There are also no talking heads in the the series, no experts weighing in, explaining What It All Means, beyond a few expository cards at the opening and later explaining key events off camera.
What stood out for me was how Paul McCartney was the backbone and creative force of the Beatles. Up to now, I’d always been a John Lennon fan. “Yer Blues” instead of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Paul was the cute one; John the raw, real one. But in “Get Back” Lennon is mostly checked out, almost comic relief, waltzing with Yoko.
“He was moving on in his head, doing more avant-garde stuff,” Hemmert said, focusing on the moments when Lennon and McCartney collaborated. “When they got together, they really loved each other. The joy.”
Which drives the documentary.
“It was joyful,” she said. “It was real. The outtakes, the rehearsal. The whole thing is about how a song evolves. What creatives decisions they make. To me, it’s fascinating stuff.
“Get Back” is a reminder of how a particular story sometimes has to wait for the right medium to tell it. Few were going to sit for eight hours in a theater, and watch the Beatles practice. It’s also the perfect moment. Just as ESPN’s “The Last Dance” Bulls documentary was embraced by a world where sports had suddenly stopped, so it’s oddly appealing to folks who haven’t sat in the same office with their coworkers for a year to watch four men show up to do their jobs every day. Plus Billy Preston getting everybody unstuck, a reminder of the importance of new blood to any effort. The music is almost incidental.
OK, I’m kidding. Paul’s cute and John’s angry and Ringo’s stylish and George is intense. But underneath everything is the music.
“It’s always fresh,” Hemmert said. “I’m in awe of that. That’s why there are so many young fans. I’ve talked at length with Paul about this. He looks out at the audience, and half weren’t even born when he was in the Beatles. I go back and watch ‘Hard Day’s Night’ and it doesn’t look dated, like something from the ’90s. They were so talented and so real. They followed their own spirit and talents. And they were funny. Their humor is what keeps them fresh.”