Maybe you watched “Yellow Submarine” as a kid and occasionally find yourself humming the opening riff of “Day Tripper.” Perhaps your Beatles love runs deeper, to searches for the alternative “Yesterday and Today” cover or debates over mono vs. stereo pressings. But no matter who you are, Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” is no small commitment.
At 468 minutes, the three-part series on Disney Plus keeps us immersed by wisely refusing to interrupt the action with one of the conventions of the rock doc, namely talking head interviews. Instead, Jackson offers quick title cards when a character appears and enough Easter eggs to fill an oil tanker. So it’s only natural you might have a few questions as you dig into the docuseries.
What’s all the fuss about John Lennon setting up a meeting with Allen Klein? Why, in an early version of the song “Get Back,” does Paul McCartney slam somebody named Enoch Powell? And who the heck is this Jimmie Nicol that the boys keep threatening to bring in to replace Ringo Starr? As you work your way through “Get Back,” here’s a primer to the stream of characters not named John, Paul, George and Ringo who play a key role in the footage of 21 days in January 1969, a creative and tumultuous period that led to “Let It Be,” the final album released by the band.
Early in “Get Back,” George Harrison notes that “The Beatles have been in the doldrums for at least a year. Ever since Mr. Epstein passed away.” That was 17 months earlier, in August of 1967. Epstein was the band’s manager, taking them from leather jackets at the Cavern Club in Liverpool to matching Nehrus at Shea Stadium. He got them their record deal and set up the Fab Four merchandising machine. But Epstein’s struggles with drugs and his closeted existence led him to grow suicidal. His death, at the age of 32, resulted from an accidental overdose of sedatives. It left the Beatles with a power vacuum.
He shows up early in the first episode, the baby-faced director lighting a cigar as he plots his next shot. The film he released in 1970, “Let It Be,” captures the same moment in time as “Get Back” but, at just 80 minutes, is sluggish, grim and strikingly boring. (It has also never been officially released on DVD and is unavailable for streaming.) But Lindsay-Hogg, now 81, does deserve credit for properly covering all angles of the moment, the more than 60 hours of footage handed over to Jackson to create his documentary series. Lindsay-Hogg, wasn’t content to let the sessions roll on endlessly. We watch him pushing and nudging the Beatles to try new things — play on a ship! how about at an orphanage! — and he even hides a microphone in a flowerpot so we can spy on a conversation between Lennon and McCartney.
No figure in popular culture may have been as unfairly villainized. Because she wasn’t just someone who pulled Lennon away from the gang, she was a mysterious figure and artist in her own right. In the original “Let It Be,” Ono is a silent, almost joyless presence, sitting next to Lennon as they rehearse and record. But in “Get Back,” Ono creates far less tension than Harrison. In fact, Ono and Lennon’s relationship provides some levity, as they waltz around the studio and when, during downtime, McCartney hops on the drums to accompany her on an experimental scream jam. Even back then, as he deals with Harrison’s anger, McCartney recognizes the absurdity of how Ono is viewed, particularly when she claims a spot right next to Lennon at the sessions. “It’s going to be such an incredible, comical thing in 50 years’ time,” he says. “They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.”
Lumbering and towering, he is the gentle giant in thick glasses. Evans was a onetime club bouncer who became the everyman in the Beatles camp. Here, he takes lunch orders, scribbles down lyrics as they’re spoken out loud — even suggesting a word change on “The Long and Winding Road” — and picks up a hammer to whack an anvil during a rehearsal of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” After the Beatles dissolve, Evans will work in production, even overseeing a top-10 hit (“No Matter What”) for Badfinger. But he drank and used Valium. One day in 1976, Evans started waving around an air rifle and a friend called the police. They responded and ended up shooting Evans, who died at the age of 40.
The producer was just 26 when McCartney called and asked if he would help the Beatles make their 12th studio album, “Let It Be.” Johns brought a rock star’s wardrobe — leather coat, white fur, enormous shades — and the confidence of someone who would go on to produce the Who, the Eagles and Eric Clapton. But ultimately, Johns barely got credit for his work with the Beatles; he and longtime Beatles producer George Martin are merely listed in the “thanks” section of “Let It Be.” Phil Spector gets production credit after the Beatles rejected the Johns cut, a glorious mess that reflected the sessions, and handed it to the Wall of Sound creator to gussy up with strings and delay. It’s only now, as part of the new “Let It Be” super deluxe box set — featuring an updated mix from Giles (son of George) Martin and Sam Okell — that we are getting a chance to hear the rawer version that Johns cut.
He enters the room with a beaming smile. He is here just to say hi to the boys, whom he met years earlier in Germany while touring with Little Richard. Except somehow they get him to sit down at the keyboard and from there, he doesn’t leave. Preston seems thrilled to be the band’s de facto fifth member, lending an essential element on the Fender Rhodes to “Get Back,” Let It Be” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” After the Beatles, Preston will score multiple solo hits and, in 1975, serve as the first musical guest on a new comedy show on NBC, “Saturday Night Live.” But he also becomes a drug addict and struggles with his sexuality. (He’s gay, which creates conflict with his strong feelings about religion.) Eventually, Preston is charged with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy (for which he is acquitted) and insurance fraud (for which he serves 10 months in jail). In 2005, at just 59, he dies of complications from kidney failure.
Linda Eastman (later McCartney)
The American photographer has been married before, but this thing with Paul is going to work out. “The Lovely Linda” will be McCartney’s 45-second opening track of his solo debut, recorded that December and released in 1970. Paul and Linda will be one of rock’s great love stories, parents of four and married until her death from breast cancer in 1998 at just 56. Many of the photographs in the new hardcover book that’s accompanying “Get Back” were taken by Linda.
Ever wonder how Paul came up with that perfect reference to Tucson, Arizona, as he tells the story of JoJo in “Get Back?” One clue may be found in the delightful little 6-year-old girl who appears in the studio during the “Let It Be” sessions, lying on the floor, climbing on Paul, smacking Ringo’s drum when he’s gazing elsewhere. Linda’s daughter from her previous marriage, the girl was later adopted by Paul when he married Eastman. And where was Heather born? That would be Tucson.
Always dapper, always in control, Martin, who died in 2016 at age 90, went from making comedy records with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers in the 1950s to signing up the Beatles in 1962. He worked with them until their breakup and though he got virtually no credit on “Let It Be” — again, just a thanks — Jackson’s film shows he clearly should have been credited. It is Martin’s son, Giles, who has taken over the task of mastering and remixing the glorious Beatles boxes that have been released in recent years on a series of box sets.
At nearly eight hours, “Get Back” is built for the Beatles obsessive. And that is probably the only segment of the fan base that will get the joke, early on, when Starr resists the idea of traveling to Libya, of all places, to put on a single concert. “Jimmie Nicol may go abroad,” McCartney says with a laugh. Who was Nicol? In 1964, when Starr was hospitalized with tonsillitis, Nicol was recruited to play eight shows with the band. “Hurry up and get well Ringo,” McCartney wrote Starr in a telegram at the time. “Jimmy is wearing out all your suits.”
The legendary guitarist had already guested on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” playing the solo on Harrison’s great contribution to “The White Album.” They are close friends, but Clapton’s gunslinging reputation — and Harrison’s insecurity — define their oddball dynamic. When he’s struggling during rehearsals, Harrison openly talks about how Clapton would be better for this solo. And when he quits the Beatles for several days, Lennon declares, “if he doesn’t come back by Tuesday, we get Clapton.”
Here’s an interesting idea: Imagine if Clapton had joined the Beatles and was sitting in the circle when McCartney, on an early version of “Get Back,” slides into verses meant to protest Powell, the leader of England’s anti-immigration movement. “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs,” McCartney sings with sarcasm, and then calls Powell “dirty.” Now flash forward to 1976, when Clapton, in a racist rant from the stage, praised Powell and chanted “Keep Britain White!”
“Who’s that little old man,” Lennon asks early in rehearsals when he notices Das sitting off to the side of the room as the Beatles begin rehearsals. He’s not old. He’s one of Harrison’s robed, Hare Krishna friends. In 1971, Harrison will help produce an album of Hindu devotional songs that includes Das.
In “Get Back,” we see the moment when some of the most famous Beatles songs spring to life. We also watch a band falling apart. And that’s not necessarily when Harrison walks out. Far more telling is the arrival of Allen Klein, whom we do not see but who is first invoked by Lennon after he agrees to meet with the management mogul. Klein is already managing the Rolling Stones. “I just think he’s fantastic,” Lennon tells Harrison during a rehearsal. “Because he knows everything about everything.” Eventually, Lennon organizes a meeting with Klein and he, Starr and Harrison outvote McCartney, who does not want Klein to manage the group. This will eventually be part of why the Beatles break up.
Russell was already the official photographer for the Rolling Stones when he was invited to the Beatles’ sessions. His shots would make the album cover of “Let It Be.” He would shoot the cover of the Who’s “Who’s Next?” and the Rolling Stones’ “Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out” and his portrait of Jerry Lee Lewis is particularly stunning. Russell, who remained with the Stones until 1972, would be at Altamont in 1969 to witness the tragedy and chaos at the free festival where four people died.
Pattie Boyd (Harrison)
She is seen only briefly, far less present than Starr’s wife, Maureen, or future Beatle wives Ono and Eastman. But Boyd would be at the center of the most famous love triangle in rock history. Clapton, Harrison’s close friend, would fixate on her, sending her love letters and proposing she leave Harrison for him. Clapton would also write “Layla” about her. She would eventually leave Harrison and marry Clapton, whom she divorced in 1989.