They Shall Not Grow Old was the title Peter Jackson gave to the first documentary he made, and he could have named his latest exactly the same way. Instead it is called Get Back, and while the earlier film restored archive footage of the young British men who fought the first world war, this new one – nearly eight hours long and making its debut in three parts this weekend – does the same for the young British men who conquered the world by more peaceful means; four of them to be precise, known for ever as the Beatles.
Obsessives across the globe have had their anoraks zipped up in readiness for a while, eager to study the differences between the ninth and 13th take of Don’t Let Me Down, but the resonance of these films is not confined to muso aficionados alone. On the contrary, they have something to say to anyone interested in Britain and how it’s changed – and in the universal themes of friendship, creativity, regret, loss and time.
The brightest light shed on Britain comes in the film’s climax: the famous rooftop concert on a cold January lunchtime in 1969. Part of the crew who had been filming the band over the preceding month, as they worked up material for what would become the Let it Be album, went into the streets below to interview Londoners who were hearing what was the first live Beatles performance for nearly three years.
For a 2021 audience, it’s a revelation. The buildings of Savile Row are not all that different, but in every other respect, the past truly is another country. The vox pops show a London that is largely white, English-born and marked by a class divide that is wide and clear. There are men in suits, ties and bowler hats – disapproving of the disruption to business in the area – and cheeky-chappie cabbies giving an approving thumbs up. There are young women sharing their delight in a cockney accent that has all but vanished, and plummy ladies who lunch. What’s missing is the group that would dominate now: everyone in between. Statistically, Britain today is majority middle class; no one would have suggested such a thing then.
It’s a jolt to realise this is the same country: we seem to have so little in common. In fact, one of the few points of connection between this place and that one – besides the Queen – is the Beatles. They listened to them then; we listen to them now. There’s a cheery optimism to the London of 1969, and the Beatles were surely part of that too. Yes, the postwar years had been humbling; the economic and political story was one of decline. But it was possible to cling to a mild form of British exceptionalism, at least in terms of popular culture. Because when it came to pop music, Britain really did lead the world.
And yet, when you watch the Beatles in these films, it’s not the Britain of 1969 that you’re thinking about. That’s chiefly because the four somehow stand outside it, or rather ahead of it. They look so current, so fresh – John wearing trainers, George in baseball boots – they seem like visitors from the future, emissaries from 2021 who have somehow landed in the world of Bedford vans, Charles Hawtrey and the Daily Sketch.
The modernity finds other expressions too. The form is contemporary: all that fly-on-the-wall footage, watching the dynamics of a group close up, suggests that to the long list of innovations credited to the Beatles, perhaps we should add an early form of reality TV. But the content of the conversations brims with modernity too.
There’s an arrogant temptation to assume that it’s the current generation of men, in particular, that has acquired emotional intelligence, that the men of 50 years ago were strangers to empathy or self-awareness. But then you eavesdrop on John Lennon and Paul McCartney reflecting on how they have driven George Harrison to walk out. We’ve already seen it for ourselves in the film, the way the older two treat Harrison as a kid brother, failing to enthuse over songs he has tentatively brought to the group. “It’s a festering wound,” says Lennon, “and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper. And we didn’t give him any bandages.”
They say explicitly that, since the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, they’re missing a father figure. McCartney has stepped into the leadership vacuum but he knows that none of them likes it, including him: “I’m scared of me being the boss,” he says. On the well-worn topic of Yoko Ono’s constant presence, glued to Lennon as the band plays, McCartney is understanding rather than irritated. “They just want to be near each other,” he says, adding that it needn’t be “an obstacle, as long as we’re not trying to surmount it”.
Indeed, Get Back serves in part as a study in male friendship. What you see on screen between John and Paul, especially when they play, is a chemistry that crackles as fiercely as any sexual or romantic attraction. The connection between the two is so intimate, the shared glances full of such understanding, that when they play Two of Us, you realise that the love that song celebrates is theirs – even if they didn’t know it.
Which brings us to the music. There can be few truer expositions of the creative process than these films. Yes, it can be long and tedious and repetitive, going over the same ground again and again. Yes, it’s as much about hard work as innate talent – and the Beatles’ work ethic, returning to the studio to make a new record a matter of weeks after they had finished the “White Album”, is striking. But we also witness the miracle of the act of creation. Before your very eyes, McCartney’s random strums turn into Get Back: it’s like watching a chick hatch from a shell.
All of this has great poignance, because we know what they don’t: that the concert on the roof will be their last performance together and that, a little over a decade later, John Lennon will be dead. Part of you is filled with regret: you want to urge the four of them to find a way to keep going, if only for a little longer; you pine for all the songs that went unwritten and unsung.
And the larger part of you marvels at what these four people in their 20s did in little over six years: creating music that is truly timeless, in the sense not only that it will live on, but that much of it seems to exist outside time altogether. The finest Beatles melodies sound as if they are part of nature, as if they always existed and were only waiting to be picked up.
This is why Jackson could once again have found his title in that same poem of war. Because even without his masterful digital effects, the Beatles will always be those four young men bursting with improbable talent. Age shall not weary them.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
This content was originally published here.