Formats Unpacked: The Beatles. Get Back
How time is used as a format trick to give a story focus
A lot has already been written about The Beatles: Get Back since its release a couple of weeks ago. I was a little reluctant to go near it, but much of the commentary is about the band, their creative process and the new perspectives we get about their personal and professional relationships. The structure that all of the above wraps around is what we’re really interested in at Storythings.
So, here’s my unpacking…
What’s it called
The Beatles: Get Back (docuseries)
What’s the Format?
Originally conceived as a feature film, The Beatles: Get Back consists of three episodes, with runtimes between two and three hours each, resulting in a total of nearly eight hours of material. Using only existing footage, and without a narrator or talking heads, Get Back tells the story of the weeks leading up to the band’s famous concert on the roof, which was captured for the 1969 movie and subsequent album Let It Be. It’s a documentary series about a documentary.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
If you think Get Back is only for the hardest of hardcore Beatles fans, you’re wrong. I’m not even a fan of the band, never mind hardcore. But as a way of keeping the casual observer locked into the story, this extraordinary series uses a format plot that you don’t often see in music documentaries. Having now seen it used in this context it’s a format trick I’d like to see more of. The magic that makes this docuseries work for me is a ticking clock. Without the use of talking heads or a narrator, director Peter Jackson manages to wrap a vast collection of history-defining narrative threads around a deadline that has to be hit.
The series starts with The Beatles arriving at Twickenham Studios on January 2nd, 1969. They haven’t performed in front of a live audience for over two years. The plan is to write a full album’s worth of songs, rehearse them, then record them live, without overdubs or studio tricks, in front of a studio audience, and broadcast it on TV. They have to do all this by January 18th.
As mentioned, I’m not a fan of The Beatles, but I am a lover of music docs. I watch a lot and the majority follow one of a small handful of tried and tested formats. A career celebration. The rise and fall. The making of the classic album. The breakup. The reunion. The live show. You’ve seen them all, right? The sign of a well-worn format is how well it can be parodied and it’s safe to say music has provided some of the best inspiration for mockumentaries since the birth of rock and roll.
Writer Jeff Hughes recently said that great documentaries often fall into two categories: content and form. “The great content docs are grounded in what is being presented on screen; the great form docs in how it’s presented.” The content docs captivate you with information - for example Dig!, Anvil and Searching For Sugarman. They have driving narratives and solid structures that grip you. Form docs, such as the recent Velvet Underground movie, are a lot trickier. The form they take is as interesting as the story they tell. They change the way we look at the world by changing how it is framed.
So which category does Get Back belong to? Is it a content doc or a form doc? The ticking clock, as well as three clearly defined acts, provide a simple narrative and structure to complement the more complex cinema verite approach. The approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive. This is a form doc, but the content is incredible. It is The Beatles, after all.
One of the most gripping exchanges in Get Back happens between George and Paul whilst trying to write Two Of Us. Paul gets frustrated because it’s just not coming together, so he stops and suggests they simplify their approach. George just wants to keep playing, jamming away, hoping they will eventually come up with something. An approach Paul believes is complicating things. “See, if we can get it simpler and then complicate it where it needs complications.”
I love the second part. Particularly the moment Billy Preston enters the fray and not only transforms the music but completely changes the vibe in the room. There’s a lot going on. So many narratives. As a viewer who knows how this story ends, and how all the stories contained within will play out over the next 52 years, there’s a lot of subtext to pull at. But what shines through is the inescapable joy of creativity clicking. We’re seeing lightning caught in a bottle. This is the magic of the creative process.
D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back followed Bob Dylan on his 1965 UK tour. The approach was groundbreaking and honest, revealing both the good and bad side of the artist at that period of his career.
I’m always on the lookout for news music docs so tell me about your favourite ones in the comments below. And, as ever, if you’d like to unpack a format just reply to this email.
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See you all next week,
Thanks for this Hugh - it's spurred me on to give this another go; I started watching the first episode, but totally tuned out. Will try again...
As for good music docs, I heartily recommend Mistaken For Strangers about The National. It's superb.
This was a lot of fun to read. Am absolutely loving the Get Back. One thing that really works for me in regard to the format is they way that they provide light touch context and archive explainers to some of the things being discussed. So it's nearly completely ob doc but with some fascinating context. And it's fascinating for me to know that everyone in that studio is a person of note by very virtue of the fact that they were present at these sessions, if that makes sense. One of my favourite music docs is Amy which is of course largely story driven but the music sequences are also really memorable.