Intimately capturing The Beatles behind the scenes, Peter Jackson’s new three-part project is the documentary fans have been waiting 50 years for. It’s titled The Beatles: Get Back, a nod to the classic track from the band’s final album Let It Be. Although “The Long and Winding Road” might have been more apt. Four years in the making, culled from 56 hours of unseen video footage and 150 hours of audio, there has never been a music doc like it.
The so-called ‘Get Back Sessions’, recorded at Twickenham Studios in January 1969, came from a hugely ambitious notion. In just over two weeks, The Beatles planned to write 14 new songs for the band’s first live concert in over two years. Some would make it onto the ’69 album Abbey Road; the bulk formed Let It Be. Behind the camera was director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, recording fly-on-the-wall footage of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison riffing and rehearsing.
“The most remarkable thing about this film that I’ve made isn’t what I’ve done,” says Jackson, modestly. “It’s actually the fact that Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot this footage 52 years ago. And a vast majority of it has been in a vault for 52 years.”
The Oscar-winning director of Lord of the Rings, together with his regular editor Jabez Olssen, had the privilege of sifting through material every Beatles fans would kill to see. “You feel a little bit like archaeologists, discovering buried treasure,” says Olssen.
True enough. The chance to see The Beatles’ creative juices flowing is utterly unique. “The mundanity of it all is the most appealing aspect,” says the film’s music supervisor Giles Martin. “They’re having cups of tea or drinking a glass of wine and eating Marmite sandwiches, and they’ll launch into seminal classic.”
Martin’s father, the band’s famed producer George Martin, appears in the film alongside other key Beatles personnel, including their assistant Mal Evans and recording engineer Glyn Johns.
Amid the trays of sarnies and cuppas, watching McCartney conjure up “Get Back” before your very eyes or Harrison struggle to find the line “attracts me like no other lover” whilst writing “Something”, brilliantly spotlights their musical genius in action.
“It’s normal people doing extraordinary things,” adds Martin. “I think the whole idea of X Factor goes out the window… that anyone can do it. I think this proves that not everyone can.”
Running at more than seven hours, the film ticks off the days as the band heads towards the concert and the pressure intensifies. “It’s not just a band rehearsing,” says Olssen. “It’s a group of people interacting and talking, and there’s a whole narrative story that we get to follow.
“Where are they going to play? Is it going to be a concert? Are they going to travel overseas? And these things are debated. You can see some people have certain agendas, and others don’t want to go. And it’s fascinating to watch all this unfold.”
Premiering over three nights on Disney +, Jackson’s film also goes some way to reframing this period of The Beatles’ career. The ‘Get Back’ sessions and Lindsay-Hogg’s resulting 1970 documentary Let It Be, a film that’s long been out of circulation, are traditionally associated with the break-up of the band, which came in April 1970.
“Let It Be is not a bad film,” says Jackson. “I’ve seen it and it doesn’t deserve the miserable reputation that is has… I think Michael’s movie has been tangled up in the whole sort of mythology of the misery of the ‘Get Back’ sessions.”
As Jackson’s film shows, it’s an unfounded reputation with the band largely in high spirits, although not everyone felt this way. “My dad had very mixed emotions about Let It Be,” says Martin, “because it was a project where he was essentially fired by The Beatles because John Lennon especially said: ‘We don’t want any of your production shit on this album.’ I’ve learned to understand that from working on it, because they were doing a live album, a live record. They weren’t doing a recording.”
Lindsay-Hogg also suffered in the cutting room, with band members all coming in at different times, giving him contradictory notes. Jackson got none of that (although it undoubtedly helped that the New Zealand filmmaker was halfway round the world, cutting the film during the pandemic).
“When they got to see the finished thing, I was expecting notes,” he says. “It wouldn’t have surprised me, and it wouldn’t have made me angry. And I didn’t get a single note. I was surprised.” The way Jackson sees it, “There’s no concern about their image anymore.”
His work has received the stamp of approval from the remaining Beatles. Speaking to Martin the day after a 100-minute cut-down version was shown in a glitzy London premiere, he tells me how delighted McCartney is. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so enthusiastic about a Beatles project.”
Martin, who was instrumental in remastering the audio for the film and the recent Let It Be album rerelease, adds: “There’s an amazing energy and spirit to it…and I think [McCartney] being a man of 79 now, seeing that must be amazing for him.”
Whether McCartney recalls the chaos of the sessions is intriguing. “The last time that they performed live… Brian Epstein was there organising everything, organising their hotel rooms, their travel,” notes Jackson.
The Beatles manager died unexpectedly in 1967, and the loss is telling on both a personal and professional level. “So they go into this without the usual support team. Even to this day, looking at the footage, I don’t know who was supposed to be organising anything for them. It does seem a little bit disorganised.”
Still, out of this grows utter brilliance. The pièce de resistance of The Beatles: Get Back is its culmination as The Beatles debut their songs in public on 30 January, 1969, the final time the band ever performed live. After much back-and-forth about where to play – originally a concert broadcast was planned, later scrapped – the Fab Four take to the rooftop of Apple Corps HQ at 3 Savile Row for an unauthorised 42-minute gig.
“I think it’s the best footage of the Beatles playing in concert that we now have available to us,” says Olssen. “They’re all buzzing [from it]and they’re all so thrilled with how it went. They’re on top of the world.”
It’s hard to disagree, with the gig captured by multiple cameras, both on the roof and on the street to catch bystanders’ gobsmacked reactions. There was even a camera hidden in the Apple Corps foyer behind some fake walls and one-way glass, capturing the staff giving the police the run-around.
“I think some of these cops should get a retrospective Best Newcomer Comedy Award for 1969. Because it really is very funny,” says Olssen.
“Eventually they force their way up onto the roof and make them switch the amplifiers off. But the Beatles switch them back on and keep playing.”
For Jackson, the real drama comes not on stage but off it. “What better way to learn about people’s characters and personalities than to see how they cope with problems,” he says.
“If anything, I came away respecting them more…I think of The Beatles very differently now. I don’t think of the mop tops. I don’t think of [them]on a podium anymore. I think of them as people now, which I’m grateful for. I’m grateful that this project’s given me the opportunity to think of them as human beings.”
‘The Beatles: Get Back’ is on Disney+ 25 to 27 November
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