- 14 Dec 21
Does The Beatles: Get Back Disney documentary series finally reclaim the Let It Be movie as being worthy of The Beatles’ name? With the help of director Peter Jackson himself, Pat Carty examines the evidence.
Though it’s not quite as horrendous as history recalls, Let It Be, The Beatles 1970 documentary film, is short on laughs and a bit of a downer as the closing chapter – although this is a story that will never really end – of the greatest musical adventure of them all. Admittedly, I’m basing this summation on a bootleg DVD that I saw years ago, because Apple have long buried it. The story goes that the organisation had a go at putting together a release to coincide with McCartney’s de-Spectorising Let It Be… Naked in 2003, but thought better of it, fearing a tarnishing of the brand.
As each year passes though, anything even remotely related to The Beatles becomes more precious and valuable, and I dare say if footage of the fab four drowning puppies was discovered tomorrow, the temptation would be there to bung it out as a special edition. The last five years or so have been a glorious time for fab fans, with anniversary re-jigs and the vaults being opened like never before, so the smart money was always on the red-headed stepchild getting a make-over when the time came.
The good news arrived with the announcement in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of their famous rooftop concert, that none other than Lord Of The Ring Peter Jackson – never mind all that orcs and wizards messing, here’s a real job – had been tasked with sifting through and restoring the mountain of footage that had been originally shot. The initial plan was to release a movie, distributed by the good people at Disney, called The Beatles: Get Back, but COVID put the kibosh on that. However, that may have been a blessing in disguise, as Jackson’s archive dive has now morphed into a three-part Disney Plus TV extravaganza, streaming on a compatible device as you read this.
Who better then than Jackson himself to fill us in on the long and winding road that got us from there to here? On November 15, the great and the good of the world’s media - and Hot Press - were invited to a virtual press conference with the esteemed director. In the days leading up to it, a brief window of access was also granted to the finished product itself. It is, as expected, a revelation, a world away from that grubby bootleg, and something that Beatles fans will treasure and pore over from now until forever.
I watched it in its entirety over the course of one long evening and neither my attention nor my fascination flagged for a second. It begins with a potted history of the band before landing at the promo clip shot for ‘Hey Jude’, shot by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had already worked with the band on ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’, at Twickenham Film Studios on September 4, 1968. This clip, filmed with an audience helping out on the na, na, na ending, was one of the inspirations behind the whole Let It Be idea. The plan, which still seems crazy, was to film the band working up new material for two weeks, which they would then perform on a live TV show.
Everybody Had A Hard Year
“Criticising The Beatles is not in my DNA, but if I had a criticism, looking at the footage and everything, it does strike me being very strange how little organisation seems to be behind it,” reckons Jackson. “Part of the story of Get Back is that original goal to do this live TV show, but the last time they had performed live, Brian Epstein [The Beatles’ manager who passed away in 1967] was there organising everything. And if they were going into the studio to do an album, they would usually have George Martin in Abbey Road organising the recording session.
“With this project they’re rehearsing, so they’re not in a recording studio, they’re in Twickenham film studios because of The Magic Christian [1969 movie starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr], which is being produced by Denis O’Dell, who’s also producing Let It Be. He’s got the studio booked out so he effectively offered them a studio for free, and they also thought Twickenham might be the location of this concert. But they sort of go into this without the usual support team and it does seem a little bit disorganised.”
Jackson has performed minor miracles restoring the footage, as he elaborates: “We’ve done this First World War movie called They Shall Not Grow Old, where we restored one-hundred year old footage, so the 16-millimeter footage from 1969 was not as difficult to process as that, but it did have its issues. 16-millimeter film in 1969 wasn’t particularly good, it was very grainy.” The Beatles no longer seem swaddled in murk as they rehearse in Twickenham, as they did in Let It Be, but the room still looks cold and far from conducive to creativity.
“This isn’t an acoustically good place,” George comments, early in episode one. Despite that, and despite the warning that this footage contains people actually smoking(!), what strikes you first is that this is The Beatles, still looking impossibly young, even though they’re near the end, and – in McCartney’s case at least – ridiculously handsome. They - John and Paul especially – are still very much in love with each other. To get things going, they run through everything, from early songwriting efforts like ‘Thinking Of Linking’, to the theme from The Third Man before Harrison, ominously, gets a serious electric shock off his microphone.
Despite promising attempts at future solo material like John’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’ and George’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ – which again prompt the question, as they did when they turned up on the Let It Be: 50th Anniversary Edition released in October, why didn’t they work this stuff up? – things start to go seriously wrong, especially between McCartney and Harrison, who describes what they’re doing as the “same old shit”. George famously tells Paul, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all.”
“Fifty years later,” explains Jackson, “we have Michael Lindsay-Hogg almost as a character in the film, and one of the storylines is this director trying to herd cats and, against all odds, get this footage shot. My mind is blown at the fact that this actually exists. He was determined to capture as much candid footage as he could, but there’s this on-going battle between him and The Beatles, because they are aware that he’s doing this, so he employs all sorts of techniques. He would set up the shot, press the button on the camera, and then have the cameraman walk away as if they’re going for a cup of tea, but the camera would have a 10-minute roll of film in it just quietly rolling.
“He used to put tape over the red lights and hide microphones everywhere. So when they don’t know they’re being filmed or recorded, you are getting a 100 percent pure look at the real guys, which doesn’t really exist on film anywhere else.
“They set out to do a very ambitious project and it begins to derail. What better way to learn about people’s characters and personalities than to see how they cope with problems? The moment when George walks out, they’ve got a huge problem.”
Everybody Put Their Foot Down
The incident Jackson is referring to took place on January 10, 1969. Harrison had had enough and told the others as they ate lunch, though it wasn’t recorded, “see you ‘round the clubs”. Episode one ends with the other three coming back to the studio and playing hard rock versions of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ while Yoko Ono – as omnipresent as the history books told us – screams into the microphone. John may say, flippantly, that they’ll get Clapton in if George doesn’t return, but there’s no hiding the sadness on their faces. We all know Harrison returns, but you can’t help staring at this footage open-mouthed. You may even have a cushion clutched to your chest.
Things look bleak on the following Monday morning, when only Ringo and Paul turn up for work. Paul offers his opinion on John & Yoko’s joined-at-the-hipness – “it’s his decision, it’s none of our business” - but the real revelation is picked up by a hidden mic in a cafeteria flowerpot, when John dresses down Paul about rejecting ideas and they discuss their treatment of Harrison. Eventually the decision is made, after a meeting with George, to abandon the TV special and move to the Apple building to record an album, and then things start to take off.
“We see they’re just four guys,” says Jackson. “Four separate human beings who have their own opinions and deal with things in different ways. If anything, I came away respecting them even more. When you pull the veil away and see the unvarnished truth, you usually prepare yourself to be disappointed in some way, but I didn’t find that. The film is so extensive, it gives you a pretty good sense of who they are, and I came away thinking they’re actually pretty decent, sensible guys.”
Everybody Pulled Their Socks Up
That’s one side of it, but there are some unbelievable moments of joy in the series too. ‘Get Back’ seems to come to McCartney out of nowhere. One minute he’s noodling around on the bass in front of George and Ringo, who look like they’re about to fall asleep, the next minute, through concentration and talent, he has something.
“I was fascinated to learn about the songwriting process through The Beatles’ eyes,” says Jackson with the grin of a confirmed fan. We also get to see Lennon scribbling down McCartney’s lyrics as he makes suggestions; we witness the likes of ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Dig A Pony’ being knocked into shape; Harrison showing the band ‘Something’ while thankfully ignoring Lennon’s lyrical suggestion of “Cauliflower”; McCartney singing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ at the piano; and many, many more jaw-dropping flashes of history. Imagine being present as Michelangelo applied the undercoat on the Sistine Chapel roof or chipped the first bit of marble off David’s shoulder. It’s a bit like that.
And then Billy Preston joins the band. He innocently visits the studio to see his friend George, is instructed to sit in, and Lennon says, “You’re in the group.” It happens as simply as that and he, as much as anyone else, saves the project, because you can see the band perk up around him. When he’s forced to leave for a day due to a prior engagement, their attentions and enthusiasm wane.
Everybody Had A Good Time
A compromise is eventually decided on, so that the long-suffering director might have a suitable ending. The Beatles perform on the Saville Row roof of the Apple headquarters on January 30, 1969 and if this was all Jackson, Apple and Disney released into the world, it would still be the greatest thing ever.
Lindsay-Hogg set up five cameras on the rooftop, one on a rooftop across the street, three in the street itself to capture the reactions of passers-by, and one hidden in reception. Against the odds, given the shaky start of the whole endeavour, it’s glorious. The Beatles – and Preston – are rockin’ and they know it. The performances of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, “One After 909’ and ‘Dig A Pony’ are good enough to warrant inclusion on the finished album. The reactions from the people in the street – both for and against – are priceless, and the icing on the cake is the arrival of some impossibly young looking Bobbies to shut it all down.
When they appear on the roof, you can see it on McCartney’s face; he knows this is going to look great on film. Lennon finishes with his famous remark about passing the audition, and you can see the smiling relief on all involved during the playback; they know they have it.
This is just another example of the immortal, eternal magic of The Beatles. Has there ever been any other phenomenon in recorded history that had such an innate ability to just make everybody feel better? If you think I’m exaggerating, you only have to cast you mind back as far as the 21st December, 2020 when Jackson and Disney released a five-minute preview to YouTube and the whole world erupted.
“That was deliberate on our part,” Jackson says now. “2020 was a horrible year. Jabez Olssen, my editor, and I were the lucky ones, because all through the pandemic we got to go into the cutting room and spend the day with The Beatles. They were cheering us up all the time, because they’re funny. We pitched the idea to Disney and Apple and The Beatles, ‘Why don’t we, just before Christmas, release two or three minutes of clips, just to cheer and pick people up?’
“It had some blowback because I saw online that ‘Jackson is sanitising, and it’s a whitewash’ which it’s not, but in December we tried to make it happy and joyous, because we felt people needed that. Who better than The Beatles to bring a smile back to our faces? It was never intended to be a look at the nuance of the thing, it was put together as something that’s going to make people happy at the end of a shitshow of a year. Let’s just give people a little happy surprise before Christmas.”
Everybody Saw The Sunshine
See? Magic. That was one surprise. Another is that the usually fiercely protective remaining Beatles, and the representatives of those who are no longer with us, let Jackson do what he wanted.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Michael told me stories of his post-production with The Beatles coming into the cutting room and directing certain things. Paul would come in one day and say ‘can you take that out?’ and the next day John came in and gave completely different instructions. Michael wasn’t allowed to show George leaving. I was thinking, ‘How much of this am I going to get?’ The Beatles famously control their image and how they come across, it took them decades to release a single unreleased track, but I get the feeling…”
He’s got a feeling, a feeling he can’t hide, oh yeah…
“…that history has arrived and there’s no concern about their image anymore. When they got to see the finished thing, I was expecting notes. It wouldn’t have surprised me, it wouldn’t have made me angry, it would have just been normal to get a note saying, ‘Can you cut that out? Could you shorten that conversation?’ I didn’t get a single note. One of them said that they watched it and found it one of the most stressful experiences of their entire life, but they didn’t have any notes.
“Paul describes it as being very raw, so actually there’s a degree of courage on their part. They’re pulling the curtain away and you’re seeing what’s behind the curtain for the first time ever, apart from Let It Be, which they locked away! One of the best comments I had was from Paul and he said to me, ‘Look, it’s a very accurate portrayal of how we were then.’ I was so happy to hear that, because I tried very carefully not to distort it or twist it. I tried to portray them as I was seeing it.
“The truthfulness of it is what’s important to them, they don’t want a whitewash, they don’t want it sanitised. Disney wanted to remove all the swearing and Ringo, Paul and Olivia [Harrison, George’s widow] said that’s how we talked, that’s how we want the world to see us. I think history has overtaken this concern about their image, the normal pop star ego sort of thing, that’s so far in the past now. Do they need to be concerned about the image of The Beatles? No, they don’t. I think they feel they can now afford to let the world see a little more truthfulness than what they’ve ever seen before. They’re nervous, but they’re ok about it.”
Jackson’s last word addresses the question of what, if anything, still remains to be seen.
“I’d like to say that I didn’t really leave out anything that I felt was important. That’s why the duration has crept up to what it is today, given the fact we started out trying to do a two-and-a-half-hour movie. Part of the reason the length is the way it is now, is that I felt acutely, and this is the Beatles fan in me kicking in, that anything I don’t include in this movie might go back in the vault for another 50 years. I was seeing and hearing these amazing moments and I thought, people have got to see this, and once I say that often enough, the duration is not two-and-a-half hours anymore, it’s now seven hours-plus. So anything I felt really strongly had to be there, I put it there.”
I believe him, and thank him for it, and so will you. But just in case, I’m advising my daughters to eat right and get plenty of exercise, so they’ll be able to enjoy Let It Be: The 100th Anniversary Edition when it inevitably rolls around with another day of unseen footage, because that’ll be magic too. In the meantime, the greatest story ever told finally has the closing pages it deserves.
• The Beatles: Get Back premiered on Disney+ consecutively on November 25, 26 and 27. The Let It Be Super Deluxe Box Set is reviewed here.
Photo by StillMoving.net for Disney