‘The Beatles: Get Back’ documentary debuts exclusively on Disney+ during Thanksgiving weekend
The six-hour-plus documentary paints a markedly different picture of The Beatles than the 1970 documentary, “Let It Be.”
Just as The Beatles used their timeless songs in the 1960s to take millions of listeners across the universe on a magical musical mystery tour, Oscar-winning “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy director Peter Jackson has taken millions of viewers worldwide on a magical cinematic mystery tour in this century.
So what happens when these two worlds and creative forces intersect, 51 years after The Beatles acrimoniously split up in 1970?
“It’ll blow your mind!” said Jackson, a lifelong fan of the most famous and influential band in rock ‘n’ roll history.
And what happens when that unlikely intersection — which has resulted in Jackson’s engrossing new film documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back” — comprehensively chronicles the month of January 1969?
That was when the fabled band simultaneously made its penultimate album, “Let It Be,” and an identically titled film documentary.
The four Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — undertook both projects in spite of the rapidly rising tensions that soon led to them permanently disband. They had no way of knowing the film crew they had hired to capture the creation of their new album and final concert would end up documenting what many regard as The Beatles’ painful on-screen divorce.
Why would fans want to revisit such a downward spiral on film again, even with three-time Oscar winner Jackson at the helm? Why would Jackson devote four years of his life to it?
These questions will be answered over Thanksgiving weekend when the Jackson-directed “Get Back” debuts exclusively on Disney+. It will be shown in three installments between Thursday and Saturday that, together, total more than six hours.
The original “Let It Be” film clocked in at a fleeting 80 minutes and included just 21 minutes of The Beatles’ final public performance, an impromptu winter gig on a London rooftop. “Get Back” boasts the entire 42-minute performance by the band and guest keyboardist Billy Preston, who all but joined the band as “Let It Be” was being filmed.
Jackson’s documentary follows the October release of the 240-page book, “The Beatles: Get Back,” and a new “Let It Be Special Edition” box set. The latter includes five CDs with 57 songs, one Blu-Ray disc and a 100-page book. It is also available in a vinyl edition and in smaller CD iterations.
“Get Back” was originally set to open in theaters last year as a 2½-hour feature film but was pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic. With more time unexpectedly on his hands, Jackson transformed his feature film into the expanded, six-hour epic that will be seen on Disney+.
“The pandemic has been devastating, but it was absolutely a silver lining for ‘Get Back’ (growing) into a three-part presentation,” said Clare Olssen, the film’s producer.
Jackson culled “Get Back” from nearly 60 hours of previously unseen footage that was shot in January 1969 for director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s briefly released and widely criticized “Let It Be” documentary.
Providing added intrigue, shortly after the 1969 filming, many of the original reels of footage were stolen by a former employee of The Beatles’ Apple Studio, Nigel Oliver. He sold it to two Dutch music traders for about $60,000. Interpol recovered the purloined reels during a 2003 raid in Holland.
With few exceptions, while making “Get Back,” Jackson deliberately avoided using any of the footage that was featured in Lindsay-Hogg’s film — the better to provide viewers a captivating new experience with one of the most documented rock bands of all time.
“I tried to make a very honest movie,” said Jackson, who — based on preview footage provided to interviewers — appears to have achieved his goal.
He would like to release an expanded director’s cut sometime in the future, but there are no current plans to do so. At one point, Jackson’s favorite version of his “Get Back” film clocked in at 18 hours.
The differences between “Get Back” and “Let It Be” are profound, even though they use the same source material. “Get Back” also draws from nearly 120 hours of previously unheard audio recordings.
“The footage was shot in January 1969, and The Beatles didn’t really break up until September of that year,” Jackson noted during a recent Zoom interview from his home in the New Zealand capital of Wellington.
“So it’s not that the band breaks up then (in January), even though there are ups and downs in that month. I didn’t have to manipulate the story. Because, fortunately, the story was built into the (existing footage) — the story of how they set out to do a recording and a live show, and have 14 new songs written in two weeks. ... I was lucky the film already had enough drama from the real events that took place.”
Jackson and his team started work in 2017 on “Get Back.” They carefully restored, upgraded and enlarged the grainy original 16-millimeter 1969 “Let It Be” film footage so that it now pops with vibrant color.
They also developed a new form of AI audio engineering — a sort of sonic forensics — they dubbed “MAL” (a play on the AI super computer “HAL” in the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”). The name “MAL” is in honor of The Beatles’ beloved road manager and principal assistant, Mal Evans, who shares some screen time with the band in “Get Back.”
Using “MAL,” Jackson and his colleagues were able to painstakingly and precisely isolate each and every audio track — be it musical instrumentation, singing or studio chatter — from the original mono recordings made for most of “Let It Be.”
“What we’ve managed to do is split it all apart in a way that is utterly clean and sounds much better,” Jackson, 60, said proudly.
This feat alone makes “Get Back” a technological wonder for viewers.
“The first thing that had to happen is the syncing of the audio to the film footage, which was a massive task,” said “Get Back” film editor Jabez Olssen, who has worked on Jackson’s films for much of the past two decades.
“That syncing work had begun in England, years before we came on board, because these cameras in 1969 were not the best at keeping in sync. So, if you started an audio tape recorder and camera at the same time, after a minute they started to go out of sync with each other. And they only used two cameras for the majority of the ‘Let It Be’ shoot.”
There was an equally daunting challenge facing Jackson and Olssen in New Zealand as they worked on “Get Back” almost half a century after the “Let It Be” film had been shot in London in 1969.
“Normally, when you record in film you do a clapperboard at start of each take to identify each scene and to sync the audio to the picture,” Olssen said in a Zoom interview from his New Zealand home in Wellington. He and his wife, “Get Back” producer Clare Olssen, live about 15 minutes by foot from Jackson’s home.
“In 1969, they didn’t want to disturb The Beatles with clapperboards so they decided not to use any,” Jabez Olssen noted. “That made it enormously difficult and far harder for us, five decades later, to put ‘Get Back’ together.”
Darkness into light
Released in 1970, “Let It Be” seemed to be shrouded in literal and figurative darkness — apart from the truncated scenes of the rousing London rooftop concert that marked The Beatles’ final public performance on Jan. 30, 1969.
“Get Back” balances “Let It Be’s” gloomy, downhill-and-shadows tone with scenes of lightness and levity with The Beatles. It also takes a deep dive into the complex human emotions and egos that drove the four members of the legendary band.
Those emotions and egos ultimately drove The Beatles apart for good, after they recorded their final album, “Abbey Road,” later in 1969. (Because “Abbey Road” was released before “Let It Be,” many fans at the time understandably thought “Let It Be” — which was recorded first — was the last album the band made.)
For some viewers, then, “Let It Be” almost qualifies as a real-time wake for The Beatles, starring The Beatles.
In a 1970 interview, Lennon said of filming “Let It Be”: “It was hell ... the most miserable session on earth.” McCartney, speaking in 1995, said: “We had terrible arguments (resulting in) the breakup of The Beatles on film instead of what we really wanted. It was probably a better story — a sad story, but there you go.”
And in a 1995 Union-Tribune interview, longtime Beatles’ album producer George Martin said: “ ‘Let It Be’ was very unhappy for everybody. George (Harrison) wanted to leave (the band), and there was even a bit of fisticuffs. And John was very difficult; he didn’t take much notice of anybody and he was being very pushy. I did not enjoy it one bit.”
Context is everything
Poignancy is one of the most vital components in Jackson’s “Get Back.” Even more crucially, he also provides much-needed context — a quality largely missing from “Let It Be” — thanks to the trove of previously unseen footage and careful editing.
“Get Back” doesn’t shy away from the tense and uncomfortable scenes that presaged the implosion of the already splintering Beatles. But it also opens a welcome new lens that is far richer, more nuanced and intimate than “Let It Be.” And “Get Back” offers both lighthearted and moving moments to illustrate the deep bonds that united the four Beatles, even as their band neared its demise.
What results is not a remake or recasting of history, but a broadening of it. “Get Back” doesn’t paint a brand-new picture, but it greatly expands upon the often bleak one “Let It Be” painted.
It has already proven eye-opening for McCartney, 79, and Starr, 81. (Lennon was killed by a gunman in 1980; Harrison died of cancer in 2001.)
“I had always thought the original film ‘Let It Be’ was pretty sad as it dealt with the break-up of our band, but the new film shows the camaraderie and love the four of us had,” McCartney writes in his foreword for the “Let It Be Special Edition” box set’s book.
“It also shows the wonderful times we had together, and combined with the newly remastered ‘Let It Be’ album, stands as a powerful reminder of this time. It’s how I want to remember The Beatles.”
Speaking now of McCartney and Starr’s reaction to “Get Back,” Jackson said: “It’s not the story the way they remember parts of it, because they don’t remember it; it was more than 50 years ago. They lived through it, but they can’t remember it — except the miserable part of breaking up in 1970 and all the acrimony.
“But they thought it was a very accurate portrayal of the band and that made me think: ‘I’ve achieved my goal.’ We could balance things and add context, which is critically important in this film.”
Because the first “Get Back” preview released last year was so upbeat, some observers worried Jackson was sanitizing an undeniably messy and bitter period in The Beatles’ storied history. It’s a notion he is quick to dispute.
More raw and honest
“There are a lot of things in ‘Get Back’ that are actually tougher and more raw and honest than in ‘Let It Be’,” the bearded director noted.
“For example, Michael Lindsay-Hogg wasn’t allowed in 1969 to show George (Harrison) leaving the band and walking out for a few days. He filmed that and has scenes of George announcing he’s quitting (the band). Michael wasn’t allowed to show that, but we do. We had no restrictions.”
Lindsay-Hogg, conversely, was given very specific directives before “Let It Be’s” May 1970 release regarding what he could and could not include.
A day after screening a rough cut of the film for the four Beatles in July 1969, Lindsay-Hogg received a phone call from an executive at Apple, the company The Beatles formed to handle all their business dealings. The executive made it clear major cuts needed to be made to reduce the amount of footage with Lennon and his then-girlfriend, Yoko Ono, who Lennon married in March 1969.
In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Lindsay-Hogg recalled his interaction with the Apple executive, saying: “He said: ‘Well, let me put it this way, I’ve had three phone calls this morning.’ So I get the message that some of John and Yoko should come out.”
Conversely, the seemingly taciturn Ono is shown on screen regularly in “Get Back.” She even smiles in some scenes.
“There’s a lot of footage where she doesn’t smile,” Jackson said. “She doesn’t impose herself. When The Beatles are doing (the song) ‘Get Back’ for 27th time, she doesn’t say: ‘Take 17 was the best.’ She’s very respectful. She’s there because she and John are in love.”
Jackson acknowledges that he sought and obtained feedback from McCartney, Starr, Lennon’s son, Sean, and Harrison’s widow, Olivia, and son, Dhani Harrison. But the director stresses that what went into “Get Back” — and what was left out — was entirely up to him.
Compare, for example, the pivotal scene in “Let It Be” in which Harrison appears extremely frustrated with McCartney as they butt heads while trying to work out the arrangement for “Two of Us.”
‘I’ll play anything you want me to play, or I won’t play at all, if you don’t want me to,” Harrison tells McCartney in one of “Let It Be’s” most memorably uncomfortable moments. “Whatever it is that would please you, I’ll do it.”
“In ‘Let It Be,’ the scene where George says ‘I’ll play anything you want’ lasts 45 seconds,” Jackson said. “In our movie, it’s about a 10-minute sequence. We show what leads up to that exchange between George and Paul, and the five or six minutes right after, so that it has context.”
The abundance of context should make “Get Back” a welcome revelation for devotees and casual fans of The Beatles alike. It has already proven eye-opening for McCartney, 79, and Starr, 81.
“If you are a real Beatles fanatic, I think you’ll lose your mind,” Jackson said. “Not because of the film I made or the work we did, but because of the footage Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot. It’s like being in a time machine, and it’s unbelievable.
“The fact this footage was sitting on a shelf for almost 50 years blows my mind. You think you’ve seen it all, and now you get hours and hours of footage you’ve never seen — this raw, honest footage. I also find that unbelievable.
“The Beatles were icons, these four mythic guys. Their music still makes me smile and still means the same to me as it always had. But after making this film, they’ve come down off the pedestal and are no longer these mythic figures to me.
“They’ve become these four human beings now. And, fortunately, these human beings are nice guys. They are normal people and they don’t feel old-fashioned — George is 25 in this footage, Paul is 26. They are funny, they feel modern and they feel immediate.
“Kids might think: ‘This is not my world.’ But what they’ll see will feel like yesterday. The Beatles talk like people do now, so I think kids will relate to them and not think: ‘This was 50 years ago.’ Paul is 79 now and Ringo is 81, but The Beatles are not like your grandparents.”
Up on the roof
The Beatles’ final public performance took place on Jan. 30, 1969, on the rooftop of their London headquarters. One of the most memorable concerts in the band’s career, it inspired such varied artists as U2, Bon Jovi, Kasabian and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to perform rooftop gigs of their own.
Did you know?
Before deciding to perform and film their final concert on a London rooftop, The Beatles had considered a number of extravagant options in and around London, as well as at least one foreign locale. The sites the group bandied about included: the Royal Albert Hall; the Tate Gallery; an unnamed orphanage; an airport; an ocean liner; the Palace of Westminster; the Giza pyramids; and Sabratha, an ancient Roman amphitheater in Libya.
Singing The Beatles’ praises
The Beatles changed the world of music and pop-culture several times between the release of the band’s 1963 debut album, “Please Please Me,” and its 1970 swan song, “Let It Be.”
In recent and archival Union-Tribune interviews, we asked an array of musicians to comment on how they were influenced by The Beatles. Here are some of their responses.
Byrds’ co-founder and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Chris Hillman: “We weren’t a garage band trying to be Chuck Berry. We did want to be The Beatles! I think The Byrds watched (the 1964 Beatles’ movie) ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ five times at the Pix Theater on Hollywood Boulevard when it came out. I have great respect for Paul McCartney. I learned to play bass by listening to him.”
Heart co-founder and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Nancy Wilson: “Our goal was that we were going to be in The Beatles. We were not going to date The Beatles or marry The Beatles, but to be The Beatles.”
Rocket From The Crypt guitarist-singer John Reis: “I grew up with The Beatles, and they’re one of the greatest bands of all time. They created an explosion from which pretty much everything is measured.”
Violist and singer-songwriter Maya Rosenbaum, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy: “My friends are even bigger Beatles fans than I am. You can’t put The Beatles into any one specific genre. Because they tackled so many things, and were the first at so many things, they influenced so many artists of different backgrounds and genres.”
Bass guitar great Nathan East, whose credits include collaborations with Ringo Starr and George Harrison: “It’s amazing how The Beatles were able to influence the world of music and the world, period, in the relatively short time they were together recording and touring. Their impact is so long-lasting and valuable.”
Jazz guitarist and 20-time Grammy Award winner Pat Metheny: “What I’m interested in is creativity. And when I think about the nine years The Beatles were together, I mean, I wish there were guys in our (jazz) community that were that creative. Every track The Beatles recorded sounded different than the track before. They were doing so much stuff and had incredible tunes with great melodies and a really interesting approach to everything.”
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Billy Joel: “As much as I denigrate TV’s impact on rock — because I think TV has done a great deal to defang rock and make it somewhat impotent — I must say that (first 1964) appearance by The Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ galvanized me. Up to that moment I’d never considered playing rock as a career. And when I saw four guys who didn’t look like they’d come out of the Hollywood star mill, who played their own songs and instruments, and especially because you could see this look in John Lennon’s face — and he looked like he was always saying: ‘F--- you!’ — I said: ‘I know these guys, I can relate to these guys, I am these guys.’ This is what I’m going to do: play in a rock band’.”
Singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop: “The Beatles influenced my career tremendously. As a kid, I had been playing John Philip Sousa marches on my clarinet. I heard The Beatles, and all of a sudden, I was playing Lennon-McCartney melodies. It was about when my brother bought me a guitar. I started writing Beatle-like songs.”
“The Beatles: Get Back”
Debuts in three segments Thursday through Saturday on the subscription-only Disney+.
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