As a ground-breaking new Beatles' series debuts on Disney+ this weekend, we hear from its director Peter Jackson
For 50 years fans and critics alike have viewed Let It Be through the prism of the Beatles break-up. An acrimonious set of sessions captured in a grainy movie that chronicled their disintegration. Released in May 1970 after the legendary band’s split had become public, the movie seemed to signal the end of the Swinging Sixties.
The Beatles themselves bought into that myth, describing the sessions as bleak and devoid of humour. The accompanying album was given to Phil Spector to polish for release, but the film has never been reissued on DVD despite containing live performances of some of the band’s greatest songs. Some 60 hours of footage lay on the shelves unseen for half a century. Until now.
A major new series The Beatles Get Back from Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson tells a very different story. Using the groundbreaking restoration techniques he brought to universal acclaim on his 2018 First World War documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson has let the light in on those previously notorious sessions in January 1969.
"Some 60 hours of footage lay on the shelves unseen for half a century. Until now"
A lifelong Beatles fan, Jackson knew the reputation of those recordings and was reluctant to be involved in the break-up movie. Expecting to watch “the most depressing footage in the world”, what he found startled him.
Instead, the reels of 16mm film reveal an extraordinary burst of creativity. Over the course of a three-week period the Beatles wrote the majority of the Let It Be album. The remarkable footage also sees them run through 14 of the 17 songs that would appear on their final masterpiece Abbey Road released in September 1969, alongside several songs later recorded during the solo years.
“I don’t think there’s a single three-week period in The Beatles’ history that’s more prolific and creative than this,” says Jackson. “So rather than regarding this as being a sort of miserable breaking-up of The Beatles that has resulted in crappy recordings, it’s actually one of the most frenetic songwriting, rehearsal, recording periods I’m sure they’d ever had.”
It is true tensions ran high at times. However, Jackson’s near eight-hour series offers a far more rounded picture. There are plenty of moments of levity, typical Liverpudlian Beatles wit and wonderful music including “Let It Be”, “Get Back” and “Across The Universe”. It provides an unparalleled insight into the Beatles’ creative process from a casual strum to a fully formed song.
As Jackson says: “As a Beatles fan, even when I look at it now, as I've had to look at a lot of it over the last four years, my mind is still blown at the fact that this actually exists.”
For Paul McCartney himself, the footage has changed his perception of the band’s demise. He told The Sunday Times: “I’ll tell you what is really fabulous about it, it shows the four of us having a ball. It was so reaffirming for me. That was one of the important things about The Beatles, we could make each other laugh.”
The Beatles had set up at the cavernous soundstage at Twickenham Studios on January 2, 1969. The sessions were envisioned as time for the band to write, rehearse and perform new songs for their forthcoming album, which would be recorded in front of a live audience, released as a live album, and filmed for a television special.
Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison in THE BEATLES: GET BACK. Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd, © 2021 Apple Corps Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
It was a daunting task coming just a matter of weeks after the release of their sprawling double album The Beatles (aka The White Album). With film cameras recording their interactions and with no firm plans for the live performance, the pressure began to tell. George Harrison quit after two weeks.
As part of his preconditions for re-joining the band, the Beatles decamped to the more intimate studio in the basement of their Apple headquarters in Savile Row. Plans for a live show abandoned, filming continued instead to fulfil the Beatles’ outstanding movie commitment to United Artists. The sessions climaxed with the iconic performance on the rooftop of Apple on a cold January lunchtime. It would be their last public performance.
This was not a band breaking up. For now, at least. Instead, Jackson’s film depicts a band trying to navigate its future alongside various solo projects and extracurricular interests.
"Jackson’s film depicts a band trying to navigate its future alongside various solo projects and extracurricular interests"
Indeed, later that year they would record Abbey Road, seen by many as their greatest triumph. By the time Let It Be reached the cinema screens though, the dream was over. Its release fed into the narrative set by Lennon’s tell-all interviews, with McCartney branded—unfairly—as the one who broke up the band. John’s untimely death in 1980 saw him canonised as the band’s true visionary genius.
A gradual shift towards more a more rounded, well researched narrative began in the late Eighties when Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn published The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions after being given access to the original Beatles master tapes.
The Beatles at Twickenham Film Studios. 7 January 1969, Ethan A. Russell / © Apple Corps Ltd
Lewisohn is now working on a comprehensive trilogy, intended as the ultimate history of the band, using original source material and adopting an approach to research usually reserved for figures such as Churchill rather than rock stars. He argues that the Beatles have shaped modern culture and society and it is important to get their story right.
The Beatles too have dipped into their archives to give us the career retrospective Anthology series in 1995 while McCartney recently delved into his old songwriting notebooks to tell his life story in the book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present.
Podcasters and bloggers too are taking more of an academic deep dive into the Beatles story. The tagline for entertaining and informative Irish podcast Nothing Is Real is “everybody thinks they know the Beatles, but how much do we really know”. It sets events in context, going back to demolish some myths but finding even more interesting stories along the way. The They May Be Parted blog meanwhile provides an even deeper dive into the Let It Be sessions.
"Everybody thinks they know the Beatles, but how much do we really know?"
With the Beatles being taught as history in schools and Liverpool University offering a Masters degree in the city's most famous sons, the band are now legitimate topics for study. The Beatles Get Back now provides an invaluable new resource.
Jackson says the truthfulness of the story was vitally important to McCartney and Ringo Starr during the making of his film, rather than presenting a whitewash.
“I think history has overtaken their sort of concern about their image. That’s so far in the past now. Do they need to be concerned about the image of The Beatles? No, they don’t. It’s minted in history and culture. So, I think they feel that they can now afford to let the world see a little bit more truthfulness than what they’ve ever seen before.”
The Beatles: Get Back premieres on Disney+ November 25, 26 and 27
The Beatles' chart-topping 1970 album Let It Be has also been re-released in newly remixed and expanded editions by Apple Corps Ltd./Capitol/UMe
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