It’s January 1969, and the Beatles are unrecognizable from the wide-eyed mops who appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” five years prior. Their popularity is unparalleled. They stopped touring and fame is expensive. Next comes self-imposed stress: They’ve given themselves three weeks to record 14 songs that they’ll perform in front of a live audience, all the time, followed by cameras. The surprisingly intimate footage was recently extracted from a London safe and placed in the capable hands of filmmaker Peter Jackson. As we first reported last November, his 3-part Disney Plus documentary series “Get Back” adds tremendous light and joy to what has always been considered the Beatles’ darkest period. You could say Jackson took a sad song, well, you know the rest.
Often we hear bands playing; we rarely see groups at work, let alone the largest group that has ever existed. Well, teleport to 1969 and meet the Beatles.
Jon Wertheim: You’re the first person to look at this with fresh eyes in years and years. What was it like watching this footage?
Peter Jackson: It was fascinating. And after 50 years, you would have every right to believe that we talked about everything with the Beatles. Every piece of film had been seen, every piece of music had been heard, that there were no more surprises with the Beatles.
From his base in New Zealand, director Peter Jackson has taken a break from making big-budget studio films like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and has spent the past four years hanging out with John, Paul, George and Ringo. .
Peter Jackson: Suddenly, bang, out of nowhere comes this incredible treasure trove of flies on the wall 52 years later. It always blows my mind. Honestly, it still blows my mind.
Paul McCartney: So how about, how about changing around these two, and when you sing, ‘Don’t you know it’s gonna last,’ we sing, ‘It’s a love that hasn’t outmoded.”
Jon Wertheim: So give us some historical context here. Under what circumstances was this sequence shot?
Peter Jackson: They lost what they loved when they were teenagers. They lost from being the four guys playing in a band. So they’re going to record a new album with songs that they’ll only play live. And they won’t do any studio tours. There will be no multitrack. And they had to… they had to figure out where and how they were going to perform in front of an audience.
Paul McCartney: Boom, cha, boom boom.
As the Beatles wrote and rehearsed, they allowed a camera crew to capture every riff, both on guitar and in conversation.
Paul McCartney: I mean, nerdy is good in this one because what he does is nerdy. But see, that’s the thing that won’t make it cheesy, is if we sing different words. So that’s it, I’m in love for the first time.
Months of filming produced only the forgettable 80-minute documentary, “Let It Be,” released a year later after the Beatles split. A lifelong Beatles fan, Peter Jackson had always wondered what had happened to all those hours of unseen footage?
His Tolkien-like quest led him to the London headquarters of Apple Corps, the Beatles’ label.
Peter Jackson: They just said, “We have everything. We have…57 hours of footage. We have 130 hours of audio.” And then they said they were considering making a documentary using the footage. I just raised my hand and said, “Well, if– if you’re looking for someone to do it– don’t– please just– think– think of me.”
Back in New Zealand, Jackson began the ultimate binge-watch, projecting this musical thread, frame by frame. Given that any Beatles fan will tell you that “Let It Be” is shrouded in sadness – forever associated with the great divorce in rock and roll history – Jackson prepared for the worst.
Peter Jackson: I was watching, waiting for things to go wrong. I was waiting for the narrative I had believed in over the years to start unfolding. I was waiting for the arguments. Waiting for discontent. Waiting for misery. And, you know, that didn’t happen. I mean, it shows… you know, it shows the problems. It shows problems. But– but any group, any time, has these– has these– has these problems. It is not a group that splits up. These are not guys who don’t like each other. That’s not what I… what… what we see here. This is not what was filmed.
John Lennon: Yeah, but the way I played it, it started on F.
Here’s what was filmed: the four Liverpudlians in their late twenties, working collaboratively, surrounded by a surprisingly small and tight entourage. There’s Linda—Linda Eastman at the time—taking pictures. And, of course, Yoko Ono. While we’re here, let’s forgo that infamous piece of Beatles breakup mythology now.
Jon Wertheim: The casual fan looking for Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles might come away disappointed, I guess.
Giles Martin: Yeah, I think it’s a good thing, you know. I mean, Yoko didn’t break up the Beatles. And… and nothing separated the Beatles.
Giles Martin is the son of the late Beatles producer George Martin. Giles grew up in Beatles orbit and has since remixed most of the band’s albums. When Peter Jackson enlisted him for this series, Martin went through all of the hundreds of hours of audio and video.
Giles Martin: You can see the cracks appearing. The one thing about this movie is that people understand why they got tired of each other. Because you get a sense of what it was like to be in a room with them, which is such a… privilege for all of us.
Despite these cracks, the chemistry of the Beatles remains powerful.
Peter Jackson: At one point we have footage of Paul McCartney strumming – on his bass, which he uses as a guitar half the time, just sort of strumming. I think it’s early morning and they’re waiting for John…hasn’t arrived yet.
Peter Jackson: He’s just waiting for a while. He slowly finds the melody.
Peter Jackson: And so you see that song sort of came out of thin air.
Paul McCartney: Left his home in Tucson, Arizona.
John Lennon: Is Tucson in Arizona?
Paul McCartney: Yes. This is where they make “High Chaparral”.
Paul McCartney: As if I could understand. Jojo left his house hoping it would be awesome, soon he found out he would have to be a loner with California weed. And now you’re thinking, okay, that makes sense but it doesn’t sing well.
The Beatles had always been furiously productive; but it was the creation process in double time: 14 songs in 22 days.
Jon Wertheim: Was it as absurd a time pressure in 1969 as it seems to be today?
Gilles Martin: Yes. It’s the biggest band on the planet that says we’re going to… we’re going to do our first show in three years in three weeks. But we don’t know where it’s going to be. And we don’t know what songs we’re going to play.
Jon Wertheim: Listening to all the recordings of this project, what impressions did you have in terms of chemistry?
Giles Martin: I feel like Paul and John knew they were drifting apart and Let it Be was almost like a failed marriage and they want to go back to their dates.
To make matters worse, George Harrison, restless in his role and bristling with Paul McCartney’s ambition, left the band after a week.
Peter Jackson: It’s the quietest walkout you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s just– “I’m leaving now.” “What?” “I’m leaving the band now.” And then he leaves. There is no fighting, there is no arguing, there is no disagreement.
John was in love with Yoko and, in his words, he abused her body. The group competed for his attention, not always successfully.
John Lennon: When I was younger, much younger than now, I never needed anyone’s help. But now my life has changed in so many ways, a wop-bop-alooma-a-wop-bam-boo.
Paul McCartney: We can’t go on like this forever.
John Lennon: We seem to be.
Paul McCartney: We seem to, but we can’t. You see, what you need is a serious work program. Not an aimless hike through the canyons of your mind.
Paul had reluctantly become the band’s room monitor, more lead than singer. George was persuaded to return, but as the live show approached, the Beatles decided they needed a change of scenery. They moved to a makeshift studio in the basement of Apple Records.
John Lennon: I dig a pygmy by Charles Hawtrey and The Deaf Aids. Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats.
A burst of fresh energy also came in the form of keyboardist Billy Preston, a 22-year-old Texan brought in by George.
Jon Wertheim: What was the influence of Billy Preston on this album and on the Beatles at the time?
Giles Martin: This hotshot is coming and they just suddenly had to up their game because they had this force of nature in the room with them. And I think that’s what he did. I think he worked as a catalyst and galvanized them to make the record and/or do the right performance.
It’s an optimistic scene, at odds with how so many remembered that time, including the directors themselves. But Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” series doesn’t just restore lost footage or Beatles music; it restores something much deeper.
Jon Wertheim: You already mentioned memory. I wonder, did their memories match this… this documentary evidence that you presented to them?
Peter Jackson: Fifty years later, I’m talking to… Ringo and Paul. And their memory was very… miserable and unhappy. And I said, “Look, whatever your memories, whatever your memories, that’s the truth. And here look. Look– look at this.”
Peter Jackson: They started realizing what it is. I mean, it’s a… an incredibly amazing historical document of the Beatles at work. And four friends at work. And clearly, they are four friends.
The impending deadline didn’t exactly dampen the mood in the studio.
And what about the outcome of these sessions, this live performance? The band simply climbed some stairs and, on January 30, 1969, played on top of the Apple offices.
No one at the time suspected it, but it would mark the Beatles’ last performance before they split 14 months later.
It took half a century and a demanding director on the other side of the world – who knows a lot about the power of myth – to revise the tradition surrounding the breakup of the Beatles and set the record straight.
Produced by Michael H. Gavshon and Nadim Roberts. Broadcast Associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Daniel J. Glucksman.