January 1969 was a rough period for the world’s four most famous musicians. Brian Epstein, manager and fixer for The Beatles, had died of an overdose of sedatives in August 1967. The band, now rudderless, decided to manage themselves. Their egos were unchecked and running rampant. The Fab Four were also staring at the possibility that not everything they were putting out was going to be a commercial or critical success. In December 1967, they released the Magical Mystery Tour film on BBC 1, a critical disaster.
In an effort to save the failing marriage that was The Beatles, the band decided to convene in Twickenham Film Studios in January 1969. Their goal was to recapture their spark by working on new material, live, without any overdubbing or studio magic. They wanted a more “real” sounding album. The recording sessions were to be filmed by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for a documentary film. This would eventually become the “breakup” film Let It Be, released on May 13, 1970.
Adding to the pressure, was the notion that The Beatles were going to write and record 14 songs in approximately three weeks. They were to also perform them live. This was something they had not done since 1966. As to the location of this live performance? No one really knew. Perhaps a Lybian amphitheater, a children’s hospital, maybe even the roof of a Saville Row building in London. They weren’t really sure, but they had the film crew in tow. They would figure it out…somehow.
Let It Be
There is a well-documented historical record of The Beatles. Included in this are the album and film versions of Let It Be. These examples are forever associated with dysfunction and the inevitable breakup of the world’s most famous band. Paul McCartney had begun to exert his dominance on the rest of the group, driving a deep divide between him and George Harrison. The result, caught on film, is Harrison walking out on the band.
Lindsay-Hogg had originally planned Let It Be to be a television documentary, accompanied by a live concert. Many ideas were pitched as to where to stage this event. However, Ringo Starr’s time was limited. He was obligated to star in The Magic Christian (1969), with Peter Sellers. As a result, all parties agreed to start rehearsals without a decision on where to film the concert.
Upon viewing Let It Be, one can see the dynamics between McCartney and Harrison. It would eventually lead to the break-up of The Beatles. This 80-minute film serves as evidence, captured in 16-millimeter color, as to just how bad things had gotten. With Harrison walking out on January 10, 1969, there was a discussion on recruiting guitarist Eric Clapton to complete the sessions.
On January 15, 1969, Harrison returned to complete the sessions. He insisted that they resume recording at Apple Corps’ new basement recording studio, within their Saville Row headquarters. Lindsay-Hogg would rework his footage, making a feature-length film of the sessions. Keyboardist Billy Preston was brought in by Harrison to work on the new material. Preston’s presence in the studio immediately changed the overall vibe for the better.
On January 30, 1969, The Beatles played an unannounced concert from the rooftop of their Apple Corps headquarters. This was located at 3 Savile Row, in the heart of Central London’s fashion district. Billy Preston would join in for this historical and final performance. All told, a 42-minute set was performed before being told to lower the sound by the Police. Footage from the performance would be used in Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary film. Ringo later reflected:
“…There was a plan to play live somewhere. We were wondering where we could go – “Oh, the Palladium or the Sahara”. But we would have had to take all the stuff, so we decided, ‘Let’s get up on the roof…'”
As The Beatles kicked off this impromptu set, passersby on the street below were coming and going. Many of them were on their lunch break when they heard the first notes waft out above them. When the first chords of “Get Back” blasted out, there was some confusion from the pedestrians below. Crowds soon began to congregate in the congested streets below. They also were assembling on the roofs, fire escapes, and windows of nearby buildings, in order to get a better view.
While the response to this event was largely positive, the Metropolitan Police were growing concerned with noise and crowd control. All of this has been well-documented on video. Also documented were employees of Apple Corps refusing access to the police. Once threatened with arrest, they quickly relented. The Beatles team soon realized they would be shut down, yet they still continued to play for a few more minutes. The concert concludes with the third run-through of “Get Back”, and Lennon stating at the end:
“…I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition…”
Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson (King Kong, The Frighteners) has a history with The Beatles. This history actually goes deeper, and farther back, than most people think. In 1968, when Jackson was only a small boy, legendary author JRR Tolkien was refusing to sell The Beatles the rights to make their film version of his fantasy epic tome, The Lord of The Rings.
Jump ahead almost 40 years later, and the final film in Jackson’s trilogy adaptation of Tolkien’s classic series would tie the record for the most Academy Award wins in a single year – eleven. This included the best director Oscar for Jackson. It’s a sliding doors moment to think what might have happened had Tolkien given the Fab Four permission to make The Lord Of The Rings, way back in 1968.
Jackson’s WWI documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) had used incredible digitally remastered footage of The Great War. Colorized and almost popping off the screen, this ultimately secured Jackson, a die-hard Beatles fan, the job of retelling the Let It Be sessions. During a meeting with Apple Corps, Jackson had asked in passing about where all the outtakes and footage from Lindsay-Hogg’s original 1970 documentary were.
When Jackson was told that Apple Corps had all of the original footage archived in its vast vaults, the director immediately suggested reworking the original 16-millimeter footage into a brand new digitally remastered documentary film. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, the two surviving members of The Beatles, were both elated that the record would finally be set straight. Starr would later state in a press release:
“…There was hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music, not at all like the ‘Let It Be’ film that came out in 1970…There was a lot of joy and I think Peter will show that…”
The Beatles: Get Back
As we are told at the beginning of each installment of the 2021 documentary series The Beatles: Get Back, there was an enormous amount of material for Jackson to work with. Back in January 1969, Lindsay-Hogg had shot more than 60 hours of video footage. That’s on top of the 150 hours of audio recordings that were made. The vaults at Apple Corps were opened, and Jackson was given access to all of this. While the end product is at times bloated and repetitive, what Jackson has created, is astonishing.
Make no mistake, Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back is a serious commitment that can, quite honestly, get extremely boring at times. It may also be the greatest music documentary of all time. While the magic of song creation captured on film is at times awe-inspiring, Jackson’s documentary wasn’t made to win over new fans to The Beatles’ music. This magnum opus is for hard-core fans only.
The series’ first installment is the most tedious. Coming in at 157 minutes, it primarily involves “The Lads” noodling around with their instruments. We are treated to a significant amount of cover songs here. This includes “Johnny B. Goode,” “I Shall be Released,” “Quinn The Eskimo,” and many other standards.
While interesting to watch from a historical perspective, it’s not much more than that. When actor Peter Sellers drops by, things start to elevate as there is clearly something going on between him and Lennon. Sellers looks visibly uncomfortable and quickly leaves. This is a fascinating scene, as it feeds the long-standing narrative that Sellers, when not in character, was a sullen, awkward, and extremely disagreeable man.
As a “fly on the wall,” we hear the seeds being planted for over 30 songs. Many of these will end up on post-Beatles solo albums, albeit with different lyrics. A handful of new Beatles songs are heard numerous times throughout the documentary. The chord progression, the melodies, the harmonies. Everything is being further and further built to perfection. It’s at times fascinating to watch these professionals at work.
In what is perhaps the entire series most incredible moment, McCartney, a bit peeved that Lennon has yet again overslept, starts noodling on his left-handed Hofner bass guitar. With his head down, and wearing a mustard-colored sweater, he starts strumming the bass like a rhythm guitar, over and over again. The same fast-paced chords. He soon starts mouthing nonsense lyrics.
Ringo and Harrison, sitting across from McCartney, both look visibly bored. Harrison isn’t even trying to cover up his yawning. Then, something clicks. McCartney turns nothing into the seeds of the iconic song “Get Back” in a matter of seconds. As it begins to take shape and form, his bandmates suddenly perk up and take notice. Ringo, especially, sees that something special is happening. It’s an astonishing three minutes captured on film.
The Beatles are the most famous and celebrated music band in history. That’s a bold statement, but it’s also true. Their story has been filled with ups and downs, riddled with tragedy, death, divorce, happiness, and laughter. Their legacy runs the full gamut of emotions. It’s also primarily been in the public eye for almost 60 years. That’s why what Peter Jackson has given to the world will be watched, analyzed, and discussed for many decades to come. Even as bloated as it feels at times, this series is an instant classic.
Having the perspective and history we now have with this band and its members make The Beatles: Get Back all the more enjoyable. Seeing Maureen “Mo” Starkey (Ringo’s wife) getting her groove on during the rooftop performance of “Get Back”, warms our hearts. Mo was a fan back during the Cavern Club days in Liverpool. She’s looked forward to this moment for years. That’s why at the end of the song, when McCartney looks over and says, “Thanks, Mo” it’s a tender, beautiful moment. Jackson’s documentary is filled with beautiful moments. Jackson stated to Rolling Stone in 2020:
”…That’s the mystery at the heart of Get Back…How is it that we keep hearing ourselves in this music? People all over the world, from all different generations and cultures, even though most of us weren’t born back then? Why does the world keep dreaming the Beatles? They’re only the icons they are because the music was so majestically good… There’s a joy in the songs that they sang. In decades and decades to come, it will never be dulled. It will never be suppressed. That joy, that infectious joy, is part of the human psyche now.”
The Beatles: Get Back is presented by Walt Disney Studios in association with Apple Corps and WingNut Films. The three-part series is currently available to stream exclusively on Disney+
More from Cinema Scholars:
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF – A Retrospective Review At 50
POSSESSION (1981): A Retro Review
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