When the documentary Let It Be was released in 1970, it was a sort of elegy for The Beatles. A group that, in the public’s eye, had burnt out too fast and too soon, The Beatles had rocketed to international success just six years earlier with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Staggeringly influential albums would follow, but the band would ultimately fracture.
Some of that fracture was caught on tape by Let It Be’s filmmaker, Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Those tapes, The Get Back Sessions, would ultimately become Let It Be, but in a shined up and edited form that smoothed off much of the group’s rough edges. Now, in a stunningly beautiful restoration, Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson is releasing a wider look at Lindsay-Hogg’s Get Back footage in a new, three-part series for Disney Plus, The Beatles: Get Back.
Hitting the streamer on Thanksgiving Day, The Beatles: Get Back is an intimate and eye-opening look at life within The Beatles. The A.V. Club talked to Jackson about his curation of the footage, what Lindsay-Hogg did that made his job easier 50-odd years later, and just how damn young The Beatles really were at the time.
The A.V. Club: When I read that there’s almost 60 hours of footage, I thought that there are a lot of people that would, if given the opportunity, watch all 60 hours. How did you go about shaping all that footage into the finished product?
Peter Jackson: Well, the first thing to say, which people aren’t really aware of, is that they filmed it on 16mm film with two cameras, and the sound in those days wasn’t recorded on the camera like it is with a video camera these days. As the camera shot that 16mm neg, the sound was recorded separately on a machine called a Nagra, which was like a quarter-inch tape that was 16 minutes long. So the film was on 15-minute rolls, and the sound tapes were 16 minutes long.
They had two Nagra machines and two cameras, A, B. The Nagra tape, for the quarter-inch tape, it was a lot cheaper than the film stuff. It was just far cheaper, so the Nagra tape machines kept rolling virtually all day long. They had to change their rolls of tape every 16 minutes, but because they were two recorders, one could stop and change while the other one was going.
So it’s not actually 60 hours of film, really. That’s a critical factor. It’s the fact that there’s about 150 hours of audio. They were filming The Beatles over 22 days in January ’69, and on each day there’s about seven or eight hours of audio. They kept turning the cameras on and off all the way through the day at different times. So you’ve got about three or four hours of film for each day.
The story of the Get Back sessions is really in the audio tapes. Now, some of the audio has got picture and sometimes the film cameras didn’t roll. But it’s still the Nagra recording of what the people are doing. So it’s about 150 hours, really, of material that we had to listen to over and over and over again.
What we decided to do with the storytelling is, when you look back on it—it took us a little while to sort of come to this point, but it’s so obvious—is to just tell it day by day, one day at a time. Because the thing with the Get Back sessions is that they start out with a particular goal in mind. They start out on the second of January 1969 with the intention that, on the 18th, it’s going to be a dress rehearsal, and the 19th and 20th are going to be shows where they’re going to perform in front of two or three hundred people for the first time in three years.
But of course, that never happens. It all goes wrong off the rails. George leaves the group, and they reconvene at Savile Row, where they do have a recording studio, so now they’re recording an album and they still intend to do a show. They intend to do a show on Primrose Hill, which is a random park where they’re going to show up on the path in the middle of the city green. They’re going to show up there one day as a surprise unannounced and just start performing and see what happens. They’ll have cameras filming them and just see who shows up. That eventually gets abandoned, and then they end up with this idea to go up on the roof.
So to tell that story, you should just tell it day by day. They set out on day one to do something, and then it evolves and changes and there’s ups and downs and there’s drama as things go wrong. Then they put the thing back on track and it goes wrong again. There’s no better way to tell it.
So what you have on Get Back is you have the rooftop concert in its entirety at 45 minutes, and all the days leading up to it are like their own little mini movies. Depending on what day, they’re between 15 and 30 minutes long. So you’ve got a series of short films day by day.
AVC: One thing that struck me as I watching—and I think this was because of the restoration—but you realize how young these guys really were. What struck you when you first looked at the footage?
PJ: You’re right. What’s remarkable is that, in January 1969, George Harrison is 25 years old.
The Beatles aren’t breaking up during January of ’69. This is not a breakup movie, but they do break up nonetheless. They break up in September or October of 1969, so they’re about eight months away. So when you think about it, everything The Beatles have achieved, all the fame, they’re going to be breaking up in about eight or nine months.
George Harrison is still only 25 years old, and he’s achieved everything he’s achieved. John and Ringo are 28 and Paul is 26. And so, yeah, you are right. A lot of people have watched the footage and said, “They’re so young,” but if you think about it, they were younger on The Ed Sullivan Show. They were younger at Shea Stadium. It’s amazing that we’re getting towards the end of their career, and they’re still so young. So yeah, I agree.
AVC: Seeing the intimacy of that recording session or seeing the cigarettes on the ground or how many people were in the room, all of that stuff was really very interesting.
PJ: Well, they are a tiny group. When you talk about how many people were in the room, the thing which was a little bit different for the Get Back session was that they’ve got a film crew there and they’ve got microphones and cameras, two sound recorders, a boom operator, a gaffer adjusting the lighting… So there’s a group of people floating around who are just the film people.
But there is only, really, the four Beatles, Mal Evans, their roadie, and Kevin Harriman, who’s the runner who goes get some cups of tea and stuff, and that’s it. So if you took the film crew away, The Beatles have an entourage of two people. It’s the four of them, plus two guys who sort of help with the instruments and setting things up and going and getting cups of tea. They are a tiny group.
They’re still the little Liverpool group that they used to be. Even with all the fame and everything else, they have not ballooned up into some crazy, huge mega, mega machine. They are still just four guys, which, again, was something that really surprised me. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a tiny group.
AVC: Watching, I was just thinking, “These guys know each other so well.” I don’t know if it was all those years grinding it out in Hamburg, but there’s a shorthand they have with each other. They can say half a sentence, and the other person knows what they’re saying. Seeing them pick up each other’s rhythms was pretty fascinating.
PJ: Well, you know, we talked about their ages. When John Lennon met Paul McCartney, John was 16 and Paul was 14. Then two or three months later, George Harrison, who was a school friend of Paul’s, he joins the group, and George is 13. I mean, they started when they were 13, 14, 16 years old.
So, you’re right. By the time they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show—which a lot of Americans think that’s the birth of The Beatles, like The Beatles began on The Ed Sullivan Show—but they’d done over a thousand hours of live performance before The Ed Sullivan Show.
From 1956 onward through Hamburg, where they were doing eight hours a night… Five trips to Hamburg, months and months and months being the lunchtime band of The Cavern Club and all the dance halls and town halls and things around Britain because they toured around Britain endlessly for two or three years.
I mean, they were a well-oiled machine long before they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. People think they came out of nowhere, especially in the States, because Ed Sullivan is such an iconic sort of singular moment where there was this big wow factor in history. But The Beatles had put in seven or eight years of work before The Ed Sullivan Show happened.
AVC: What did the original filmmakers do that you were thrilled to find out they had done? What did they do that made it easier for you?
PJ: Absolutely I can answer that question. It’s a very, very good, very good question, and thank you for asking it because it’s never really talked about.
What Michael Lindsay-Hogg did, and I am so happy he did it, was that he thought he was directing a particular film that started out being a 30-minute TV special. The first half of the Get Back sessions, he thinks he’s making a 30-minute thing for TV of just showing them rehearsing because then they were going to do this performance live on TV when all the songs are finished, but this 30 minutes is going to play beforehand so there’s a little build up to it. Halfway through, though, it becomes a feature film, and that ultimately becomes Let It Be.
When you look at Let It Be, Michael’s not in his film, obviously. Directors generally don’t appear in their own films. He was filming The Beatles and Let It Be shows The Beatles. But what Michael did, which people don’t know about and I didn’t know until I saw these outtakes was that, whenever there was some downtime, whenever they were sitting around waiting—maybe it’s a technical reason, like the guys are setting up the amps or sitting up speakers or the mics, and they have about 10 or 15 minutes of downtime—Michael would have his cameras filming.
Half the time The Beatles didn’t know they were being filmed during these times. They would set them up on tripods. A cameraman would quietly hit the button, and there’d be a 10-minute reel of film in the magazine. They’d walk away from the cameras, and they’d be left alone.
So The Beatles assumed that they’re not being filmed because the cameras were just sitting there. They’d put some tape over the lights so they couldn’t even see that the power’s on, because when you power up the camera, there’s a little light that comes on, so they taped over that. So Michael did a lot to make The Beatles unaware they were being filmed.
Then, he would sit down with them in these down times and he would actually interview them. He’d be like a David Frost or doing a 60 Minutes-style interview where he would be very blunt. I mean, these are some of the most honest interviews, and that’s because they didn’t know they were being filmed, and they thought they were just having a chat with Michael. They’d be answering in a very honest way.
“How is Yoko affecting the group?” he asked John, “Are you and Paul okay? Are you writing together or is there something wrong between you?” These are the questions that you really wish that someone would ask The Beatles, but they never really did.
And yet, this was all on film, and Michael did this just because he had the camera crew. He had film stock, and they were sitting around waiting. He didn’t use any of that in his film, and I’m sure that he didn’t plan on using it, but 50 years later, we have all these incredibly honest interviews with The Beatles talking very, very frankly, and giving very raw and honest answers to Michael’s questions. We’re the lucky ones who can actually use all that stuff.
So he needs huge, huge thanks for having the foresight to do that, just to spend the downtime filming them answering some pretty, pretty blunt, good questions that he asked.
AVC: Those questions are also interesting, because we know the answers to them with years of hindsight, but what were their answers in that moment?
PJ: Yeah, if you ask Paul how he felt about Yoko back then, he’ll give you an honest answer, but it’s an honest answer filtered through the 50 years of what’s happened since. There, you’ve got Michael asking questions right there and then at the time, so you’re getting the totally unfiltered answer. The truth, really.