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Taking a sad song and making it better

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Peter Jackson took a sad song and made it better when he blew the dust off a pile of old Beatles film reels and audio tapes.

The New Zealand filmmaker, director of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, set out to find the magic the Fab Four apparently couldn’t muster in January 1969, when they tried — and failed — to avoid an incipient breakup by gathering for a back-to-basics film and album project titled “Get Back” (it would later be known as “Let It Be”).

Jackson was given access to some 56 hours of unseen film and 140 hours of archived audio tapes from the shambolic “Get Back/Let It Be” sessions and discovered that what was long considered a funeral for the Beatles as a band was more like a party. This could rewrite musical history.

Jackson said he found “great stuff” for his documentary miniseries “The Beatles: Get Back.” Running six hours in total, and including the uncut version of the band’s final live performance, it’s scheduled for a three-night run on the Disney Plus streaming service in November.

This runs contrary to the dispiriting evidence of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s making-of doc “Let It Be,” released to movie theatres in spring 1970 as the Beatles were angrily splitting up — their scowls and arguments were up on the big screen for all to see and hear, along with some great music they somehow managed to make. The accompanying “Let It Be” album became their sonic epitaph.

Jackson learned that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had been in more of a playful mood than a mournful one during their infamous January ’69 sessions, but a lot of the fun stuff hadn’t made the final cut of “Let It Be.”

“I was relieved to discover the reality is very different to the myth,” Jackson said in a news release.

“Sure, there’s moments of drama, but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating — it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate.”

To prove it, late last year he released a five-minute montage of clips from his doc, which was originally intended to be a two-hour feature film.

“Hopefully it will put a smile on your face in these rather bleak times that we’re in at the moment,” Jackson said, introducing the montage.

The Beatles are seen clowning around in the studio, joined by family members and friends. There’s even a scene of a happily chatting Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney, the respective wives of Lennon and McCartney, disproving rumours of enmity between the two.

Surviving Beatles Paul and Ringo give a big thumbs up to the project. McCartney said he’s “really happy” with Jackson’s reclamation work, which “shows the truth about the Beatles recording together.” Starr added: “There was a lot of joy and I think Peter will show that.”

The Oscar-winning Jackson has a great track record as a storyteller and reclaimer of history. Besides his acclaimed Tolkien trilogies, he’s also lauded for his First World War documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” released in 2018, which transformed ancient B&W film of soldiers and combat into vivid colour cinema.

Nevertheless, Jackson will have to go a distance to make fans forget the bad vibes and documentary evidence of “Let It Be,” which remains a pop culture totem of clashing personalities and intentions. (The film has never been officially released on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming services, but it’s not hard to find a bootleg rip of the 1980s-era VHS version online.)

John Lennon grins to the camera, in this scene from "The Beatles: Get Back," a documentary that Peter Jackson had created from the voluminous leftovers of the "Let It Be" film and recording sessions of January, 1969.

None of the Beatles liked the “Let It Be” movie. Lennon (who died in 1980) and Harrison (who died in 2001) were particularly vocal about their disdain for it and the recording sessions the film documented. Lennon, who later admitted he was hooked on heroin at the time, called his month before Lindsay-Hogg’s probing cameras as “Hell … the most miserable sessions of all time.” Harrison agreed, declaring them “the low of all time.”

The project was perhaps doomed from the get-go. At McCartney’s urging, the band had decided to make a combination documentary and concert for a TV broadcast. They wanted to get back to their rock ’n’ roll roots — hence the tune “Get Back” that the sessions were originally titled for.

Filmmaker Lindsay-Hogg employed the cinéma vérité style that was then in vogue, eschewing a script or interviews in favour of fly-on-the-wall authenticity. He put the Beatles into Twickenham Film Studios in suburban London, a cold, impersonal and imposing place that did nothing to foster collaborative creativity. Neither did the harsh lighting, which included background hues redolent of faded ’60s psychedelia.

It was a gloomy space, which evidently affected the Beatles’ mood. This is clear early on in a scene in which Paul plays a downbeat piano tune while a sullen Ringo looks on. Both Beatles are dressed in black and there’s a half-eaten green apple on the piano — symbolic reference to the Beatles’ Apple Corps corporate entity, which was also imploding at the time.

Inside the drafty makeshift recording studio, where the Beatles toiled amid a clutter of cameras and wires, used tea cups and ashtrays and a sad-looking bouquet of daffodils, the only band member who seemed focused on the work was Paul.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon smile and mug for the camera, in this scene from Peter Jackson's new documentary, "The Beatles: Get Back." The doc is made from the voluminous leftovers of the sour 1970 doc "Let It Be," and purports to show the band in a much cheerier light.

Constantly by John’s side was the unsmiling Yoko, whom the other Beatles apparently considered an intruder.

With John distracted by his ardent love for Yoko, Paul had become the de facto bandleader, a fact the film tacitly recognized with numerous close-ups. Paul treated John, George and Ringo as his reluctant sidemen, calling out chord changes as he coaxed them through such then new songs as “Get Back,” “Let It Be,” “Two of Us,” “The Long and Winding Road” and the macabre “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a bizarre ode to a fictional serial killer. (The latter tune, loved only by McCartney, would end up on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album, recorded later in 1969 but released before “Let It Be.”)

The band also idled away many hours covering favourite tunes by such admired fellow artists as Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, some of which could make a great spinoff album from Jackson’s doc. In one of the film’s most notorious scenes, lead guitarist George bridles at Paul’s bossiness, telling him, “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it.”

George at one point left the sessions, and also the Beatles, but his departure wasn’t caught on camera. He agreed to return to both only if the filming was shifted to the Beatles’ Apple Corps headquarters on Savile Row in downtown London. George brought with him the talented keyboard player Billy Preston, whom the band had met years earlier when he toured with Little Richard.

The Beatles' final concert performance, on the rooftop of their Apple Corps corporate entity in London, Jan. 30, 1969. The scene is from both their 1970 doc "Let It Be" and from the upcoming Peter Jackson documentary mini-series, "The Beatles: Get Back." (L-R) Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison.

The change of venue and Preston’s enthusiasm were a tonic for the Beatles, so much so that the band warmed to the idea of doing an impromptu live concert on the Apple HQ rooftop, after considering and rejecting such grander schemes as performing in the Sahara Desert or aboard a cruise ship.

The date was Jan. 30, 1969, when the wind was blowing and the temperature was 7 Celsius — John and Ringo borrowed their wives’ coats to ward off the chill. The band performed a lunch hour set for 42 minutes, including a searing take of John’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” his passionate love ode to Yoko. (Roughly half of the concert was in “Let It Be.” Jackson said he’ll show it all in “The Beatles: Get Back.”)

It would prove to be the Beatles’ final live performance as a band and it might have gone longer. But as “Let It Be” shows in one of its few moments of levity, the concert was stopped during a performance of “Get Back” by London police, who were responding to noise complaints below from some very serious business people, who considered the noise an affront to commerce and their ears.

An amused and delighted Lennon offered a comical farewell to the band’s audience, up on the roof and down on the street, as he prepared to leave the makeshift stage: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”

They certainly did — the Beatles are bigger than ever — although “Let It Be” makes you wonder if they were happy to have made it through their decade together. Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” looks to remove all doubt about that. 🌓

(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)

Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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