It’s a huge moment in the history of the Fab Four - the six-hour Disney+ documentary The Beatles: Get Back premieres on the streaming service over three days from November 25-27. It’s directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson.
The Beatles: Get Back is compiled from footage shot by Lindsay-Hogg in January 1969, some of which first appeared in the pioneering director’s original 1970 film, entitled Let It Be. Cameras followed the band’s every move over three weeks – initially at Twickenham Film Studios and latterly at The Beatles’ own Apple Studio in Savile Row – as they plotted their live comeback and accompanying album.
Peter Jackson is the only person in half a century to have been given access to the private film archive and has spent the past three years on the production, which was intended to commemorate Let It Be’s 50th anniversary in 2020, before the pandemic pushed things back a year.
Of course, a team of music executives and creatives have played a crucial role on the documentary and the new edition of the Let It Be album.
As well as overseeing The Beatles’ 50th anniversary reissues, Grammy-winning producer Giles Martin has remixed the music for the documentary series.
Showcased in its entirety for the first time, The Beatles’ rooftop gig at their Apple Corps HQ on January 30, 1969 forms a tent-pole for the documentary.
“It’s funny, because it’s such a famous gig,” said Martin, speaking to Music Week at Abbey Road Studios. “But there is footage of people down at street level and they don’t even know it’s The Beatles, because they couldn’t see them. And if you imagine being down on the ground while someone is playing on a rooftop, the sound is not going to be very good for an audience – apart from just being loud – and that’s when the police stopped them.”
“We actually mixed the rooftop concert for the film before we did the record, and you kind of want The Beatles to be in your face,” added Martin, son of the late Beatles producer George Martin. “Their performances are amazing considering it’s cold, it’s January and they’re singing harmonies in tune on a rooftop without proper monitors.
“Part of our job is putting the energy back into it, because familiarity can breed contempt and people start writing about this stuff more than they listen to it. So it’s just re-stimulating it, shaking it up and going, ‘You know what? They were great.’ And this is great.”
Several of the rooftop recordings (Dig A Pony/I’ve Got A Feeling/One After 909) made it on to The Beatles’ 12th and final studio LP Let It Be, with the hastily arranged 42-minute set going down in history as not only the Fab Four’s first concert since quitting touring in 1966 but – more pertinently – their last live performance together ever.
“Let It Be was going to be a live album of these new songs they hadn’t written yet,” explained Martin. “To give some context, the whole idea behind Let It Be was, ‘We need to find our spark, we need to find the magic that we had.’ They’d done a performance with Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who directed the video for Hey Jude, and they liked the idea of performing because they’d stopped playing live. So they said to themselves, ‘We’ll rehearse and write songs and document that, and then we’ll go and do this live show in front of people.’”
But why the unorthodox setting?
“They couldn’t decide on anywhere else,” laughed Martin. “They went from saying it was going to be on an ocean liner to then saying it would be in an amphitheatre in Tripoli. For me, the reason they played on the rooftop is exactly the same as why they took a photograph of themselves on the zebra crossing for Abbey Road. They had all sorts of ideas for that cover, like being on a mountain top and calling the album Everest or something like that. There were all these theories, but Abbey Road was just the handiest place to do it.”
Their rooftop performances are amazing considering it’s cold, it’s January and they’re singing harmonies in tune on a rooftop without proper monitors
Let It Be marked the conclusion of the 50th anniversary reissues of the final four Beatles records. It debuted at No.2 last month with sales of 17,123, according to the Official Charts Company.
The reissue was newly mixed by Martin and engineer Sam Okell, and released on multiple formats.
“We don’t do things by half with The Beatles,” said Orla Lee-Fisher, Universal Music Group International’s SVP marketing. “They are global superstars and they resonate everywhere, but the advantage of having the Disney+ three-part series is it gives us an elongated campaign. We will have a sustained campaign through 2021; it will be wall-to-wall Beatles from now until the end of the year, which is really exciting and gives us lots of opportunities to keep driving new consumers to The Beatles.
“At the heart of it, is being true to their original spirit and craft. It’s not about changing their legacy, it’s about enhancing it and presenting them to new mediums without taking away anything from the magic that has existed for the last 50-odd years. They are a timeless band, who appeal to every generation, so it’s about carrying on that legacy and using new technology to keep it updated and fresh.”
All the new releases feature the fresh stereo mix, while the physical and digital super-deluxe collections include 27 previously unreleased session recordings and a four-track Let It Be EP.
“They didn’t really have a manager at the time because Brian Epstein had passed away, so they did it with almost a student mentality of, ‘This is going to be great,’ without any real plans,” suggested Giles Martin. “So they went to Twickenham Studios and didn’t have that many songs |at all, but they still planned on playing a live gig and recording it.”
Martin surmised that the short turnaround time was a conscious move to get their creative juices flowing.
“They needed to almost create pressure for themselves to write,” he told Music Week. “Famously, they did a film called Help! and someone said, ‘We need a song for it.’ And the next day John had written a song called Help!. That’s what their abilities were. But I think that you get the sense with Let It Be that Paul was trying to drive it while the rest are going, ‘We’re just tired of all this and want to do something different.’
“Let It Be was a crazy project. I mean, imagine a band now saying, ‘Listen guys, we haven’t got any songs, we’ll get together for three weeks and then we’ll play a massive gig somewhere. And we’ll decide where it’s going to be while we’re rehearsing.’ It was a bonkers concept.”
Of particular fascination to Beatles die-hards is the never before released 14-track Get Back stereo LP mix, compiled by engineer Glyn Johns in May 1969. The Beatles elected to ditch Johns’ version in order to focus on Abbey Road, which followed that September.
“Let It Be is an interesting project, but I didn’t really know that much about it before doing it,” admitted Martin. “I didn’t realise it was only a period of three weeks, for instance; I thought it went on for much longer. I didn’t realise the chronology of it, where they went to Twickenham, then to Savile Row and then played the rooftop, and that was Let It Be. Then Glyn Johns mixed an album and they were like, ‘Oh... this isn’t really what we were looking for.’ Poor Glyn was like, ‘This is what you wanted!’ And they said, ‘Well, not quite. What we wanted was a live album; this is a collage of what we we’ve been doing.’ And so they scrapped it and went and made Abbey Road.”
By the time Let It Be finally dropped alongside Lindsay-Hogg’s film of the same name in May 1970 (the band won an Academy Award for Best Original Score), The Beatles had split.
On the whole, however, the new Disney+ film promises to dispel a few myths about intra-band relations during the era (George Harrison briefly quit the group in the middle of the sessions).
Peter Jackson has looked at all the footage on the tapes and has seen what really happened, as opposed to the story we were all taught
In fact, Lee-Fisher was comforted to discover The Beatles’ brotherhood still largely intact.
“It’s not as people thought it was,” she said. “Peter [Jackson] has looked at all the footage on the tapes and has seen what really happened, as opposed to the story we were all taught. It is not rewriting history, it’s seeing it laid out based on footage.”
“I had this opinion of Let It Be being a problematic, argumentative time for The Beatles,” added Martin. “But I’ve been through 52 hours of footage and George does leave the band, but in a really funny way. John and Paul were struggling with songs so were ignoring the other two, and George just goes, ‘Well that’s it, I’m leaving the band.’ And then he came back two days later. I remember working on the George Harrison documentary [2011’s Living In The Material World] and he actually wrote in his diary, ‘Got up, went to Twickenham, left The Beatles, went to the cinema...’
“There’s a famous scene in which Paul says to George, ‘Don’t play that’ and George goes, ‘I’ll play whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to.’ Now I was in a band and we’d have much worse arguments than that. I don’t think they had enough songs and I think they were cold in Twickenham, but they seemed to have quite a good laugh – especially when they went to Savile Row with [keyboardist] Billy Preston. I think they needed someone to perform to. My dad wasn’t heavily involved in Let It Be and so they didn’t have that figurehead. But then Billy Preston came in and they suddenly had this great musician in the room and had to pull their socks up a bit. But the biggest revelation for me was that it was a bunch of guys jamming, as opposed to a bunch of guys fighting. What’s quite nice to hear is the development of songs and what Let It Be shows you is the way they functioned and collaborated. Even though they were slightly tired of each other, there was an open-mindedness to each other’s ideas.”
As with the previous anniversary projects, Get Back has received the full blessing of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison.
“The entire Beatles team are involved and nothing would happen without their involvement,” said Lee-Fisher.
Paul McCartney expands on his feelings on the era in his foreword for the Let It Be Special Edition book.
“I had always thought the original film Let It Be was pretty sad as it dealt with the break-up of our band, but the new film shows the camaraderie and love the four of us had between us,” he writes. “It’s how I want to remember The Beatles.”
“Paul and Ringo are happy with the film,” said Martin. “I think they get tired of the amount of people making so much money out of speculating about what The Beatles were doing at the time. Paul told me a story about when they went to meet Elvis, and Priscilla Presley opened the door. And when they got back to the hotel, none of them could remember what she was wearing. Paul thought she was wearing a gingham dress, Ringo thought she had a tiara on, and he goes, ‘If we can’t remember what happened, how can other people remember what happened to us?’ And because the movie cut was a bit weird, I think they had forgotten what Let It Be was.”
“The global footprint of The Beatles really helps with the numbers, but it’s about sustaining them,” added Orla Lee-Fisher. “With our new Disney+ partnership, I think there will be a huge scope to expand that to a whole wider audience, so that’s what’s really exciting about it. It’s just about enhancing what we have, building it and broadening that appeal.”
Subscribers can read the full Beatles Let It Be and documentary feature here.