Peter Jackson does love a good epic trilogy … and so, now, do Beatles fans. When it was announced in June that a change in plans for Jackson’s “Get Back” documentary was afoot, and it was now going to be three times as long as originally announced — a three-part streaming docuseries on Disney Plus, instead of a single theatrical feature — aficionados who’d long hoped to see outtakes from the 1970 “Let It Be” realized they were going to get their own multi-part quest film.
But would it be possible to achieve mythos out of footage that is known for containing a certain amount of mundanity, or at least inglorious bickering? No one wanted to see Frodo arguing with Aragorn about which brand of chain mail armor they should suit up in. Then again, conversely, there were Beatlemaniacs who, having looked at trailers for “Get Back” that emphasized newfound fun-loving moments, worried that Jackson would get caught up in a whitewash of history and eliminate the tense moments that everyone remembered from the first “Let It Be” film in favor of making it feel like a real-life “Help!” sequel. Could the filmmaker really give full weight to all the moods and methods of the Beatles in their last year of existence as a band? The answer was yes, just as surely as Doris got her oats.
Jackson joined Variety for an episode of “Doc Dreams,” presented by National Geographic, to discuss everything from the changing target lengths of his edits over the last four years of work to which Beatle he relates to most. (Spoiler: there’s a little bit of each Beatle in all of us, or probably should be.)
Jackson wanted to give fans a true, extended, fly-on-the-wall look at the making of the “Let It Be” album instead of the quick buzz-by they’d gotten in director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary of that same name. And, just as “Get Back” itself is largely about the Beatles re-learning the art of negotiation, the filmmaker knew it might take some negotiating to get anyone to agree with his growing conviction that the originally agreed-upon two-and-a-half-hour running time should be just a drop in the bucket.
“When I first met with Apple, they were just wrapping up ‘Eight Days a Week’ with Ron Howard,” he says, recalling the 2016 doc about the Beatles’ final tours in the mid-‘60s. “And so when we talked about doing something with the outtakes from ‘Let It Be,’ a theatrical film was certainly the plan going in. Then when I started working on it with Jabez (Olssen, his editor), we had 130 or140 hours of audio and 60-odd hours of video footage, and so we thought, ‘Let’s at least just get it down to something that we can manage.’ That’s when the 18-hour cut happened” — no, that’s not a typo — “but the plan was to keep going and make it two and a half hours. And then the pandemic happened.” In March 2020, Disney knew a fall theatrical run was not in the cards and decided to bump it a year. That gave Jackson and Olssen another year to edit, which they gladly took. But rather than keep whittling, they went back into the rushes and were even finding great bits they’d overlooked in making that first 18-hour cut, even as they whittled away at the bulk of it.
“And we ended up with six hours, at the beginning of this year, maybe, or towards the end of last year,” Jackson says. “And so then the moment came where we just thought, ‘How on earth did we get it any shorter than this?’ Because at that point, you’re starting to commit a crime against rock ‘n’ roll history if you start trimming any more out, because there’s stuff there that people have to see. They haven’t seen it (yet) in 50 years, and anything that we weren’t going to put in this film, I was painfully aware, was likely to go back in the vault for another 50 years. So long as it told a story, and it wasn’t just gratuitous nonsense, if it was something that was important for people interested in the history of the Beatles to see, it should be in there.
“We had to then own up to Disney and to the Beatles, to Apple Corps, that we thought the film should be six hours long, not two and a half,” he continues. They got back a polite “Show it to us” from the relevant parties, and “that was the most nervous time I’ve had on this whole project, waiting for their verdict … The Beatles were the ones that we were waiting for them to look at it –Ringo (Starr) and Paul (McCartney) and Olivia (Harrison) and Sean (Lennon) — and the verdict came back from them saying: ‘Six hour — great. We understand why it’s six hours. We’re happy with a six-hour version.’” (Shhh — don’t tell anybody, but the version that’s premiering on Disney Plus over three nights this Thanksgiving actually runs closer to eight.)
“Look at the mathematics of it,” he says. “Just to explain: We’re telling the story of 22 days. On the second-to-last day, we’ve got the rooftop concert in its entirety” — and it was a given that, no matter what the length or format, showing fans that, unexpurgated, was a given. “That’s 45 minutes. So if you (have) a two-and a half hour feature film, and then you’re saying, ‘We’re going to tell it day by day,’ what’s the mathematics of each of the rest of these days? You realize the mathematics is, you’ve got somewhere between two and three minutes per day. And suddenly, it just seemed insane. On each day, such important events happened, and to actually explain the narrative of what’s going on, you can’t possibly put these into two to three minutes.”
Jackson felt firmly that many of these days were key chapters unto themselves — “like a 20-to-30 minute short film that starts at the beginning of the day, goes to the end and describes the narrative arc of what happens that day. Because it’s such an evolving project and things are changing all the time. They don’t know where this concert’s going to be” — the one-time return to live performance that ended as a rooftop gig, but at times was being discussed as possibly happening in Africa or on a barge. “They’re writing new songs every day. Every day there’s a development occurring. So each of these days is like a little film unto itself, but each of the days joins together. You’re going on this journey as the Beatles experienced it back in the day.”
Most of the famous tension comes in the first of the three episodes, which ends on a cliffhanger after George Harrison abruptly quits the band, a few days into filming, just as everyone is about to take what seems like it should be an ordinary lunch break. An earlier scene in which Harrison exchanges a few sharp words with McCartney about how he’s being ordered to carry out guitar parts was famously included in the 1970 film, and is one of the few bits here carried over from that. But Jackson has been able to use scenes after that that go to a far more ominous place, before things start getting better all the time, as it were, in the second and third acts. So much for the whitewash.
“Of course, things go wrong. As a person that likes stories, I’m glad it all went wrong,” Jackson allows. “Because the most boring film would have been the Beatles arrive at Twickenham (the film studio where the Beatles initially are filmed), do two or three weeks of rehearsing and it all goes great. They build the set. They shoot the TV special. It’s fantastic. They’re finished, and the album’s released. That would be interesting, because Michael Lindsay-Hogg would still be filming it all, but if it went smoothly, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting … It derails for various reasons. They’re constantly trying to steady the tracks in front of the train to get to some sort of a good result out of this rather chaotic project that they’re on.
“From the point of view of the four Beatles, I think we learn more about their personalities and who they were as human beings, because they’re reacting to things going wrong rather than reacting to things all working out well. It’s when you’re dealing with a crisis that you actually learn a bit more about the people that you’re watching… The fact that it never really quite happened the way they planned it, as a dramatist, I’m quite grateful for that, to be honest.”
But things do get mirthful, if not downright Monty Python-esque. This even occurs in moments in the Twickenham footage, and especially once the Beatles make a sensible move back into their own Apple studio and bring in Billy Preston as a fifth Beatle. The Beatles themselves, both living and dead, have left behind a string of quotes over the years describing the making of “Let It Be” as nothing but miserable. And it was seen as their “divorce album,” even though it ended so well that they almost immediately headed into “Abbey Road,” the final album they made but the penultimate to be released. So how does Peter Jackson tell the surviving members that, if they recall it as traumatic, they have false memory syndrome, and were actually having a good deal of fun?
In December 2017, McCartney came to New Zealand on tour, and was invited backstage to discuss the project. “I had an iPad, and so I went into the dressing room and shook his hand and said, ‘So, Paul, I’ve seen all the outtakes from “Let It Be.”’ I could see the nervousness on his face… I mean, he was there in 1969, but he hadn’t seen the footage. And he said, ‘…yeah?’ And I could see there was trepidation on his face. I just said, ‘Look, whatever you think it is, it’s not what you think it is. Because I thought it was going to be miserable, but I’m amazed at how funny and happy it is. It’s completely different to what imagined.’ … He said, ‘Yeah? What? Really?’ And then I started showing him things on an iPad. … And then I went to L.A. a couple of times and showed Ringo things. And I started to ease them into the idea of the ‘Let It Be’ experience was not what they remember. “Because they remember the movie coming out in May 1970, which is they were in the midst of breaking up. It must’ve been such a miserable, stressful time for them. But they had somehow imposed all their memories of the ‘Get Back’ sessions from January 1969 on the May 1970 release of the film. So ‘Let It Be’ for them is a symbol of a very unhappy time that they were personally experiencing when the band was breaking up, and they transposed all of that emotional memory onto the ‘Get Back’ sessions, which obviously is unfair, because that was 15 months earlier. I have had to sort of just gently kind of show Ringo and Paul that it’s not quite how they remember it. It’s not May 1970; this is January 1969.”
“But I tell you what, all the way through the books and the interviews in the ‘Anthology’ with everyone saying how miserable it was, two voices were loud and clear that said the opposite. One was Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who has always said, ‘Well, it wasn’t as bad as people think it was.’ And I talked to him about his movie, because his movie’s not bad, either. I mean, his movie is perfectly okay if you see it in the context that it’s not a breakup film. If there’s anything against his film, it’s because the 16mm-to-35 blowup in 1970 was a bit rough, and it’s very grainy and the colors are muted, so that adds to the gloom of the thing a little bit, on the technical side. But it’s not a breakup film at all. And the other person was Glyn Johns, who was there every day, recording and producing the music. Glyn has always said, ‘I don’t know why people have this thought about the “Get Back” sessions. I was there and I was laughing all day long every day…’ So Glyn and Michael were the two dissenting voices all the way through the years as the miserable reputation was growing and building; those two guys were always the dissenting voices. And they were absolutely 100% correct.” Someone else came to change his mind about “Let It Be” — the album version, that is: Jackson.
“I’ve come to appreciate the songs a lot more,” he says. “If you’d asked me the question five years ago, things like ‘I’ve Got A Feeling,’ ‘Dig a Pony,’ ‘Two Of Us,’ they would have been in my bottom third of favorite Beatles songs. I love those songs now. Maybe it’s because I’ve just lived with them for four years. ‘Dig A Pony’ — what a great song! And obviously, ‘Let It Be,’ ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Get Back’ are classics. But I actually really love ‘One After 909.’ I love the performance on the roof, partly because that was filmed in such a dynamic way… John wrote it when he was 15 years old.
“They resurrect it because they’re looking for material. They need 14 songs and they go back into their old childhood list of songs that they wrote and never recorded. The thing is, was there anything back there that wasn’t complete crap? We’ve got the footage of them playing a whole bunch of these old songs. They’d land on ‘One After 909,’ and George said, ‘That’s a really good song. We should do it.’ John says, ‘Well, I always wanted to change the words. The words were terrible.” Paul says, ‘No, it’s fantastic words. Let’s do it.’ They jump onto this old childhood song of theirs. Then on the roof, they just performed that like they’re having the greatest time in the world. These are guys who are now finally getting to perform a song that they worked on when they were 15 years old. I love it. Great rock ‘n’ roll song.”
Did Jackson find himself identifying most with any of the Beatles? Surely, as a director, he would identify with Paul’s strong desire to, as he said earlier, put tracks in front of the train on a project that’s in danger of losing any momentum? Jackson sets the stage for his thoughts on this. “In the context of all the footage and all the material, I understand the dynamics of the Beatles a bit more. There’s the famous altercation between George and Paul, which is in (the 1970 film) ‘Let It Be,’ which we’ve got as well, the ‘I’ll-play-anything-you-want-me-to-play.’ But we’ve got that now in the context of a much longer conversation. Because of our actual length, that little bit’s in the middle of a 10-minute conversation. Both of them are right. George is trying to get the song as good as he can, and he feels he’s being rushed and pushed along. He’s being rushed and pushed along because Paul’s realizing he’s committed to 14 new songs in less than two weeks.
“Paul’s like a director,” Jackson goes on to agree. “I’ve been on a film set and it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and we’re only third of the way through the day, and we’ve got to shoot the rest of it. I start to behave pretty badly on set: ‘Come on, guys. Hurry up. Don’t do that.’ I’m looking at Paul and I think, ‘Yeah.’ But George, on the other hand, is perfectly right too. He’s saying, ‘Well, I can only play it like I want to. You can push me along all you like, but you’re not going to get a better result. I’ve got my process.’ You just understand that these two guys have just perfectly normal reasonable opinions, and it’s the project itself, which has imposed this deadline on them, which is bringing this to the surface.
“George is great, because he’s so pragmatic. They’re talking about going to Libya to do the show in an amphitheater, and they realize that if they have an audience in Libya full of the local Arabs, that they’re not going to understand a word that they’re singing. They’re just going to sit there, getting bored. They realized that they need an English-speaking audience in the amphitheater in Libya. They’re going to have to hire a ship and transport the entire audience for the show to Libya, and George was saying, ‘Well, how much is that going to cost? It’s going to be crazy.’ Then Paul says, ‘Well, we can get the QE2,’ which was a brand new ship at that point. John’s saying, ‘Well, they’ll give it to us for free because the publicity that the Queen, or whoever, will get. If they give us the QE 2 for free, imagine the publicity they’ll get.’ George says, he says, ‘I think you’re bloody mad. (People) won’t even give us a free amp.’
“George is this wonderful, pragmatic guy who takes all the romance out of the other guys who go supernova into these flights of fancy. He just says, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ I really relate to George. As a filmmaker, ultimately, you just have to get down to the basic, bare bones of it and get a reality check happening. George is the guy you want in the group. You want John and Paul in your group, because you want that genius to be going into these crazy directions, but you always want George in your group as well to say, ‘That’s a bloody stupid idea.’ I really appreciate George for that. He would be great on a film set because he’s a let’s-just-cut-all-the-crap-out guy.
“As a foursome, they all make an incredible unit of four people. Ringo is the least emotionally involved in it all, but he’s the glue that holds it together. He’s got to be there (on his drum riser). He doesn’t know what George and John or Paul are going to play next. They don’t have any plan. They suddenly just launch into some song, and he’s got to be right there, so he doesn’t get to relax at all. They can goof off and do stuff, but as soon as they start (playing), he’s got to be there. I feel sorry for Ringo. He’s got to be focused and concentrate the entire time. He doesn’t look like he’s having a great deal of fun most of the time, but because he’s got to perform. He’s the heartbeat of the group, and he’s such a great drummer. The Beatles are the Beatles. They’re not John Lennon and the Beatles or Paul McCartney and the Beatles. They’re the Beatles of the four guys as a unit. That’s what I think people will take away from this. It’s not that ‘John was the genius’ thing, or the ‘Paul was a genius’ thing, or ‘George was underrated.’ All the stories that you read, sure, you can spin it like that, but what people will take away is the Beatles were, and always have been the unit of four guys all supporting each other, all liking each other, and having this affection for each other. They’ve got each other’s backs every step of the way.”