‘The Beatles: Get Back’ documentary: what you need to know before watching

Director Peter Jackson gives us the perfect primer for his epic new series

When the FBI opened a file on John Lennon in 1971, they must’ve wished they had Peter Jackson on staff. “I do feel like I’m eavesdropping in some sort of CIA-type way on conversations [from] 52 years ago,” the Oscar-winning Lord Of The Rings director says, recalling the years he spent uncovering secretive conversations hidden among 60 hours of footage and 150 hours of audio recordings from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film Let It Be – material lost in the vault, unseen and unheard for half a century.

The result of this four-year surveillance operation is his new three-part Disney+ series The Beatles: Get Back. It’s more than seven hours of the most raw and unguarded footage of The Beatles at work in existence, as they strived to complete an album (‘Let It Be’), concert and accompanying film in just two weeks of January 1969. Though Lennon described the sessions as “hell”, Jackson’s film balances the frictions and bust-ups (George Harrison quitting the band mid-session, omitted from the original film, finally finds its historical home here) with far lighter moments. And gives us not just a live-action document of the biggest band in the world falling apart but a portrait of four friends, under intense pressure, struggling to find a way forward.

Before you watch the first episode, out on Disney+ today (November 25), there are some things you should know. Here they are, in Jackson’s own words…

It was made by a fan, for the fans

“I’m a certainly a Beatles fan,” Jackson says. “I was born in 1961, so I was alive when the Beatles were actually releasing their albums. I can’t remember the Beatles in the ’60s [and] my parents never bought a single Beatles album. We had about 30 records when I was growing up, and not a single Beatles record. But with some pocket money that I saved up, I bought the Red and Blue compilation albums in 1972 and ’73. That was the first time in my life that I ever bought an LP and it was two double albums. And that started me off being a Beatles fan and I have been ever since.”

The Fabs behaved differently when they knew the cameras were on

In new footage from Get Back, it’s clear that being observed changed The Beatles’ musical interactions and behaviour. A serious conflab between Paul and John, for example, turns comical once they realise a microphone is sliding into place above them, and the goldfish bowl conditions of the freezing Twickenham studio clearly add to frictions. Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Jackson explains, went to some lengths to capture the ‘real’ Beatles, though.

“They have this wonderful running battle with Michael Lindsay-Hogg,” he says. “This is one of the things we need to thank Michael for today. He is determined to try to capture as much candid material as he can. Michael’s aware that when he’s pointing these cameras at The Beatles they kind of know they’re being filmed. So he’s determined to try to film them and record them as much as he can without them noticing.

“I’ve been talking to him about it – he would get the cameraman to set up the tripod, press the button and then walk away as if he was off to have a cup of tea. And the camera would have a 10-minute roll of film in it, and it would just be quietly [recording]. They’d also have a red light when the power’s on, so he used to put some tape over the red light. The Beatles see this camera and think: ‘Well, it’s just there for when it’s gonna be used in the day, but we’re not being filmed at the moment.’ Well they were being filmed.”

George Harrison
George Harrison leaving the Twickenham studio in January 1969. CREDIT: Getty

We finally learn more about why George quit the band…

On Friday January 10, amid rising friction, George Harrison left The Beatles mid-filming. He went home, wrote ‘Wah-Wah’, and only returned to the band five days later, on the condition that plans for a concert at the end of the project were dropped and sessions relocated to the Apple offices at Savile Row.

Luckily, Lindsay-Hogg would also plant microphones around the studio to catch the band’s conversations. It was by bugging a plant pot in the canteen that he caught John and Paul discussing Harrison’s “festering wound” of discontent. Jackson’s new process called ‘demixing’, which separates each instrument and voice, has helped excavate some of their spicier chats.

“What [the band] used to do is, if they were in a conversation, they would turn their amps up loud and they’d strum the guitar,” says Jackson. “They’d just be strumming, not playing anything, no tune, just [noise]. So all Michael’s microphones were recording was this loud guitar. And you’d see The Beatles talking, having some private chat. But what we’ve been able to do with computer and artificial-intelligence-based technology is strip the guitars off, and expose [what’s underneath]. Some key parts of our movie feature private conversations that they tried to disguise or tried to cover up at the time that he was recording them. It’s a little bit naughty, but we have access to all these personal conversations.”

Get Back
In the studio at Apple HQ on Savile Row. CREDIT: Disney

…but the Beatles really didn’t want us to

“They just didn’t like being seen behind the camera,” Jackson believes. “I spoke to Michael Lindsay-Hogg, I’ve been talking to him all the time and he’s been telling me stories of his post-production of The Beatles coming to the cutting room and directing certain things. Paul would come in one day and say: ‘Can you put this in or take that out?’ The next day John would come in and give completely different instructions to Michael. Poor Michael’s there trying to make everybody happy. Michael wasn’t allowed to show George leaving. They said: ‘No, no, absolutely not. You’re not gonna be showing that bit.’”

Fifty years on, Jackson believes that the various Beatles estates are no longer so precious about their public perception. “I think history has overtaken their concern about their image – the normal pop star ego sort of thing. That’s so far in the past now, do they need to be concerned about the image of The Beatles? No, they don’t. It’s minted in history and culture. I think they feel that they can now afford to let the world see a little bit more truthfulness than what they’ve ever seen before.

“They’re nervous, but okay about it. There’s a degree of courage on their part. They’re pulling the curtain away and you’re seeing what’s behind the curtain for the first time ever. Now they haven’t got [the film] Let It Be at 80 minutes long, they’ve got a supercharged version of it with a lot more controversial stuff in there. We show you George leaving.”

Get Back
During the famous rooftop concert on Savile Row. CREDIT: Disney

There was less fighting than people think

What’s striking about Get Back is how largely good-natured and fun the project which Lennon called “the most miserable sessions on earth” looks in Jackson’s film. If the Twickenham rehearsals seem like they’re trying to get musical blood out of several stony-faced guitarists, in Savile Row there are comedy larks and singalongs aplenty.

“When I looked at it all the first time, I came away thinking: ‘Well actually they’re pretty decent normal guys. They’re all different, but then any four people are different,” says Jackson. “There was this commercialisation of The Beatles in the ’60s: the four mop tops. One’s the witty one, one’s the charming one, one’s the quiet one – they had their little labels. But they were kind of a unit. And here we see that they’re not a unit. They’re just four guys, four separate human beings. They have their own opinions. They deal with things in a different way. The film is so extensive that it gives you a pretty good sense of who they are. If anything, I came away thinking: ‘Well they’re actually pretty decent sensible guys. There’s no ego. There’s no prima donna. They have disagreements. They have different ambitions. But they’re just four decent Liverpool lads.’ I respected them more.”

Barely anything worthwhile is left out

At over seven hours long, Get Back includes virtually everything Jackson felt was worth fans seeing.

“I’d like to say that I didn’t really leave out anything that I thought was important,” he claims, “which is why the duration has crept up to what it is today. I felt acutely – and this is the Beatles fan part of me kicking in – anything I don’t include in this movie might go back in the vault for another 50 years. I was seeing and hearing these amazing moments. I thought: ‘God, people have got to see this. This is great. They have to see this.’ One of the legendary Beatles things is the full length ‘Dig It’. On the ‘Let It Be’ album there’s only 40, 50 seconds of ‘Dig It’, which was like an improvised song that they do. The Beatles fans all know that the original has been on bootleg as well. We trimmed it to get it down to four minutes or something because the original is 12 or 13 minutes long… So you get a lot more than you do on the ‘Let It Be’ album.”

You get to watch The Beatles play ‘Gimme Some Truth’

And plenty of other future solo tracks too, amid the vast array of tunes The Beatles played over the course of the fortnight. Frankly, it’s a miracle ‘Let It Be’ wasn’t at least five times better than it is.

“There are rock ‘n’ roll songs, they do 12 of the Abbey Road tracks… plus there’s probably eight or 10 of their solo album tracks [in there]. You see The Beatles doing ‘Gimme Some Truth’ [in] a very rough rehearsing kind of way. Plus ‘All Things Must Pass’, which was obviously George’s big solo release – and ‘Another Day’, which was Paul McCartney‘s first single when he went solo. And there’s multiple singles.”

It made Paul reevaluate the band’s breakup

“I’ll tell you what is really fabulous about it,” Paul said to The Sunday Times earlier this month, “it shows the four of us having a ball. It was so reaffirming for me… It just proves to me that my main memory of the Beatles was the joy and the skill. I definitely bought into the dark side of The Beatles breaking up and thought: ‘God, I’m to blame.’ But at the back of my mind there was this idea that it wasn’t like that. I just needed to see proof.”

“When they got to see the finished thing, I was expecting notes,” Jackson says. “It would’ve just been normal to get a note saying: ‘Oh, that bit where I say that – could you cut that out?’ Or ‘could you shorten the conversation there?’ And I didn’t get a single note. Not one request to do anything. One of them said that they watched it and found it one of the most stressful experiences of their entire life. ‘But I’m not gonna give you any notes.’

“Paul describes it as being very raw. He said to me: ‘That is a very accurate portrait of how we were then.’ Ringo said: ‘It’s truthful.’ The truthfulness of it is important to them. They don’t want a whitewash. They don’t want it to be sanitised. Disney wanted to remove all the swearing and Ringo, Paul and Olivia said: ‘That’s how we spoke. That’s how we talked. That’s how we want the world to see us.’”

‘The Beatles: Get Back’ will be released on Disney+ in the UK. Part one is streaming now, parts two and three arrive on November 26 and 27