The Beatles meet 'The Lord of the Rings' in 'Get Back': 'It'll blow your mind,' says director Peter Jackson
Just as The Beatles used their timeless songs in the 1960s to take millions of listeners across the universe on a magical musical mystery tour, Oscar-winning "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy director Peter Jackson has taken millions of viewers worldwide on a magical cinematic mystery tour in this century.
So what happens when these two worlds and creative forces intersect, 51 years after The Beatles acrimoniously split up in 1970?
"It'll blow your mind!" said Jackson, a lifelong fan of the most famous and influential band in rock 'n' roll history.
And what happens when that unlikely intersection — which has resulted in Jackson's engrossing new film documentary, "The Beatles: Get Back" — comprehensively chronicles the month of January 1969?
That was when the fabled band simultaneously made its penultimate album, "Let It Be," and an identically titled film documentary.
The four Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — undertook both projects in spite of the rapidly rising tensions that soon led to them permanently disband. They had no way of knowing the film crew they had hired to capture the creation of their new album and final concert would end up documenting what many regard as The Beatles' painful on-screen divorce.
Why would fans want to revisit such a downward spiral on film again, even with three-time Oscar winner Jackson at the helm? Why would Jackson devote four years of his life to it?
These questions are answered as the Jackson-directed "Get Back" has debuted exclusively on Disney+. It is shown in three installments that, together, total more than six hours.
The original "Let It Be" film clocked in at a fleeting 80 minutes and included just 21 minutes of The Beatles' final public performance, an impromptu winter gig on a London rooftop. "Get Back" boasts the entire 42-minute performance by the band and guest keyboardist Billy Preston, who all but joined the band as "Let It Be" was being filmed.
Jackson's documentary follows the October release of the 240-page book, "The Beatles: Get Back," and a new "Let It Be Special Edition" box set. The latter includes five CDs with 57 songs, one Blu-ray disc and a 100-page book. It is also available in a vinyl edition and in smaller CD iterations.
"Get Back" was originally set to open in theaters last year as a two-and-a-half-hour feature film but was pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic. With more time unexpectedly on his hands, Jackson transformed his feature film into the expanded, six-hour epic seen on Disney+.
"The pandemic has been devastating, but it was absolutely a silver lining for 'Get Back' (growing) into a three-part presentation," said Clare Olssen, the film's producer.
Jackson culled "Get Back" from nearly 60 hours of previously unseen footage that was shot in January 1969 for director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's briefly released and widely criticized "Let It Be" documentary.
Providing added intrigue, shortly after the 1969 filming, many of the original reels of footage were stolen by a former employee of The Beatles' Apple Studio, Nigel Oliver. He sold it to two Dutch music traders for about $60,000. Interpol recovered the purloined reels during a 2003 raid in Holland.
With few exceptions, while making "Get Back," Jackson deliberately avoided using any of the footage that was featured in Lindsay-Hogg's film — the better to provide viewers a captivating new experience with one of the most documented rock bands of all time.
"I tried to make a very honest movie," said Jackson, who — based on preview footage provided to interviewers — appears to have achieved his goal.
The differences between "Get Back" and "Let It Be" are profound, even though they use the same source material. "Get Back" also draws from nearly 120 hours of previously unheard audio recordings.
"The footage was shot in January 1969, and The Beatles didn't really break up until September of that year," Jackson noted during a recent Zoom interview from his home in the New Zealand capital of Wellington.
"So it's not that the band breaks up then (in January), even though there are ups and downs in that month. I didn't have to manipulate the story. Because, fortunately, the story was built into the (existing footage) — the story of how they set out to do a recording and a live show, and have 14 new songs written in two weeks. ... I was lucky the film already had enough drama from the real events that took place."
Jackson and his team started work in 2017 on "Get Back." They carefully restored, upgraded and enlarged the grainy original 16-millimeter 1969 "Let It Be" film footage so that it now pops with vibrant color.
They also developed a new form of AI audio engineering — a sort of sonic forensics — they dubbed "MAL" (a play on the AI super computer "HAL" in the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey"). The name "MAL" is in honor of The Beatles' beloved road manager and principal assistant, Mal Evans, who shares some screen time with the band in "Get Back."
Using "MAL," Jackson and his colleagues were able to painstakingly and precisely isolate each and every audio track — be it musical instrumentation, singing or studio chatter — from the original mono recordings made for most of "Let It Be."
Released in 1970, "Let It Be" seemed to be shrouded in literal and figurative darkness — apart from the truncated scenes of the rousing London rooftop concert that marked The Beatles' final public performance on Jan. 30, 1969.
"Get Back" balances "Let It Be's" gloomy, downhill-and-shadows tone with scenes of lightness and levity with The Beatles. It also takes a deep dive into the complex human emotions and egos that drove the four members of the legendary band.
Those emotions and egos ultimately drove The Beatles apart for good, after they recorded their final album, "Abbey Road," later in 1969. (Because "Abbey Road" was released before "Let It Be," many fans at the time understandably thought "Let It Be" — which was recorded first — was the last album the band made.)
For some viewers, then, "Let It Be" almost qualifies as a real-time wake for The Beatles, starring The Beatles.
Poignancy is one of the most vital components in Jackson's "Get Back." Even more crucially, he also provides much-needed context — a quality largely missing from "Let It Be" — thanks to the trove of previously unseen footage and careful editing.
"Get Back" doesn't shy away from the tense and uncomfortable scenes that presaged the implosion of the already splintering Beatles. But it also opens a welcome new lens that is far richer, more nuanced and intimate than "Let It Be." And "Get Back" offers both lighthearted and moving moments to illustrate the deep bonds that united the four Beatles, even as their band neared its demise.
What results is not a remake or recasting of history, but a broadening of it. "Get Back" doesn't paint a brand-new picture, but it greatly expands upon the often bleak one "Let It Be" painted.
It has already proven eye-opening for McCartney, 79, and Starr, 81. (Lennon was killed by a gunman in 1980; Harrison died of cancer in 2001.)
"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," McCartney writes in his foreword for the "Let It Be Special Edition" box set's book.
"It also shows the wonderful times we had together, and combined with the newly remastered 'Let It Be' album, stands as a powerful reminder of this time. It's how I want to remember The Beatles."
Speaking now of McCartney and Starr's reaction to "Get Back," Jackson said: "It's not the story the way they remember parts of it, because they don't remember it; it was more than 50 years ago. They lived through it, but they can't remember it — except the miserable part of breaking up in 1970 and all the acrimony.
"But they thought it was a very accurate portrayal of the band and that made me think: 'I've achieved my goal.' We could balance things and add context, which is critically important in this film."
Because the first "Get Back" preview released last year was so upbeat, some observers worried Jackson was sanitizing an undeniably messy and bitter period in The Beatles' storied history. It's a notion he is quick to dispute.
"There are a lot of things in 'Get Back' that are actually tougher and more raw and honest than in 'Let It Be,'" the bearded director noted.
"For example, Michael Lindsay-Hogg wasn't allowed in 1969 to show George (Harrison) leaving the band and walking out for a few days. He filmed that and has scenes of George announcing he's quitting (the band). Michael wasn't allowed to show that, but we do. We had no restrictions."
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