Peter Jackson on Defining Beatles History in Get Back

Jackson on the responsibilities of making the miniseries: "I became acutely aware that there's so much that should be seen that's been hidden from the world for 50 years."

by | November 24, 2021 | Comments

There are certain stories about the rock band The Beatles that pop culture has cemented as fact. Paul McCartney was the handsome one. John Lennon was the talented one. The band’s breakup is all Yoko Ono’s fault.

In The Beatles: Get Back, director Peter Jackson’s three-part, six-hour documentary surrounding some of the Fab Four’s final days, some of these myths will be disrupted. The miniseries, which premieres its first episode November 25 on Disney+ with the other two subsequently hitting the streamer on the 26th and 27th, respectively, is based on the cinéma vérité-style footage that documentarian Michael Lindsay-Hogg captured while making Let It Be. That film was meant to be a companion piece to the band’s similarly titled twelfth studio album, but fans considered it proof of (and causes for) the group’s impending breakup.

(Photo by Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.)

Although Lindsay-Hogg’s film is largely taken out of circulation and exists on bootlegs, the footage that ended up in it — as well as the extra pieces he and his crew captured — have been remastered and re-edited by Jackson and his staff to create a new, perhaps definitive narrative of what happened during those recording sessions and the subsequent infamous rooftop concert when the band gathered with musician Billy Preston to play their last show together. Some of Jackson’s miniseries is lighthearted and fun, with McCartney and Lennon do-si-doing around a cramped recording space or a young Heather McCartney, McCartney’s adopted daughter, spinning around and singing with the band. Others are more serious, such as when a broken down George Harrison comes into the studio after staying up late to write “Old Brown Shoe” — or when he quits the band.

“It’s not the Beatles I find interesting, to some degree; it’s the music,” Jackson told Rotten Tomatoes of his decision to take on a project that is going to be met with as much scrutiny as the original film. “I’ve just been a fan. For one reason only, really: because I love the songs, love the music. It’s infectious.”

Jackson added that “once you love the music, that naturally leads to an interest in who were the guys that actually created this music. The Beatles are in a particular category — which is quite rare — where they are a famous band with famous singers or recording artists who write their own material.”

Jackson spoke in more detail about the process of creating his miniseries. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Whitney Friedlander for Rotten Tomatoes: The Beatles themselves always came across as uncomfortable about what Let It Be depicted. You’ve said that McCartney was nervous to meet you when he learned you were working on Get Back. But he and fellow surviving member Ringo Starr gave you their blessings to make this film, as did Lennon’s widow Ono and Harrison’s widow Olivia. It’s been 50 years since the first film came out. Do you think it’s helped them, as well as you as a filmmaker, that so much time has passed?

Peter Jackson: In talking about Michael’s movie, Let It Be, one example is that during the course of this month in January ’69, George Harrison leaves the group. In Get Back, you’ll see the reasons why. But when Michael made his movie in 1970, the Beatles wouldn’t allow him to show that.

They were breaking up at the time his movie came out. And they were all very concerned about their individual images. They were still young men. They were still in their 20s, and they had a lot of career ahead of them. And obviously, they had a view to looking after the image of the band and themselves individually. And so suddenly, I’ve benefited from the fact that 50 years has gone by because I show George leaving — this footage that Michael shot that he couldn’t use — and they didn’t have any concerns about it at all, including Olivia Harrison.

Not that anybody’s actually said it in plain language, but I get the impression that the Beatles have come to the point in their lives that this is historic now rather than being their image is at stake. They’ve had 50 years where they’ve cemented themselves into popular culture and now they can be less concerned with their images. And they also acknowledge the historic nature of the footage and that it should be seen.

(Photo by Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.)

Where you also cognizant of the “boy band” archetypes that the band established and that we still see today? Like that Paul was the pretty one or that George was the nice one? And, if so, how important was it to you to dispel those ideas? For example, there’s footage of Lennon relaxing at the mic while Paul has intense conversations with producer Glyn Johns.

Jackson: You’re talking really about A Hard Day’s Night and Help and the movies they made in the ’60s. I wasn’t a fictitious film; I wasn’t concerned with having to present the Beatles as as a “type.” Because, you’re right, [the idea] that John was the funny, witty sarcastic one, and Paul was a pretty one, and Ringo Starr was your grandmother’s favorite Beatle, and all that sort of thing that was very much from from the the image from the ’60s and they, themselves, perpetrated that.

There is a fictitious public persona of these four guys, but that’s the exact polar opposite of what this footage is; this footage is honest, raw, fly-on-the-wall footage. You see them in the most human, intimate way you can.

Preston passed away in 2006. Did you reach out to his family? Or did you reach out to other people featured in the film, like musician Alan Parsons, who served as assistant engineer?

Jackson: Alan Parsons I met in Los Angeles and had a talk with him. I met as many people as I could in the beginning because I’ve been working on it for four years. Even though it’s entirely based on footage… because I had to make editorial choices on the footage (it’s 150 hours of audio and 50 or 60 hours of footage), I had to make decisions. And I had to make decisions that would accurately reflect what was happening at the time. So I wanted to do my own research and educate myself.

So in the early days, pre-COVID, I was traveling around London and meeting as many people as I could. Glyn Johns. I met the policeman who got up on the roof [during the concert], I met the focus puller, the clapper loader, the cameraman… I met all sorts of people who were involved and just, generally, quizzed them about their memories.

(Photo by Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.)

You used restoration techniques similar to the ones you used for your World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. Aside from obvious changes like color enhancement, were there other things you learned from viewing this footage with that technique?

Jackson: It wasn’t the picture, it was the sound. For a lot of it, you’re just hearing the sound that the film crew is recording because it’s just rehearsing. They’re recording on mono tapes; they’re not putting it through a mixing desk that you would in a professional recording studio. So you’re getting the guitars and drowning out the vocals; all the stuff that you’d never want to hear on a finished recording, and that is mono, so it’s all baked in that you can’t do anything about it. But we developed a machine learning program based on artificial intelligence that allowed us to split the mono recording into all its components. So we taught the computer what a human voice sounds like, so we were able to say ‘give us the vocal track,’ and we’d get a track, which was just the vocals. Even though you’d see Ringo thumping the drums and the guys playing guitar, you couldn’t hear the drums; you couldn’t hear the guitars; you just have these beautiful clean vocals.

We developed a process which allowed us to remix all that and rebalance all the audio, which is a huge breakthrough. And the other byproduct of that is that there was a lot of times when they were having conversations, and what the Beatles did, I’m pretty sure — it seems to be obvious from what I can see in the film — is that they became very clever at having their conversations hidden. Particularly John Lennon and George Harrison, whenever they wanted to have a talk about something private, they were aware that Michael Lindsay-Hogg was trying to tape the conversation, so they’d wind an amp up and they just start strumming the guitar while they’re talking.

What this technology allowed us to do is strip the guitar away, and so suddenly, all these private conversations that they were having were loud and clear.

You also give some credit to Yoko Ono in this project. You show that it seems like she and Lennon were very much in love. In one humorous scene, they are reading tabloid fodder about them.

Jackson: I was really careful not to try to insert myself into the whole process. But I had to make editorial decisions and stuff, and anything I thought as a Beatles fan that I would be interested in… Hearing the Beatles discuss what the press was saying about them at the time is pretty fascinating. Some of that involves Yoko and some of it doesn’t. Some of it’s just about the band.

Editorially, and from a director’s standpoint, Get Back comes with the challenge of how to respectfully reinvent another filmmaker’s work. Was that difficult?

Jackson: Apart from watching these four guys make music, Get Back is also about Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had been given the job of shooting film of them working on this project. He doesn’t appear in his own movie, Let It Be, because he’s filming them. In our movie, you see Michael trying to make his movie. He has good days and other days are very frustrating for him. So that’s one of the other storylines that happens during the course of Get Back.

How much overlap of material is there between Get Back and Let It Be?

Jackson: I tried to avoid it as much as I could. But there’s probably in Get Back about five or six minutes of common footage. I set out deliberately trying to avoid it, but eventually there’s things that were shot in his movie that we had to have in ours because we are ultimately telling the same story.

Where there’s choices, I’d go with something else. He has a sequence of them singing a song from one of the 22 days. And if it’s a song that I want to use, I’ll just pick a different day.

But I tried to avoid it, because I wanted our movie to be about the making of Let It Be, and so I didn’t want our movie to absorb Let It Be.

This project was previously announced as a film. Why did you decide to change it into a miniseries?

Jackson: We actually never ended up having a movie version. We were heading in that direction, but in March 2020, the pandemic happened. At that point, we had an eight-hour film and were trying to trim it down for a September release. And instead of keeping on trimming it down, we just had more time; we weren’t so rushed. I started to think well, this is historic footage, and anything that I don’t include that I think should be there could go back in the vault for another 50 years. And I became acutely aware that there’s so much that should be seen that’s been hidden from the world for 50 years. This is one opportunity to come out.

There are now generations who do not know who the Beatles are or what they did. Do you think this will rekindle interest in their music?

Jackson: In some respects, I think Get Back will be of interest — I would hope it will be of interest — to people that don’t even like the Beatles. Because it does show a band at work in the most incredibly intimate way. So I think, even if you haven’t given the Beatles much thought — if such a thing is actually possible — you are going to hopefully find it fascinating to see these four guys actually create the music and how they do it. And also the fact that they’re not just creating music, they’re setting out to do a live concert and things go wrong. And you have a sort of a very twisty, turny story that gets told over the 22 days.

The Beatles: Get Back premieres November 25 on Disney+.

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