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Half-century old, unseen footage shows Beatles writing and recording in new documentary "Get Back"

The making of the Beatles' "Let It Be"
The making of the Beatles' "Let It Be" 13:22

It's January 1969, and the Beatles are unrecognizable from the wide-eyed mop-tops who appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" just five years prior. Their popularity is unrivalled. They've stopped touring and fame is exacting its price. Now comes a self-imposed stress: they've given themselves three weeks to record 14 songs that they'll play to a live audience, all the while, trailed by cameras. The astonishingly intimate footage was recently extracted from a London vault and placed in the capable hands of filmmaker Peter Jackson. His resulting three-part documentary series, "Get Back," drops Thanksgiving weekend on Disney Plus. It adds considerable light and joy to what was always considered to be the Beatles' darkest period. You might say Jackson took a sad song, and well, you know the rest.

Often as we hear bands play; we rarely glimpse bands at work, much less the biggest band that ever was. Well, teleport to 1969, and meet the Beatles.

Jon Wertheim: You're the first person to look at this with fresh eyes in years and years. What was it like watching this footage?

Peter Jackson: It was fascinating. And after 50 years, you'd have every right to believe that everything with The Beatles had been talked about. Every bit of fil-- film had been seen, every bit of music had been heard, that there was no more surprises with The Beatles.

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Peter Jackson

From his base in New Zealand, director Peter Jackson took a break from directing big-budget studio films like "Lord of the Rings" and has spent the last four years hanging out with John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Peter Jackson: Suddenly, bang, out of nowhere comes this incredible treasure trove of fly on the wall material 52 years later. It still blows my mind. It actually honestly still blows my mind.

Paul McCartney: So how about, how about changing around these two, and when you sing "Don't you know it's going to last," we sing, "it's a love that has no past."

Jon Wertheim: So give us some historical context here. Under what circumstances was this footage shot?

Peter Jackson: They've lost what they loved as teenagers. They've lost being the four guys playing in a band. So they're gonna record a new album with songs that only - that they're only gonna play live. And they're not gonna do any studio tricks. There's gonna be no multitracking. And they had to-- they had to figure out where and how they were gonna perform to an audience.

Paul McCartney: Bom, cha, bom bom.

As the Beatles wrote and rehearsed, they allowed a film crew to capture every riff, both on guitar and in conversation. 

Paul McCartney: I mean, corny is alright in this one because what he's doing is corny. But see that's the thing that will make it not corny is if we sing different words. So it's, I'm in love for the first time.

The months' worth of filming yielded only the forgettable 80-minute documentary, "Let It Be," released a year later, after the Beatles broke up. A lifelong Beatles fan, Peter Jackson had always wondered, what had happened to all those hours of unseen footage?

His Tolkien-like quest took him deep under the London headquarters of Apple Corps, the Beatles' label.

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Peter Jackson: They just said, "we've got it all. We've got-- 57 hours of footage. We've got 130 hours of audio." And then they said that they were thinking about making a documentary using the footage. I just put up my hand and said, "Well, if-- if you are looking for somebody to make it-- don't-- please just-- think-- think of me."

Back in New Zealand, Jackson began the ultimate binge-watch, screening this musical motherlode, frame by frame. Given that any Beatles fan will tell you that "Let It Be" comes shrouded in sadness—forever associated with the great divorce in rock and roll history—Jackson braced for the gloomy worst.

Peter Jackson: I was watching, I was waiting for it to get bad. I was waiting for the narrative that I'd believed over the years to start happening. I was waiting for the arguments. Waiting for the discontent. Waiting for the misery. And, you know, it didn't happen. I mean, it shows-- you know, it shows issues. It shows problems. But-- but any band, any time, has tho-- has those-- has those problems. This is not a band that's breaking up. These are not guys that dislike each other. That's not what I'm-- what-- what we're seeing here. That's not what was being filmed.

John Lennon: Yeah, but the way I was playing it, it was starting on F. 

Here's what was being filmed: the four Liverpudlians in their late 20s, working collaboratively, surrounded by a strikingly small, tight entourage. There's Linda—Linda Eastman, at the time—taking photos. And, of course, Yoko Ono. As long as we're here, let's dispense now with that famous bit of Beatles breakup mythology.

Jon Wertheim: The casual fan looking for Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles might come away from this disappointed, I suspect.

Giles Martin: Yeah, I think that's a good thing, you know. I mean, Yoko didn't break up the Beatles. And-- and no one thing broke up the Beatles.

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  Giles Martin

Giles Martin is the son of late Beatles producer George Martin. Giles grew up in the Beatles orbit and has since remixed most of the band's albums. When Peter Jackson enlisted him for this series, Martin plowed through all the hundreds of hours of audio and video.

Giles Martin: You can see the cracks appearing. The one thing about this movie is that people understand why they were getting tired of each other. 'Cause you get the sense of what it was like to be in a room with them, which is such-- a privilege for all of us.

Despite those cracks, the Beatles alchemy remains potent.

Peter Jackson: At one point we have footage of Paul McCartney sort of strumming on-- on his bass, which he uses as a guitar half the time, just sort of strumming. I think it's early in the morning and they're waiting for John to-- hasn't arrived yet. 

Peter Jackson: He's just biding some time. He slowly finds the tune.

Peter Jackson: And so you see this song kind of just be plucked out of th-- thin air.

Paul McCartney: Left his home in Tucson, Arizona.

John Lennon: Is Tucson in Arizona?

Paul McCartney: Yeah. It's where they make "High Chaparral."

Paul McCartney: Like I can make sense of it. Jojo left his home, hoping it would be a blast, pretty soon he found that he'd have to be a loner with some California grass. And now you think, ok, that makes sense but it doesn't sing good.

The Beatles had always been furiously productive; but this was the creative process in double time: 14 songs in 22 days.

Jon Wertheim: Was that as much an absurd time pressure in 1969 as it would appear to be today?

Giles Martin: Yeah. This is the biggest band on the planet saying we're gonna do-- we're gonna do our first show in three years in three weeks' time. But we don't know where it's gonna be. And we don't know what songs we're gonna play.

Jon Wertheim: As you listen to all the recordings for this project, what impressions did you arrive at in terms of their chemistry?

Giles Martin: My impression of it is that Paul and John kinda knew that they were growing apart and Let it Be was almost like a marriage that's failing and they wanna go back on their date nights again.

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John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney during the "Get Back" sessions © Apple Corps Limited  

Compounding matters, George Harrison—restless in his role and bristling under Paul McCartney's driving ambition—leaves the band after a week.

Peter Jackson: It's the most low key walk-out that you've ever seen in your life. It's just-- "I'm leaving now." "What?" "I'm leaving the band now." And then he goes. There's no fight, there's no argument, there's no disagreement.

John was in love with Yoko and, in his words, he was mistreating his body. The band was competing for his attention, not always successfully.

John Lennon: When I was younger, much younger than today, I never needed anybody's help in any way. But now my life has changed in oh-so-many ways, a wop-bop-alooma-a-wop-bam-boo.

Paul McCartney: We can't carry on like this indefinitely.

John Lennon: We seem to be.

Paul McCartney: We seem to, but we can't. See, what you need is a serious program of work. Not an aimless rambling amongst the canyons of your mind.

Paul had, grudgingly, become the band's hall monitor, more lead than singer. George was persuaded to come back, but with the live performance approaching, the Beatles decided they needed a change of scenery. They relocated to a makeshift studio in the basement of Apple Records.

John Lennon: I dig a pygmy by Charles Hawtrey and The Deaf Aids. Phase one, in which Doris gets her oats.

A surge of fresh energy also came in the form of a keyboard player: Billy Preston, a 22-year-old Texan brought in by George.

Jon Wertheim: What was the influence of Billy Preston on this album and on the Beatles at the time?

Giles Martin: This hotshot comes in and they just had to suddenly improve their playing because they had this force of nature in the room with them. And I think that's what he did. I think he worked as a catalyst and galvanized them so they could make the record and or do the right performance.

It's an upbeat scene, at odds with how so many remembered that time, not least the principals themselves. But Peter Jackson's "Get Back" series doesn't just restore lost footage or the Beatles' music; it restores something much deeper.

Jon Wertheim: You mentioned memory before. I wonder, did their recollections match up with this-- this documentary evidence you were presenting them with?

Peter Jackson: Fifty years later I'm talking to-- to Ringo and Paul. And their memory was very-- miserable and unhappy. And I'd say, "Look, what-- whatever your memories are, whatever you think your memories are, this is the actual truth of it. And here, look. Look at-- look at this."

Peter Jackson: They started to realize what-- what this is. I mean, this is a-- an incredibly amazing historical document of the Beatles at work. And four friends at work. And clearly they're four friends.

The looming deadline didn't exactly dampen the mood in the studio. 

And what of the culmination of these sessions, that live performance? The band simply walked up a few flights of stairs, and on January 30, 1969, played atop the Apple Offices.

No one at the time suspected it, but this would mark the Beatles' final performance before splitting up 14 months later.

It took a half century and an exacting director on the other side of the world—who knows plenty about the power of myth—to revise the lore surrounding the Beatles breakup and set the record straight.

Produced by Michael H. Gavshon and Nadim Roberts. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Daniel J. Glucksman.

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