Peter Jackson Doesn’t Think ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ Lets The Band Off Easy: “I Was Pretty Tough”

Sitting in a dark editing room with nearly 60 hours of footage to sift through may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Peter Jackson is keenly aware of the fact that he’s the envy of every Beatles fan on the planet. “I was very much aware, whatever I didn’t put into this film, there’s a danger it might just get locked away for 50 more years,” Jackson told Decider over Zoom. “I thought, ‘I can’t let that happen.’”

The Lord of the Rings director, who is a self-proclaimed Beatles fanatic himself, was given access to never-before-seen footage originally shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for Let It Be, the 1970 documentary of the making of the album of the same name. That film, which is now all but impossible to watch—Jackson had to buy his copy on eBay for $200—has since become known in Beatles lore as the documentary that captured their break-up. But Jackson felt that movie, and especially the narrative that followed its release, didn’t tell the whole story. He hopes that The Beatles: Get Back can come closer.

Originally announced as a theatrical film, The Beatles: Get Back is now a nearly eight-hour series that will premiere in three parts on Disney+ on November 25, 26, and 27. Fans will get to see snippets from each of the 22 days it took The Beatles to record Let It Be. They will see John Lennon writing “Don’t Let Me Down,” in an offhand, casual way—creating a masterpiece out of thin air. They will see Paul McCartney calling out the chords for “I’ve Got a Feeling” as he plays it, teaching his bandmates a new song. They will hear George Harrison ask, flippantly, “Is that one called ‘I’ve Got a Feeling?’” Lennon shoots back, “It’s called ‘I’ve Got a Hard On.’” And that’s all in the first 15 minutes.

It’s not all fun and games. Despite an early sense that this film would show the good side of the Let It Be sessions—a narrative that Jackson objects to—you’ll find plenty of bickering, hurt feelings, and huffy sighs in The Beatles: Get Back. “I’ve made a film that I think is pretty honest and pretty raw,” Jackson said. The director spoke to Decider about preserving that honesty, his favorite cut moments, and more.

Decider: It feels like when The Beatles: Get Back was first announced, there was this narrative that it was the positive spin on the Let It Be sessions. But the preview I watched felt very nuanced—good and bad. Was that your intention diving in, or is that what it became, ultimately?

Peter Jackson: It’s an interesting question that you ask, and if I could just very quickly touch on a few things here because this is the first time I’ve ever really had the chance to talk about it. I saw the footage four years ago, and I had forty years as a Beatles fan—reading all the books, reading that the Let It Be sessions were miserable, reading that they hated doing them, they hated each other’s company, they were phoning it in, they couldn’t give a damn. The end result was Let It Be—May 1970 it came out and they had broken up in April 1970. All the headlines were about the Beatles breaking up. So, I looked at this stuff for the first time with all of that in my head, and when I saw it all I thought, “This is nothing like what I was led to believe.”

Of course, the reason for it is so incredibly obvious because Let It Be was released in May 1970, the album and the film. And this was shot in January ‘69. I mean, they were a band that had no intention to break up in January ‘69. They go on and they do the Abbey Road album. John Lennon announces that he’s going to leave The Beatles in September ‘69, so there’s still eight months or nine months away from that. So we announced the project, and I say it’s going to change what everyone thinks. At that point, everyone thinks I’m doing a whitewash. “Oh, it really is bad, but Peter’s just going to show all the funny stuff.” The Christmas preview thing that we did last year didn’t help that either. But that wasn’t a Disney special trailer thing; that was just us thinking, “Well, the pandemic has been so miserable, the world is in such a depressed state, let’s at least try to cheer people up.” Jabez [Olssen], who edited it with me, put a little clip together of all the funny stuff, purely to cheer people up. It was not designed to give people an idea of the movie.

This new trailer I think is a much more accurate showing of what this is. I don’t really have to defend it, because it’s going to get seen by everybody; it can speak for itself. I think when you see it you’ll realize that it’s actually in many respects a lot tougher. We’ve got a huge amount of footage that Micheal wasn’t allowed to put in his film in 1970. They didn’t want him to show George leaving the group. He walks out halfway through the first few days, and they said, “No, no, we don’t want you to show that.” He couldn’t put that in, but he filmed it. I mean, amazingly enough, he actually has cameras rolling at the moment George gets up and says, “I’m leaving the group.” So we’ve got that in our movie. 50 years later, the Beatles don’t care about that sort of stuff anymore, and they want it to be honest. Whatever people might think about it being a sort of sanitized version of Let it Be, I think they’ll realize it’s not that when they see it.

The Beatles Get Back
Photo: Linda McCartney / Apple Corps

As a Beatles fan yourself, I’m sure there were hundreds of moments where you were geeking out watching this footage. Do any specific moments stand out to you? For me, I loved when John makes a reference to the Hard Days Night movie during Day 1.

I was always cutting it as a Beatles fan, so I didn’t hold back. There’s a conversation if you’ve seen all of Day 1 you’ll remember—Paul’s talking to Glyn Johns and Michael Lindsey-Hogg about going away to do the concert and Michael very much wants to go Libya, to go to the Sabratha Amphitheater. Paul says Ringo doesn’t want to go, he’s sort of put his foot down. But then Paul says, “Jimmie Nicol and us may go.” And of course, Jimmie Nicol replaced Ringo for eight concerts in 1964 when Ringo was sick, and they got another drummer. As a Beatles fan, I wanted to put that in because it made me laugh, but I didn’t attempt to explain to your average viewer who Jimmie Nicol is. I was always balancing it making sure that it was accessible to someone who doesn’t have an interest in the Beatles, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose all the funny little Beatles jokes that other Beatles fans would appreciate. I didn’t want to spend my valuable screen time explaining to people who Jimmie Nicol was.

Are you aware that there are superfans out there who are dying to see all 57 hours of footage? Would you ever release extra footage as a DVD bonus, or something like that?

You’re going to have to talk to Apple [Corps] about that because it’s not my footage. It doesn’t belong to me. I think there is going to be a Blu-ray or DVD of the film that you’re going to see on Thanksgiving, at some point next year. I’m not entirely in on all those conversations, because it’s not my company, I’m just the filmmaker. But I think there is an intention to release a Blu-ray or DVD. There’s no talk at this stage of making it have bonus footage. I have heard that they say there’s no market anymore for extended cuts and extended Blu-rays. Nobody’s buying them. 

But you’re Peter Jackson. You’re the king of extended cuts!

Well, you’ve got to write a letter to Disney and say exactly that! It’s beyond my power. I thought it was surprising, but again, if there’s enough fan pressure to see more footage on a Blu-ray or something, that may happen, but I don’t think it’s planned at the moment. All I can say, hand on heart, having been the lucky person to look at all this stuff, is that the film we ended up making—which is a bit longer than six hours, it was six hours about six months ago, but it’s a bit longer right now—I have included all the best stuff. I’ve included all the stuff I think is absolutely historic, must-see, can’t go back in the vault for 50 more years. I was very much aware, whatever I didn’t put into this film, there’s a danger it might just get locked away for 50 more years. So I thought, “I can’t let that happen.” Everything I thought had to go in has gone in. I haven’t held myself back. But there are many hours of stuff that’s not in there, obviously.

Is there one little moment you can tease that did have to get cut that you want Beatles fans to know exists out there somewhere?

Well, on the rooftop, they perform “One After 909.” I love that song. They were recording on the roof—they had an eight-track recorder down in the basement and the cables were running down five flights of stairs, and everything, the whole rooftop concert, was recorded. Three of the songs ended up on the Let It Be album from the roof. But before the rooftop, they made sure they had really good quality recordings of everything done in the studio, just in case. So two days before the rooftop, they  buckle down and they do a studio recording of “One After 909.” And Billy Preston’s there on the electric piano, and it’s a very different sounding performance to what you hear on the roof, which was the one on the album. The rooftop’s fantastic, but “One After 909” in the studio sounds really good. But because we were going to play it on the rooftop in our movie shortly afterward, I thought we shouldn’t put it in the movie, because otherwise, you’re having one song twice very close together. I tried to avoid doing that. But I would say for me, one of the highlights that’s not there was the proper studio take that would’ve been on the record, if the rooftop hadn’t been so good of “One After 909.” 

The Beatles Get Back
Photo: Apple Corps

Tell me about the decision to make it a six-hour streaming series, rather than a film that will play in theaters.

We did set out to make a two-and-a-half-hour theatrical film. It was announced; it was what we were supposed to do. But I take full blame for that decision. I mean, our film is a chronological, day-by-day account of 22 days. Michael was filming them in January of ‘69. Started Day 1, go to Day 2, go to Day 3, finish on Day 22. We decided very early that we were going to have the entire rooftop concert, which was on Day 21. That’s 45 minutes long. Now you subtract 45 minutes from two and a half hours. So I did the maths, and I was thinking, “Well, that means that the other 20, 21 days, they have to be about two or three minutes long.” An entire day at work—eight hours of recording, four hours of film—has to be compressed to two or three minutes. As I was editing this, I just thought that this was bloody insane. I can’t do this. These days have so much great stuff in them. How do I make these days two or three minutes?

We never made a two-and-a-half-hour film. It never actually existed. The closest we got was about six hours. I showed that to Apple and the Beatles and Disney, and I said, “Look, I think this is what it should be.” At six hours, those days I can have 20, 25 minutes, 30 minutes per day, which allowed me to accurately show the events of a given day. A compressed version of each day. Once you deal with six or seven hours of film, obviously, the theatrical idea goes out the door. No theaters are going to play it. I mean, what can I say? If you had it in the theaters, Day 1 would be two minutes long, Day 2 would be two minutes long, Day 3 would be two minutes long. And you have the rooftop concert at the end. By not putting it into theaters, we’ve got 20, 25, or 30 minutes per day. It was a sacrificing one for the other, really.

I assume that Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison—all producers on the series—they’ve seen the whole thing by this point? They’ve been involved in the process?

Yes, correct. I’ve been down here in New Zealand for the past two years. With COVID, I’ve not been able to leave the country. I’ve been working on it for over four years, so the first two years I was traveling around—going up on the roof at Savile Row and having a look, and going into Twickenham. I went to visit Ringo, showed him a lot of footage. Paul, Sean Lennon. Dhani Harrison, who actually came down to New Zealand for a bit and watched some stuff with us, watched some outtakes. Olivia visited several times in London. We also spoke to a lot of people involved. I’ve been in contact with Michael Lindsay-Hogg the entire time. The first call that I made when I started was to call him and say, “Do you mind if I do this?” because it’s his footage. I didn’t know whether he would want to do it. I didn’t want to do it if he didn’t want me to do it. But he was incredibly gracious and said, “Go for it. I can’t wait to see it.’ And ever since I’ve been meeting up with him. The policemen on the roof we talked to, the cameramen we talked to. I was traveling a lot, doing a lot of this research these first two years. 

Did you get to witness The Beatles’ reaction to the series? What did they say? 

The Beatles saw it in its entirety two or three months ago. I was expecting to get notes because I was pretty tough. I was expecting, in the back of my mind, that I was going to hear from somebody, “Can you cut that out,” or “Don’t show that.” I was expecting those sorts of notes, and I didn’t get one note. I just got, “Don’t change a thing.” I had no edicts from them at the beginning either; they just said, “Make the film that you want.” And I’ve made a film that I think is pretty honest and pretty raw. 

I mean, I think they’re a little bit nervous, to tell you the truth. Right now you’ve got a few Liverpool guys that are a little bit nervous. They’re exposing their dirty laundry to the world in a way that hasn’t really happened since Let It Be came out. And they withdrew Let It Be in the 1980s. They pulled it back. It’s never been on TV, or been available on DVD since they haven’t wanted people to see it. They’re now letting hours and hours of this stuff out, so they’re a little bit nervous. I can tell you that. They just think, “Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. If you’re going to be honest and raw, let’s just go for it.” But I mean, the film shows them as four decent, four very different guys. Very different personalities, different interests, different opinions. But they’re ultimately four nice guys—and very, very funny. I think they’re going to come away from it looking just fine.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Watch The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+ Peter Jackson Doesn’t Think ‘The Beatles: Get Back’ Lets The Band Off Easy: “I Was Pretty Tough”


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