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New documentary explores the ups and downs of The Beatles' 'Let It Be' sessions

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in "The Beatles: Get Back." (Linda McCartney)
Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in "The Beatles: Get Back." (Linda McCartney)

Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson’s documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” — a three-night, six-hour epic — premiers on Disney+ on Friday.

The documentary, named after the original title of the album “Let It Be,” features previously unseen footage from those studio sessions.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg made a film in the 1970s using footage from these recording sessions in a promotional film that the Beatles wanted. Beatles scholar and Emerson College professor Tim Riley says the band wanted to make a movie that showed them in rehearsal and then finished with a show.

“The cameras were there for much of the month of January 1969,” Riley says. “And because it came out after ‘Abbey Road,’ everyone mistakes it for their last album.”

The Beatles recorded “Let It Be” before “Abbey Road” but released the latter first. Some fans don’t know this and assume Lindsay-Hogg’s film chronicles the band’s breakup.

The band faced challenges during the month of filming and the band almost broke up during that time, Riley says.

“Really, the remarkable thing is that they not only made it through this project,” he says, “but they kept going.”

Watch on YouTube.

Eight months later, the band finished and released “Abbey Road.” Then a year later, the Beatles found themselves in need of cash when they started to break up and sue each other, Riley says.

The band needed to put out an album and make some money, so they released “Let It Be.”

Director Jackson, of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” fame, made another documentary about World War II called “They Shall Not Grow Old” that included restored footage. Beatles fans should get excited for the high quality of the refurbished film in his new documentary, Riley says.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr signed off on the documentary, though Jackson says the surviving band members didn’t tell him what to do, unlike Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 film. But Riley doesn’t believe McCartney and Starr gave Jackson total control.

Beatles experts know the documentary leaves certain things out, he says. Jackson’s film portrays these sessions as up rather than down — but Riley says reality lies somewhere in the middle.

George Harrison and John Lennon almost fought during the sessions, Riley says. Despite the conflict and tension that plagued the sessions at first, the band rallied together and produced some great music.

“The important thing to remember is that it actually was dark and it was also light,” he says. “There were both things and you hear that in the music, and it’s really important to understand that it’s not just one thing, it’s many things at the same time.”

Interview Highlights

On the part of the new documentary where John Lennon starts a rehearsal of “Oh! Darling” by announcing the finalization of Yoko Ono’s divorce

“The thing about that rehearsal tape that we have of ‘Oh! Darling’ is number one they’re doing it as a duet with John and Paul, and they’re going over and over and over in it, and it’s just beguiling to hear them do that number as a duet, it’s thought of as a great Paul vocal masterpiece. But the idea that they would start singing it together and do it as a duet that’s just beguiling and it’s really fun to hear them singing together.

“The song has already fallen apart. They keep going back over and over again, and when Lennon gets this news, he just reads it aloud and says, ‘Oh, this divorce is gone through.’ And then the song kind of picks up again, and he decides to start improvising new lyrics over this song. And they go back around and you start to realize they really are just cavorting and having this great informal moment. And the others trust him that he’s going to chase down these gibberish lyrics and they might actually turn into something good, and that’s how they work. And so it’s fascinating to hear this creative process, and that’s really where the richness of the material is.”

On the rooftop performance of the song “Don’t Let Me Down”

“Lennon here, just I mean, this wonderful moment on the rooftop where he forgets his own lyrics and he just sings gibberish and you realize, yeah, this is something very normal for them, right? But they’re showing it to the world for the first time: This is how we rehearse. This is how we skate by when we forget our lyrics. And sometimes the gibberish is actually better, like leave the gibberish in. They were very, very fond of their accidents since a lot of their accidents led them to really cool places.”

On the cut of “One After 909” featured in the expanded box set of the album and recording sessions released earlier this year

“One of the things they did in these sessions is they went back to the rock and roll oldies as a way of just kind of like warming up and getting their groove back and introducing a new player into the band who is Billy Preston. And Billy Preston is playing an acoustic grand piano here. So that’s different than the Fender Rhodes [piano], you know, from the rooftop performance, which is the one we’re familiar with. But what’s interesting to me about this is that they treat it like a regular rock and roll oldie, and it’s actually a song they recorded, they wrote in 1963, and they didn’t release it because they thought it wasn’t up to snuff. They thought it was too corny. But now they go back to it as if going back to a Chuck Berry song or a Fats Domino song and reviving it. I just love that they include this version with the acoustic piano.”

On what fans should know about the song “Get Back”

“The thing to note about ‘Get Back’ that nobody ever appreciates enough is that John Lennon is playing the lead guitar solo in this song, and this was something they did routinely. They would pass off lead playing. George, of course, is their lead guitarist. But on this song, Lennon says, I want to do the lead in this song, and he plays just this fantastic lead guitar lick. It’s very intricate and very clever, but everyone assumes it’s George. But if you watch the film, you’ll see that it’s actually John Lennon [who] has developed the guitar solo for this song, and he’s normally the rhythm player. He doesn’t take solos, but he takes a beautiful solo in this song.”

Join Beatles author and NPR critic Tim Riley for questions, context and Beatles insights in a Twitter Space-cast chat on Sunday, Nov. 28 at 8 p.m. EST following Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” documentary (airing Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 25-27). Bring your questions and favorite moments to join in.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.