Let It Be has long been tied to pop culture’s most seismic divorce, the 1970 split of the Beatles. Persistent lore that the recording sessions were dominated by tension and gloom is being challenged by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, a three-part documentary series airing Nov. 25, 26 and 27 in two-hour segments on Disney+. It arrives on the heels of the newly released Let It Be 50th-anniversary box set, a 5-CD remix of the 1970 Let It Be album, with 57 tracks, including unreleased tunes, some of which wound up on Beatles solo albums. Jackson’s series offers a fly-on-the-wall look at the Beatles during an intensely creative period that finds their chemistry vacillating from affectionate to jovial to contentious. Their disintegration was complex and poignant, and as the rocky backstory of the misfit Let It Be album lays bare, Jackson’s overhaul was overdue.
The Let It Be backstory
It began in early January 1969, when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr gathered at the chilly and cavernous Twickenham Film Studios to prepare for their first live show in three years. McCartney’s plan was that the performance, along with filmed rehearsals and songwriting sessions, would be presented on a high-concept television special. They set out to write 14 songs for an album then titled Get Back.
Feeling marginalized, Harrison walked out, returning only after the others agreed to scrap the TV show and move sessions to the basement studio at Apple Records on Savile Row, where keyboardist Billy Preston joined them and helped lift their game and their spirits. Hostilities flared, but the Beatles were also chummy and collaborative.
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On Jan. 30 the band performed the storied concert on the Apple rooftop, their last public performance. The Get Back album mixed by Glyn Johns was rejected, so those tapes were shelved for a year as the band turned their attention to the making of Abbey Road, the Beatles’ actual farewell album.
The Get Back songs, given an orchestral bath by producer Phil Spector, were released as Let It Be in May 1970, after the foursome had gone their separate ways. Lennon was pleased, but McCartney was so unhappy with Spector’s treatment that he stripped out the syrupy additions for 2003 remix Let It Be … Naked. Longtime Beatles producer George Martin had worked on some original recordings yet was not acknowledged. He later said the credit should have stated, “Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector.”
Footage shot by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was distilled into his 1970 documentary Let It Be, a grim account that zeroes in on strains and culminates in the rooftop swan song.
Fifty years later, Peter Jackson revisits with unprecedented access
A half century later, Jackson, best known for his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, is the only person in 50 years to gain access to the Fab Four’s Let It Be vault. The director spent four years poring over and restoring 57 hours of Lindsay-Hogg’s previously unseen footage.
He also culled more than 130 hours of buried audio and handed the daunting job of constructing yet another Let It Be version to producer Giles Martin, son of George Martin, who had worked on every original Beatles album. Giles, who has labored over the Beatles' music longer than his father did, produced the music for the Beatles-centric Cirque du Soleil show Love and anniversary editions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the White Album and Abbey Road. (Next he’s doing the arrangements for Elton John’s stage musical of The Devil Wears Prada, opening next summer in Chicago.)
A misunderstood album
For Giles Martin, the cross currents of time have left a misleading legacy. “The record came out when the Beatles were at their most acrimonious,” he says. “My dad not being involved and Paul hating what Phil Spector did, all of this cast a shadow over it.” Now, he says, through Peter Jackson’s vision, the deeper truth emerges. “The breakup of the Beatles was not what people think it was. People look at it as a cataclysmic event that stopped the Beatles from being a band, because that’s what people need, an equal and opposite force to end this popular-culture phenomenon. The Beatles were completely aware of their frailty as a unit. They were getting bored of each other. And that’s the sad fact. It became a drag to be the Beatles.”
And Jackson’s tale? “It’s very warm. It’s reality television. It feels like Big Brother With The Beatles. It’s fascinating because at least you’re watching characters that are more interesting than what you usually see on television.” For George Martin’s son, one particular moment stood out: “I look at footage of my dad then and I move and laugh the same way he did. This year I turned 52, and I realized I was conceived on one of the days [when the Beatles were recording Let It Be]. It’s bizarre.”
Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.