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New docuseries gives fans unprecedented access to The Beatles

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We want to take you into a studio session on a soundstage in London. A young, long-haired Paul McCartney is writing a new hit for the Beatles. But he's still kind of figuring out the words...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

PAUL MCCARTNEY: (Singing) Sweet Loretta Marsh, she thought.

Marsh isn't nice - instead Marst (ph).

(Singing) Sweet Loretta Mary thought she was a woman. But she was another man.

MARTINEZ: This is from a new documentary called "The Beatles: Get Back." It's a three-part series created from nearly 60 hours of previously unseen footage by a film crew given unprecedented access. The film centers around McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as they attempt to write 14 new songs and plan what would become their last live show together.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Get back to where you once belonged.

MCCARTNEY: Trouble is you're on the harmony, then you go to the melody.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

MCCARTNEY: So you should really go...

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: It's 1969, and the Beatles are in the doldrums. They've drifted apart creatively and personally.

MARTINEZ: We spoke with NPR music critic Ann Powers about the documentary.

POWERS: Paul was listening to, like, a lot of soul music and kind of, like, old - I don't know - ballads and stuff. John is exploring noise and art rock with his future wife Yoko Ono. And George - well, George has a stash of songs that nobody's heard, and he wants to make his own record. Ringo's just Ringo. You know, he's the steady beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One, two, three, four.

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman. But she was another man.

MARTINEZ: "The Beatles: Get Back" is directed by Peter Jackson, best known for "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy. In this series, which lasts over seven hours, it's the Beatles uninterrupted.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Get back to where you once belonged.

POWERS: It is really an ambient experience, this documentary (laughter). I mean, like, it feels sometimes like hours are going by, and they're just working on one verse of one song over and over again. But at the same time, I mean, what a privilege to watch even the most mundane elements of the collaboration among these total geniuses.

MARTINEZ: Yoko Ono - you mentioned Yoko Ono - in most of the scenes, sitting right next to John Lennon. How is she portrayed in this?

POWERS: Well, there's a famous line that Paul says - and it's in this documentary - where he predicts that in future years people will say that the Beatles broke up because Yoko was sitting on an amp during these sessions. It's absolutely true. She is glued to John's side. But I think this documentary really shows that Yoko Ono did not break up the Beatles, like, definitively, finally. Let's never talk about it again because not only is she actually a great energetic presence, this kind of quiet, patient presence in the room, but also, you know, the real problem was with George. He was very unhappy. And that's all in this documentary. So let's just never say it again. Let's never say Yoko broke up the Beatles.

MARTINEZ: So we do notice the tension, then, on screen in this documentary because, I mean, that's - '69 is kind of a fraught time for this band.

POWERS: Oh, yes. I have to say, A, you know I love Paul McCartney. I am a Paul girl since I was, like, a child. But he's really overbearing. He has so much energy. He's just, like, writing a million songs, but he just pushes the band to the brink. And he's really mean, especially to George. And there's this whole drama around George, too. You know, they're dismissive of him, of his songs, of his spirituality. And at one point, he actually quits the band and just walks out.

MARTINEZ: So there's thick tension. And how does the band resolve it?

POWERS: Well, the most profound way they resolve the tension is just by playing music and particularly blues and Chuck Berry songs, Dylan songs, you know, old kind of music hall numbers. And over and over again, at a moment when it probably would've been good to talk things out, instead they play music. That is their love language, and we get to see that over and over again.

MARTINEZ: All right. Let's take a listen. This is John Lennon breaking into a very familiar tune after a small disagreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

JOHN LENNON: (Singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray.

POWERS: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: I mean, Ann, how can anyone stay angry after someone starts singing that song?

POWERS: Oh, yeah. And there is one factor that changes the trajectory for the Beatles during this documentary, and that is the presence of Billy Preston. Billy Preston is this American keyboardist and singer whom the band had signed to Apple Records. And he joins the sessions at a certain point. And the mood lightens up there. They're creatively jazzed by his presence. The sound is amazing with his keyboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) ...Got a feeling.

POWERS: I like to think about what would have happened if the Beatles had decided to stay together and made Billy Preston a fifth Beatle - you know, actually brought him into the band. We don't have that, but this documentary hints at the possibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You're in the groove. Electric piano's such a great sound.

MARTINEZ: All this takes place months before the Beatles eventually do break up, and we know the direction the band is headed while watching this. But I mean, it just sounds like there's still so much joy in this film.

POWERS: There is a lot of joy. And oftentimes, it comes out of exactly those moments of tension and even sadness. I mean, sometimes a real gray cloud descends over the room. There's one point where Paul says, look; you know, I want this to be great because I know that we're going to walk out, and this is probably the end. And it's just heartbreaking.

But the whole film culminates in this rooftop concert, which we all know about. You know, it's a famous concert on the roof of the Apple building on Savile Row. They play a short set, and they are just locked in. And then the police come in and ask them to turn down the volume. But it reminded me of how much live music, it just makes magic in our lives. I almost got misty watching it. And then later, when they're listening to the playback of the live tracks, everyone in the room is just smiling and hugging, and it's just delightful, you know. This is a gift to us as listeners. And it makes that corny thing that the Beatles once said, all you need is love, feel real. And the music is the love.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Mark it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Take 25.

THE BEATLES: (Playing music).

MARTINEZ: That's NPR music critic Ann Powers. We've been talking about the new documentary series "The Beatles: Get Back." Ann, thank you.

POWERS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BEATLES: GET BACK")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.