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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Long dismissed, the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ film returns after 54 years

The filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg at his home in Hudson, N.Y., June 10, 2022. Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s unloved — or misinterpreted? — 1970 documentary, the source for Peter Jackson’s “Get Back,” will stream on Disney+. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

By Alex Williams

In 2021, director Peter Jackson’s sprawling and vibrant Beatles docuseries, “The Beatles: Get Back,” streamed on Disney+ to nearly universal acclaim. The three-part epic, which ran nearly eight hours, captured the drama and frenzy as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr recorded, over the pressure-filled month of January 1969, what would become the last album that the Beatles released, “Let It Be.”

As fans were well aware, Jackson’s series was culled from nearly 60 hours of behind-the-scenes footage originally shot by the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg for “Let It Be,” his little-seen, though often dismissed, 1970 documentary about those recording sessions.

After its initial theatrical run, Lindsay-Hogg’s film largely disappeared for more than a half-century with the exception of low-quality VHS versions and bootlegs. Fans tend to remember it as an intriguing historical document capturing the late-stage creative flights of a seismic musical force, but also as a divorce proceeding of sorts, with stark moments of internal discord as the band hurtled toward a nasty split.

By that view, “Get Back,” with its abundant moments of jokey banter and on-set clowning, was seen by some as an overdue corrective to “Let It Be.”

Little surprise but Lindsay-Hogg, 83, has a very different view. The acclaimed director had a hand in inventing the music video, with his promotional films for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s, and went on to win plaudits for the 1980s British miniseries “Brideshead Revisited.” He has fought for a half-century for “Let It Be” to get a second look and, in his mind, a fair shake.

On May 8, he will get his wish, when “Let It Be,” meticulously restored by Jackson’s production team, begins streaming on Disney+ in collaboration with Apple Corps, the company that oversees the Beatles creative and business interests. Lindsay-Hogg spoke to The New York Times about the culmination of a long crusade. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: You have been working for decades to revive “Let It Be.” What finally changed?

A: Peter was the catalyst. He and I met in December 2018, before he really started on “Get Back,” and he said, “Tell me the story of ‘Let It Be’ — you know, what’s happened since you made it, because I’ve seen it pretty recently and I think that movie should come out.” So a year or two went by, and he told me that he had a very good relationship with Paul and Ringo and also with Sean Lennon and Olivia Harrison, George’s widow, as well as with Jonathan Clyde, who produced “Get Back” for Apple. So he started to advocate for “Let It Be” to come out. He and Clyde got a budget for the restoration work, and slowly it moved through Apple.

Q: Is “Let It Be” just a short version of “Get Back”?

A: Peter very much didn’t want “Get Back” to look like he just pulled it from “Let It Be,” so if he wanted to show a scene that was in my film, he would show it from different angles and reconstruct it differently. There are scenes in “Let It Be” that aren’t in “Get Back.” They’re very different, although obviously they have many great similarities.

Q: A lot of people remember “Let It Be” as a bad-vibes movie, probably in part because of that famous scene in which George and Paul bicker about George’s guitar part on “Two of Us.” Was that exchange another sign of the beginning of the end?

A: No one had ever seen the Beatles have a fight, but that wasn’t really a fight. Up to that point, no one had filmed, except in bits and pieces, the Beatles rehearsing. So that was new territory. That exchange between Paul and George, they never commented on, because it was the same kind of conversation that any artistic collaborators would have. As a director in the theater and in movies, I know that kind of conversation happens five times a week.

Q: When “Get Back” came out, a lot of fans saw it as happy corrective to “Let It Be.” Is that accurate?

A: I would say most people who saw Peter’s picture as a corrective to mine haven’t seen mine, because no one was able to see it for 50 years. So unless they were children when they saw it in theaters, the only way most people would have seen it was on VHS or bootlegs, which changed the original aspect ratio and had dark and gloomy pictures and bad sound. That is part of the reason the movie was put in the closet for a long time.

Q: How much does the digital restoration change the look and sound of “Let It Be”?

A: When Peter first showed me some restored images of the film, one was of a couple of the Beatles from the back, and their hair in the original looked very clumped. Then he said, “Now let me show you what we’ve been working on.” It was the same shot, but you could see the individual strands of hair. The new version is a 21st century version of a 20th century movie. It is certainly brighter and livelier than what ended up on videotape. It looks now like it was intended to look in 1969 or 1970, although at my request, Peter did give it a more filmic look than “Get Back,” which had a slightly more modern and digital look.

Q: The four Beatles skipped the 1970 premiere of “Let It Be.” Was that in protest?

A: As we now know, the Beatles were in the process of breaking up when the film was getting ready to go. People were feeling perhaps rancorous toward each other; they weren’t getting on. They announced their breakup in April 1970, and “Let It Be” was released in May. “Let It Be” was collateral damage. People didn’t see it for what it was, and went looking for what it wasn’t.

Q: As recently as 2021, Ringo said there was “no joy” in the film. Did the members of the band actually seem unhappy with it at the time?

A: Well, after we watched the rough cut in July, the day before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, John and Yoko [Ono], Paul and Linda McCartney, Peter Brown from Apple and me and my girlfriend went out for dinner at Provans in London. The film, I think, was regarded very much as a promising work in progress. There was no snarky business going on. We sat and had a good time like friends do. We talked about our childhoods, had a couple of bottles of wine. When we showed them the final cut in late November, we all went out for dinner again, to a place with a discothèque. We all had a nightcap and a chat, and Paul said he thought the movie was good. Ringo was jiving out on the dance floor. He’s a good dancer.

Q: After 54 years, do you think fans will have a different perception of

the film?

A: If you see it with no preconceptions, the picture works very well, and it’s clear that you’re looking at four men who have known each other since they were teenagers — well, three of them anyway — who love each other as brothers might. But they weren’t any more the Fab Four, the mop tops. A couple of them are pushing 30. They had stopped touring, which is a very big change for a rock ’n’ roll group. What you see in the movie is that the affection is eternal between the four of them. But they were living very separate lives now.

Q: During filming, did you get the sense that they were on the verge of breaking up?

A: No, not at all. We started shooting with four Beatles. We ended it with four Beatles. It was not like the San Andreas Fault. I thought they might go off and do their own thing, follow their heart and release separate albums, but then get together, because the Beatles were a very powerful artistic force, and also social force. I didn’t think the Beatles were going to break up till they broke up.

Q: Even critics of “Let It Be” would have a hard time arguing that their final live set on the roof of Apple Corps wasn’t a joyous moment.

A: How lucky can you get that the last line in the movie is from John, up on the roof. The set has been broken up by the police — which is good, because that’s as many songs as they had rehearsed anyway — then John says, “And I hope we passed the audition.” Because if anyone did pass the audition, in that entire decade, it was the Beatles.

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