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HomeEntertainmentMichael Lindsay-Hogg on the Return of the Beatles' 'Let It Be'

Michael Lindsay-Hogg on the Return of the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’

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The Beatles’ most controversial movie is finally getting a second chance. On Tuesday, May 8, Let It Be begins streaming on Disney+, after being officially unavailable for decades. The documentary has always had a cloud of doom and gloom hanging over it, mostly because it came out in May 1970—just as the Beatles were breaking up. Fans saw it as the Fabs’ “break-up movie,” showing a band on the verge of falling apart. John, Paul, George, and Ringo seemed to shudder every time it got mentioned. It never came out on DVD or Blu-Ray, and until now, everybody figured Apple was happy to leave this piece of Beatles history in the dustbin. 

Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg has always insisted Let It Be didn’t get a “fair shake” because of the bad timing. As he says now, in the voice of an impeccable English gentleman of 84, “Some—I think the word is ‘shade’—was thrown at the movie.” 

But maybe this time, for Let It Be, there will be an answer. When Peter Jackson went back to the footage originally shot by Lindsay-Hogg, he came away with a very different film: Get Back, his 2021 6-hour documentary of the Beatles in the studio, in January 1969, ending with the famed rooftop concert—their final live performance together. Get Back gave fans a fuller perspective on this tumultuous period in the Beatles’ lives, showing their camaraderie and humor. It dispelled some of the bad vibes people associated with Let It Be.

But Let It Be is worth a fresh look—in fact, it’s a whole different experience now. Even if you’ve seen Let It Be before, it doesn’t compare to the new version. Peter Jackson’s restoration makes it finally look—and sound—like the Beatles. The original Let It Be looked grainy and dim because it was shot for TV on 16-mm film, then blown up to 35-mm for theaters, with sketchy sound. Jackson has digitally restored the footage, the way he did for Get Back, using the same de-mixing technology for the music. This is how Let It Be was always meant to look.

It’s also a different movie after you’ve seen Get Back, which killed off some of the negative cliches around this period. When you watch Let It Be with a fresh perspective, knowing more about the story, the biggest surprise is how much fun it is. You don’t see the Beatles breaking up. (And indeed, they weren’t breaking up—they went right from these sessions to Abbey Road.) Despite the film’s sour reputation, it’s basically 80 minutes of the band playing, as in the delightful scene where everyone jams on a Smokey Robinson classic—“You Really Got a Hold On Me”—or the rooftop finale. Michael Lindsay-Hogg spoke to Rolling Stone two days after the film’s New York premiere.

The world is finally going to see Let It Be again. Does it feel like a long wait?

A long and winding road, as we say. But it’s been a really long trip from when we first made it, first screened it, first edited it. There was the theatrical release, then the VHS, but then they collapsed the whole thing to be taken off the market. It disappeared, and no one really cared if it came out again, because there were no Beatles anymore. There were four people, but they weren’t Beatles anymore. 

It’s going to surprise people who have formed opinions of the movie without actually seeing it.

I hope it does. I don’t mean that I’m against people who form their opinions without actually having seen it—although I am a bit. But I’m glad people can reassess their borrowed opinions of what it might be like. It ends so joyfully with them on the rooftop. For me, the movie is about brotherhood of different kinds.

There’s so much joy in the film. When they’re playing the Smokey Robinson ballad, George looks so happy—I don’t know if he’s ever looked happier on film.

I love that sequence. It was a Sunday afternoon, a very relaxed day, and Heather came in—Paul and Linda’s daughter, by her first husband. The day begins so sweetly with George and Ringo at the piano, working on “Octopus’s Garden.” George is so modest, showing him the notes on the piano–“If you go like this, you see”—helping him write this song. Then they start doing this wonderful, endless 1960s song contest—“Miss Anne,” “Kansas City,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Shake Rattle and Roll.” They were very influenced by Motown, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, which then of course transmogrified into their own music. Smokey Robinson was a very big influence on everyone. It was a great day—sweet.

Is it a different film with Peter Jackson’s restoration?

It really is a new film, because all the kinks and the technical disturbances have been taken out now, by what Peter did in New Zealand. We all owe him a lot. We saw what he did to Get Back, and also what he did beforehand in They Shall Not Grow Old, that World War I footage, which he restored in color. He’s a real forward-thinking adventurer as a director. For Let It Be, the original print was okay—I mean, of course, if it had come out the way we’d done it [on 16-mm]. But then in everybody’s mind who is under the age of 80, they’ve only seen the bootlegs, and the bootlegs were taken from the VHS or maybe from a bit of rough cut, everything you wouldn’t want in a movie. So I’m very interested to see if it gets re-reviewed, and see the word of mouth on the various sites–usually horrible and frightful and vindictive, but maybe it won’t be this time. The movie is supposed to be a fairly “up” experience. 

The movie came out right as the Beatles were splitting up. How did that change how people saw it?

When it came out, it was before the social media of today. But there’s always been the Beatle tom-toms, and even in those days, people were communicating with each other about their dissatisfactions. They were upset mainly about the Beatles breaking up, not about the movie itself. But some—I think the word is “shade”—was thrown at the movie, because of them breaking up. There was legal stuff that turned into personal stuff, and everyone was shocked by how it got really nasty. Especially by how Paul and John were really pulling away from each other. They were brothers. One was called Lennon, one was called McCartney, but they were brothers.

Looking at the film the other night, at the premiere, I saw how joyful they were on the roof, what joy they took playing with each other. That was such a high moment in their lives together. And then of course there’s a kind of poignancy, because we now know what the end of some of those stories were: John gets murdered, George gets stabbed. It’s like a novel, their life is. So the novel is Let It Be, I think—split partly between Peter’s and mine.

People think of it as the “break-up film,” but there were 14 months between the sessions and the movie release. 

Yes, we finished shooting at the end of January 1969. We edited it through most of 1969, showed them rough cuts. They didn’t interfere hardly at all, the Beatles, and certainly Allen Klein didn’t, but of course I had to keep them up to date, so I showed them rough cuts, and then the fine cut. They were happy with that. That was November 1969. It could have come out, maybe December. It was ready to go. But it got delayed for a variety of reasons, mostly business reasons to do with United Artists. So then it came five months later, in May 1970. But as you know, a month before it opened, they broke up officially—Paul McCartney said he was leaving. So that wasn’t ideal.

There’s the infamous “argument,” between Paul and George, which now looks really tame. 

Well, that’s very interesting you say that, because whenever they saw it, they never mentioned the argument. They never said, ‘Boy, what are people going to think?” Once we turned it into a documentary, Paul said, “If you find there are things that we say to each other that show, ‘This is who we are now, it’s not the way it was a few years ago,’ let’s put them in.’ So that went in. But that’s really what you could look at as an artistic discussion between musicians. It’s the same in the theater, the same kind of things the actors say when they talk about a scene. “Are you really going to say the line that way? You can’t say it like that.’ ‘But if you say it like this, I can’t have my reply the way I want to do it.” And so that’s exactly like that. So for them it was business as usual. 

Why did it look so shocking to people?

It was shocking because they still thought of the Beatles as the mop-tops. People still saw them as the Ed Sullivan Beatles, the way they were when they started. People thought they were so cute and adorable. Well, they weren’t cute and adorable. They were four tough kids from Liverpool who’d learned their craft playing in hotel-cum-brothels in Hamburg. I mean, they were tough. They grew up in Liverpool, which was a tough city. It’s like growing up in Detroit or somewhere. Somewhere, that toughness always comes out.

But when people went to see Let It Be, the Beatles had just broken up, and so people were watching the movie trying to discover the reasons why they’d broken up, looking for things that weren’t there, because it was such a big issue for a lot of people. Especially in America, because the Beatles represented so much here: President Kennedy in November ’63, all that grief, then the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, February ’64, and all the grief is overcome by joy. Everyone in America thought they were so cute, wearing badges that said “I love Paul” or “I love Ringo.” This is when they were 22, 23, 24 years old. But then they did change. 

That’s what you see in Let It Be—the boys we have known are becoming men. People hadn’t seen the men yet. They didn’t know the men. And that’s what I think Let It Be does show.

You also show that in another film, Two of Us in 2000, which I think is the best movie ever made about the Beatles. You show John and Paul and their adult brotherhood. You can tell it’s made by someone who really knew them.

And two great actors, too: Jared Harris [as John] and Aidan Quinn [as Paul]. I was lucky I got gold with the actors, just as I got gold with the Beatles. They were so conscientious—endlessly poring over videos and saying, “What would Paul really have done? What would John say?” The guy who did the script, Mark Stansfield was almost a Beatles curator. There was not one word in the script that hadn’t been said by one of them at some point. Then fortunately, because it doesn’t always happen, the two actors got on and became kind of brothers shooting the picture. It was a very good experience. Fortunately, Paul liked the movie. He and Aidan became friendly after the movie. Aidan told me that Paul called him up in New Jersey and said, “Hey, it’s Paul. Can I come over, and do you have a piano?” Aidan said yeah. “Let me come over for a while. You give me supper and I’ll play some songs.” That turned out to be a reward.

It’s a beautiful moment when John and Yoko are waltzing. 

Lovely! I didn’t know John could waltz! I’ve read that some people think that the waltz was shot separately, and for some reason, dropped into the ‘I Me Mine’ sequence to show that John and Yoko were not taking George seriously, and the waltz was meant as some kind of rebuff to him. Well, it wasn’t. It all happened that morning. It’s so tender, the dance between John and Yoko, then at the end John does his little bow. Again, so much tenderness in the movie.

There’s the really funny scene where Paul is talking a mile a minute, and you just show John’s face listening to Paul. How did you choose to focus it on John’s face?

That’s all I had. Because Paul suddenly started to talk, we turned the camera on, and I had no cover shot of Paul. Also I didn’t want to interrupt—I mean, I could have gotten a camera over there, but I didn’t want to intrude on what was happening between them. I thought we’d know who Paul was—it’s his accent. But what was so interesting to me was John’s face. He didn’t seem to be interested in it really that much, and I think he knew what Paul was going to say anyway. He knew that Paul had an opinion. Paul’s opinion was, “It’s very important for the Beatles to stay in touch with their audience, because we are a performing band, and that’s what we do. If we make ourselves to be austere people up in the hill, not only will we not be able to give what we’re able to give, but we will not be able to learn what we learn from an audience.” 

It’s about the Beatles and their relationship with the audience—that’s what Paul said, and I thought he was right. Because in the theater, I always think the last member of the company to be cast is the audience. So it was with the Beatles.

Do you think Let It Be and Get Back are complementary?

Get Back and Let It Be are two different movies. When Peter made Get Back, obviously there were some scenes that overlapped with Let It Be, but he never pulled stuff from Let It Be and dropped it into Get Back. He always had the discretion and the kindness to use different angles, so it never looked like he was copying what I’d done. He’s a very unusual director, and I got lucky. If it had been Ron Howard, who did Eight Days A Week pulling together the live footage, I don’t think it would have been the same, but thanks to Peter, the movie’s come out again. I didn’t know it was going to happen, but I got very lucky. Sometimes things go your way in life, and sometimes they don’t. But I got very lucky twice with this. I did it originally, and then I got beat, but then it comes out again. So that’s a good conclusion to that story.

In Get Back, you spend a lot of time wondering where to stage the final concert. How did you end up on the roof? 

Once it turned into a documentary, and once I knew there was going to be no trip to Africa, I thought, “What can we do?” We cannot just spend the movie watching every day, rehearse-rehearse-rehearse, then one final rehearsal and the movie’s over. It needs a conclusion. It needs a performance. A resolution. And so I woke up one morning and I thought, well, maybe we can do it on the roof. When we had lunch that day, I said, “You know those old Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, where they say, ‘Hey kids, this is a swell barn. We can put the show on right here!’ That’s what it’s like—we’ve got a swell roof. Why don’t we put the show on right here?” So it really was desperate, because I knew we needed something, and it was convenient. So therefore you have “desperate” and “convenient.” That’s always a good combination.

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People can finally see the rooftop performance in the lineage of all the videos you made with them, from “Hey Jude” to Paul’s solo videos.

“Mull of Kintyre”—have you ever seen that one? It’s up in Scotland, by the sea, with the Campbelltown Pipe Band, and we’ve got the bagpipes on the beach. It’s a great song—he always writes great songs. Even with bagpipes.

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