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The Long, Winding, and Weird Legacy of the Beatles’ Notorious ‘Let It Be’ Movie

Let It Be is back? Nobody thought this day would ever come. The Beatles’ 1970 lost-lost documentary Let It Be has always been dismissed as the band’s tombstone. It’s a movie that people regard as a disaster but hardly anyone has actually seen, just like Magical Mystery Tour. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Let It Be came out in May 1970, right when the Fabs were splitting up, and went down in history as their “break-up film.” All four refused to show up for the premiere. Apple has kept it officially unavailable for decades. It’s barely been seen in the past 50 years. Of all the Beatles’ artifacts, Let It Be seemed to be buried deepest.

But Apple and Disney+ are finally bringing it back, in a new restoration that premieres on Disney+ on May 8. Let It Be has been digitally restored and cleaned up by Peter Jackson, using the same technology he used for his amazing 2021 miniseries Get Back, with Lindsay-Hogg’s blessing. It’s still the same film, showing the Beatles in the studio, in the stormy sessions for the album that became their farewell, Let It Be. Who could resist 80 minutes of the Fab Four bitching each other out?

But Get Back definitely changed the way people thought about this era and these sessions, revealing the joy and camaraderie. So will the world finally be ready to see Let It Be with a fresh perspective? How will it look now that we know so much more about the story? 

Let It Be has always had a rotten reputation. It’s been difficult to see the movie, since its short-lived 1970 theater run. It was briefly available on home video, but then got yanked and buried. I saw it as a teenager at a midnight screening in Boston, with a crowd that booed when Yoko Ono was onscreen. The hostile vibes in the studio came across in the theater. So it’s a major surprise that Let It Be is coming out of the crypt. As Beatle archival projects go, this one seemed about as likely as Magical Mystery Tour: The Musical or “Carnival of Light” on Ice.

Let It Be begins in January 1969, when John, Paul, George, and Ringo bring in Lindsay-Hogg to film them in the studio. Over 21 days, he shoots 56 hours of footage. The Get Back sessions get nasty, with George quitting the band (offscreen). The Fabs argue. They sulk. They look miserable. At the end, they go up on top of the Apple building for their famed rooftop concert, playing live for the first time in years. (Until the cops come.) The footage is meant for a 30-minute TV special. But new manager Allen Klein, having just gotten his fingers in the Beatle pie, decides to hustle it into theaters as a cash-cow movie. Now titled Let It Be, it hits theaters at the worst possible moment—just a few weeks after Paul announces the break-up.

Even Peter Jackson was so traumatized by Let It Be he wasn’t sure about the idea of doing Get Back. “As a longtime Beatle fan, I really wasn’t looking forward to it,” he told Rolling Stone. “I thought, if what we’ve seen is the stuff they allowed people to see, what are the other 55 hours going to be? When I went to Apple, my feet were heavy. I thought, ‘I should be excited, but I just dread what I’m about to see.’” 

But the Let It Be legacy has changed over time. It was so notorious back then, with all its squabbling. But that was a more innocent era, when everybody had no idea the moptops ever argued about anything, except which one was the Walrus. In 1970, people didn’t even know that John and Paul wrote their Lennon-McCartney songs separately, or that George felt pushed around, or that they sometimes hated each other’s songs. People still imagined them as the four lads from Help! all living together in their groovy Beatle pad. So it was a shock to see any fractures in the world’s most famous friendship.

Most fans only know Let It Be from one infamous scene, seen in both Anthology and Get Back: Paul and George arguing over a guitar part.  Paul says, “I always hear myself annoying you.” George looks him in the eye. “You don’t annoy me any more,” he sneers. “I’ll play what you want me to play. I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” 

This scene horrified people at the time, before rock docs or reality TV existed, before anyone knew how a REAL rock-star fight sounded. Yet from a modern perspective, it’s ridiculously tame. As music producer Giles Martin said, “When you see this famous argument in the film, It’s like, ‘That’s it? That’s the thing?’” For a band like Aerosmith, this would count as friendly conversation. “I was working with Aerosmith producing their Vegas show, God bless them. Even arguing about their flights to Boston was worse than that!”

Let It Be didn’t come out until May 1970—14 months after it was filmed—so it’s hardly a documentary of a band breaking up. Right after the Get Back sessions, the Fabs made Abbey Road, not just their sunniest music but their most popular. Yet that’s how people still talk about this movie—the band divorcing on camera. “It was a very dark time not just for the Beatles themselves, but for their fans,” Peter Jackson said. “I can just imagine that if you were going to the cinema in May of 1970, and you just heard that the Beatles had broken up, then you’re obviously going to look at the movie through a particular filter. The timing of it—what was in people’s minds when they were looking at the movie, as much as the movie itself—I think that has led to it being known as the break-up film.”

Part of the doc’s bad rep was how cheap and grainy it looked. It was shot for Sixties TV, on 16-mm film. But when Allen Klein decided to make it a movie, the 16-mm footage got blown up to 35-mm for the big screen. So it ended up looking like one long technical glitch. Jackson digitally refurbished the original footage for Get Back, stunning fans with how vibrant it all looked. Now he and his team do the same restoration for Let It Be, using the same MAL de-mix technology for the music, so it can finally look and sound like the Beatles.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, now 84, has always valiantly defended his original Let It Be. “I always thought, for a variety of reasons which weren’t its fault, it was positioned badly in the world of rock & roll documentaries, and even Beatles lore,” he told Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt in 2021. Ringo complained, “There was no joy in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary.” Lindsay-Hogg’s reply?  “Personally, I don’t care.” 

Lindsay-Hogg was a director of the U.K. music TV show Ready Steady Go!, and he had a long history with the Beatles, directing their pioneering videos for “Hey Jude,” “Paperback Writer,” and Rain,” as well as Rolling Stones projects like Rock and Roll Circus. The famous “Hey Jude” clip was filmed at Twickenham Studios in London, with the band surrounded by 300 fans singing along. “They enjoyed that so much that the whole concept with the Get Back thing was that ‘we’ll do exactly the same thing,’” Peter Jackson said. “Basically the ‘Hey Jude’ promo but with 14 songs and broadcast live on TV.” But the lads soon got sick of this whole project. They moved on to Abbey Road, and the abandoned footage got turned into a movie.

Let It Be had one of the least successful premieres in film history. On May 20, a crowd stood outside the theater, in London’s Piccadilly Circus, hoping for a glimpse of the Beatles. But not one of them showed up. The red-carpet VIPs were a strange mix of Beatle exes Jane Asher and Cynthia Lennon, A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, a few Hare Krishnas. The Apple staffers were all there, looking around for their bosses—none of the four had bothered to send any warning that they weren’t coming. “It was bloody sad, bloody bloody awful,” their press officer Derek Taylor wrote in his memoir As Time Goes By. “In the days after the premiere, I dreaded one of them asking me, ‘Did you go to the premiere?’”

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That pretty much set the tone for the movie’s reputation. It dashed the hopes of a worldwide audience still hoping this break-up was just a temporary spat. John Lennon finally saw Let It Be in San Francisco, on the advice of his therapist, a month after it came out. Nobody noticed a Beatle in the theater, because nobody was there. He went with Yoko, Rolling Stone’s Jann S. Wenner and his wife Jane, right before the historic “Lennon Remembers” interview. “Just bought tickets and went in,” Wenner said. “It was empty, afternoon, and during a weekday.” John broke down in tears. “I just remember walking out of the theater and all of us in a foursome huddle, hugging, and the sadness of the occasion.” 

When Get Back dropped in November 2021, part of its rapturous reception was in the way it dispelled the bitch-and-shout bad vibes of Let It Be. Jackson went back to the 56 hours of footage, but used it to tell a whole new story, a 6-hour feast for fans, showing the band coming together to make timeless music in their hour of darkness. Get Back, in some ways, was presented as an antidote to Let It Be. So the time is right for this much-maligned, rarely-seen film to get a second look. Lindsay-Hogg, for one, is confident that after seeing Get Back, the audience will finally be ready for Let it Be. “It’s in everybody’s interest to put out Let It Be again after Peter’s because they’re totally different films,” he said. “They’re not competitors.” Now that both version of the story will exist, the world can finally see Let It Be with fresh eyes. 

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