As a film, Let It Be has more backstory than story.
In Beatle-time, the 15-plus-month turnaround from the end of their January 1969 sessions until the film’s release in May 1970 was simply a glacial pace. Then from the moment it reached theaters, Let It Be has been treated as a snuff film.
You can virtually see them breaking up … it’s a wonder the picture was made at all.
That’s director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, quoted in a syndicated wire story the week of the film’s release, ostensibly to promote the film. We’ll never know if he’d have said the same thing if the film come out in sometime in 1969 as originally planned, when it was provisionally titled Get Back.
It only took 51 years, but Get Back is about to be on television after all — a movie-turned-television-show, the reverse of Let It Be’s trajectory from TV show to feature film.
To put 51 years into context, it’s 11 more years than John Lennon spent in the material world. It’s about as far away from today as the release of Let It Be was from the Treaty of Versailles. It’s a relative eternity.
Let’s pick up this story after January 1969. The Beatles completed busy and fruitful winter sessions split between Twickenham Film Studios and their own basement recording studios at 3 Savile Row with dozens of hours of audio and video that would emerge as a TV show and springtime LP, their follow-up to the White Album.
The February 1969 issue of the Beatles Book, their fan club magazine, said that while there was “still no fresh progress” on the Beatles’ next film, it was a “priority job” for the new year. They hadn’t yet realized the film was already in the can.
For the next several months, a clear pattern emerged: The release of the album was delayed because the movie was hung up.
April 29, 1969: Melody Maker reported 68 hours of footage was about to be edited down, “from which two films will be produced.”
May 3, 1969: “This film … somebody’s editing that at the moment. It’s sixty-eight hours, and they’re trying to get it down to five for several TV specials. Or then, it might be a movie. I don’t know” — John, to Melody Maker
Early July 1969: The Beatles Book reported the release of the album and a companion book would be delayed because “the fellows would like the film to go on television in August so that everything comes together at the same time.”
July 12, 1969: “[The LP] is tentatively set for September release … to coincide with the screening of the group’s TV special. … If the TV show is delayed until later in the autumn, it is possible that an alternative album … will be released first. From all the many reels of film shot during their recording sessions, the Beatles are hoping to produce a three-hour cinema film, from which the two-hour TV special would then be extracted.” — NME
The Beatles and family, at the July 20, 1969, rough cut screening.
July 20, 1969: The same day mankind made a giant leap on the moon, the stars of the film sat in place for a while to view Michael’s working cut of the film, which at the time clocked in at about 2 1/2 hours. This was about three months after editing was reported to be getting under way.
July 21, 1969: The day after the screening, Beatles assistant Peter Brown phoned Michael, asking on behalf of the group just one required edit: Whack a half-hour of John and Yoko footage. In his 2011 memoir Luck and Circumstance, Michael wrote he was told, “Let me put it this way. I’ve had three calls this morning to say it should come out.”
July 29, 1969: Variety reported plans to screen a TV special to coincide with the release of the Get Back LP. “The TV show and a three-hour cinema version are still at the editing stage,” the magazine said.
Early August 1969: The Beatles Book said the Get Back LP will be pushed back again to coincide with the film, “probably towards the end of November.”
August 30, 1969: “There is still no news of release of the … ‘Get Back’ album. … It is understood that this will still be issued as a soundtrack album for the film, however, and that Christmas is a possibility.” — NME
September 1969: After screening a new cut at some point this month, the group signed off on the film to business manager Allen Klein, according to Michael. In what could simply be a coincidence, the same month also saw John announce to the others that he was quitting the Beatles. They released Abbey Road in September, too.
September 20, 1969: Six days before that very release, NME reported the 85-minute “Get Back” film would premiere early in 1970. The paper said the documentary had been edited from “five hours of film taken at the time,” quite the error of scale. The paper does say, however, that the movie is expected to be picked up by United Artists in order to fulfill their three-film commitment. The Beatles’ priority for the year, as mentioned in February, was now complete. This is definitely a scoop, with Variety reporting the same UA deal the following April.
October 1969: Counter to the NME story, the Beatles Book maintained the LP and film would come out in December. Elsewhere in this issue, in Steve Turner’s article on the Beatles’ effect on modern culture, the rumor that the Beatles may film a version of Lord of the Rings was revived.
November 1969: The Beatles Book was back to reporting a 1970 release with UA distributing.
On the very eve of the Let It Be’s ultimate release in May, we can catch a glimpse of contemporary opinions of the film.
Based on interviews conducted prior to the release of the McCartney LP, the traditional marker for the breakup of the Beatles, BBC Radio 1 broadcast a promotional special on May 23, 1970, in conjunction with the film’s wide release in the UK.
Paul compared the film to watching a painter fill his canvas, calling it a “good film” and “interesting.”
George, however, said he “can’t stand” seeing the “pure documentary of us slogging.
“But for other people who don’t know what we’re really about, who like to go in and see our warts, it’s very good. … It’s the complete opposite to the clinical approach that we’ve normally had.”
Of the album, he says “you can actually get to know us. It’s more human.”
“Exploitation materials and posters” intended for theaters to use for promotion of Let It Be.
Speaking to Rolling Stone for a cover story on the eve of the release of his solo debut — the magazine is dated April 30, but the interview was clearly conducted prior to April 10 — Paul continued to point to the film, which he still referred to as Get Back, in positive terms.
“The Get Back film is a good film. And it is a real film. The troubles are in it as well as the happy moments.”
Paul went on to complain about the delays of the record’s release in interestingly prescient terms while blaming Klein for the holdup.
“The LP is looking to be a joke, for it is a bit of a cliff hanger. I would have liked to have seen it out there three months ago and now I don’t even remember making it.”
It’s tough to keep pace in Beatle-time. Paul’s point is clear, though, even with the tremendous exaggeration.
While the Beatles may have been in a difficult spot in early April 1970, it wasn’t the same spot — difficult or not — they were in January 1969.
When Let It Be was first shown to the public, on May 13, 1970, there was no glitz or red carpet. Instead the film was screened in ordinary theaters dotting the United States, not at a promoted premiere in New York as Apple had initially promoted.
A week later, May 20, the film received a more proper launch, premiering in London and Liverpool with the pomp missing stateside. In London, Beatle exes Jane Asher and Cynthia Lennon were among the guests, which also included Mary Hopkin, Lulu, Spike Milligan and other notables as thousands of fans showed up at the scene. Kevin Harrington, assistant roadie at the time, wrote in his memoir that he took an Apple Scruff to the premiere. No Beatles were present, however.
At this moment, two key figures were across the globe, in Los Angeles. John Lennon was in Bel Air undergoing Primal Scream therapy while Michael Lindsay-Hogg at work about a half-hour away in Hollywood (traffic pending).
The most accurate review yet: “Singing their songs, doing their thing!” (From the May 13, 1970, Californian)
John and Yoko joined Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner and his wife, Jane, for a showing Let It Be at a sparsely attended theater in San Francisco in the early part of June 1970.
“After the show — moved at whatever level, either as participants or deep fans — we somehow cried,” recalled Wenner.
In an Los Angeles Times interview published just a few days after Lennon saw the movie, Michael again reflected on the difficulty of filming the sessions in terms dramatic enough the reporter remarked “the wonder of it is that he put together even a reel.”
In the June 10, 1970, article, Michael complained the group would disrupt “a lot of good, funny and antagonistic conversation” by playing music and moving microphones away. “I don’t think I got them when they were their most charming,” he said, essentially acknowledging they were never charming given the amount of footage he actually did get.
The article was memorable enough for Michael that he remembered his reaction to it decades later in his book.
… [I] was surprised, or concerned, that what had seemed clear to me when I’d said it had been reported without insight, with no recognition of irony or jokes. The Beatles were portrayed only as argumentative people, without extenuation, without subtlety.
The article prompted a further response, a phone call from fellow director — and father, as he later learned — Orson Wells, who asked Michael if he was happy with Let It Be.
“Some of it,” Michael replied. “It’s hard when your stars are your producers. And there were four of them. … A lot I liked got cut out. … But the footage was good.”
Let It Be arrived at theaters at various points in May 1970, but it was absolutely impossible to separate it and its impact from the April release of McCartney. Ringo’s late-March release of his solo debut, Sentimental Journey, wasn’t necessarily seen to have been as critical to the story as McCartney, but it simply piled on the narrative. Let It Be was the breakup film paired with a breakup soundtrack LP. Reviews of one usually paired with reviews of the other.
Variety’s review, published in their May 20 issue, called the movie “relatively innocuous, unimaginative piece of film. But the musicians are the Beatles, and coming hard on the group’s breakup, … [it’s] charged with it own timely mystique.
The fascination of “Let It Be” is that it is, in a sense, probably the last public appearance of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as a group, with all the gossip and speculation attending the split, reading between the spoken lines of the film becomes a game in itself.
Variety did wisely predict “McCartney … will probably emerge strongest as a major individual talent of the Seventies as a composer and singer.”
Chicago Tribune legend Gene Siskel gave Let It Be three stars, writing “Beatle fans will search the 80-miunte film for foreshadowing of the recently announced breakup.”
In the the Sydney Morning Herald’s review headlined “Let It Be For the Staunch Fans,” writer Evan Williams smartly noted:
It seems a pity that we are not shown at least one song in its early stages of composition. This might have given us a genuine insight into the way the Beatles work. … I never once had the feeling that we were witnessing the creative process at work, or sharing in the mysterious, painful rituals of music-making.
(This key point is something the 2021 Get Back film is set to get right).
Tony Palmer gave a brutal takedown of the film in the Observer’s May 23, 1970, issue.
The film is a bore. … Shot without any design, clumsily edited, defeatedly titled ‘A Feature Film,’ uninformative, awkward and naive. It would have destroyed a lesser group. How could 200,000 feet of film have produced nothing but an extended promotional exercise?
Writing for Punch magazine, Richard Mallett, who described himself “as no pop fan” called the film shapeless but wrote it “will entertain anyone not enraged by the mere idea of the Beatles.” He enjoyed the film’s mood, visuals and interplay of the four Beatles, concluding, “One feels oddly regretful that so bright a bunch has broken up.”
“The Beatles and Friend” – from Punch magazine
These are just a small sampling of reviews. I could have posted hundreds, but you get the idea.
The film performed OK at the box office, seeming to peak in Variety’s weekly rankings at No. 5 in its third week. Per those same rankings, it dropped from No. 8 to 41 on June 17 and then slowly vanished from theaters overall. The film ultimately won a Best Oscar for its score, but no there weren’t any Beatles around to pick up the trophy.
From Billboard, June 11, 1970
It’s an understatement to say the Beatles, especially John and George, piled on subsequent years, advancing and ensuring the film’s terrible standing.
Even Capitol Records eventually called out the film’s dim reputation. Remember Reel Music? (Don’t answer that). The 1982 compilation of Beatles movie songs promoted Let It Be like this:
Let It Be poignantly documents the group’s disintegration while capturing their inimitable songwriting technique.
For his part, Paul continued a working relationship with Michael, tapping him for a few promotional videos in the 1970s.
In July 1981, a decade after it was in theaters, Let It Be saw its first home release on VHS (it was later issued on Laserdisc). Again using Variety’s rankings, the tape debuted at No. 31 and kind of bubbled around the 20s, peaking at No. 19 before eventually falling out of the Top 40.
VHS charts, August 1, 1981, Variety.
That makes it 40 years since the movie was last issued for a home audience. In January 2022, “A Hard Day’s Night” is slated for a 4K Criterion Collection reissue. You could have bought that fab film on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray and streamed it online in that same period of time. It’s a big game of telephone, but Michael says that Paul told him George blocked the DVD release in the 1990s, while a planned DVD to be released in tandem with Let It Be … Naked in 2003 never materialized.
Footage from Let It Be trickled out officially on occasion, like in Anthology in 1995, when a whole new audience was exposed to George playing if Paul wanted him to play during the “winter of discontent.” On the flip side, part of the rooftop show ran during the credits of the 2014 documentary “Eight Days a Week,” a lovely — if strictly anachronistic — conclusion to a movie about the Beatles’ touring years.
But for all intents and purposes, the original Let It Be film had its reputation established by its release, with the breakup taking on a disproportionate stake. Decades of unavailability for mainstream viewers cemented the movie as a straw man for late-era Beatles. The only two views of it were “watch the Beatles break up” or “watch for the symptoms of the Beatles breaking up.” There was little middle ground. Maybe Michael Lindsay-Hogg offered up too much subtlety.
Or maybe we also lost some context along the way.
“Once we were everyone’s darlings, George said in an interview published by AP. “But it isn’t like that anymore. They hate us.”
Ringo agreed in the same article. “It’s shocking the way some sections of the public have turned on us. It’s completely unmerited.”
Those quotes are from April 1969, a year before the band broke up.
It only took 51 years, but Let It Be is Get Back again. It’s out in conjunction with the release of the LP and a book (and within months of competing solo Beatles products). Yet with all this history behind it, it instead arrives with excitement from the band and fans alike, and it’ll draw upon its own blank slate.