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Let it be (1970)

You have to be a pretty committed Beatlemaniac to consume 7 hours of Peter Jackson’s Get Back epic, and then find the time to take in Michael Lyndsay-Hogg’s original 1970 feature. Well, here I am – and strange to say, it feels oddly like a worthwhile exercise.

Some youtubers claim that they can’t understand why the movie’s been hidden away for so long. But on viewing, this seems pretty obvious: the film is baffling, full of dreadful music, criminally boring and yes – kind of depressing.

Long and Winding

As a 7 hour epic, all that footage Lyndsay-Hogg shot makes sense: a prolonged documentary that grants incredible deep-dive insight into the Beatles’ creative process. This approach suits the streaming age.

But Lyndsay-Hogg was briefed to make a feature film. And back in those days, 90 minutes was deemed more than sufficient. You had to be David Lean to get more.

Lyndsay-Hogg therefore had to compress all this rambling incoherence he captured into a tight story, without a beginning, a middle – or much of an end. Watching Let it Be it becomes clear that this is very hard to do. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the lad.

Meander like a restless wind

Yes, it does seem strange that his film doesn’t make use of captions or voiceover. That at least would help inform us what the bloody hell is even going on. An average Beatle fan, watching this in 1970, would have asked: ‘Wait, where are they? What are they doing? Who’s that? Where is this all going?’ There is no thread to cling to, just scenes of apparently random events that happen to feature the Beatles.

Still, even more explanation could not have saved this beast. Lyndsay-Hogg doesn’t spend enough time with the Beatles themselves. He uses only disjointed morsels of the incredible fly-on-the-wall footage that he captured. Lennon, for instance, is barely present here – we don’t get any sense of him as a person at all (whereas in Jackson’s documentary he comes across as a blotto, occassionally vicious prick).

Times of trouble

Instead, Lyndsay-Hogg wants to give us music. But the thing about focussing on the tunes is that a lot of them are…pretty fucking bad.

1970 audiences would have arrived at the cinema expecting a Beatles flick to feature finished tracks. The film gives them no warning that they are not about to witness polished performances, but a prolonged succession of wobbly rehearsals and half-baked jams (the dirge rehearsal of Across the Universe was the low point for this viewer).

This may be what sank it most of all for the public, what made it all too depressing: they were given song after song played not very well. The Beatles must have seemed to be a bit of a miserable mess – where Jackson’s documentary has time to show us that the truth is more complex (Although both Get Back and Let it Be feature shots of poor old George Martin sat there wearing a rictus grin, loathing every moment of this indisciplined shambles).

These choices Lyndsay-Hogg made are poor in hindsight. But the little four minute introduction on Disney plus – a rather stiff interview between him and Jackson – does provide a clue as to why it all happened this way.

Lyndsay Hogg felt cheated. He was hired, so far as he understood it, to make a concert film. He almost certainly expected to ditch the vast majority of rehearsal footage in favour of whatever the final concert might be. That should fill up a god 55-70 minutes alone.

His philosophy at Twickenham was almost certianly: ‘hmm, they don’t know what they’re doing yet. let’s just film everything until they pick a venue – the gig is the thing.’ The stuff Jackson made a documentary from was almost certainly never intended to comprise the main part of his film. Filming rehearsals for Lyndsay Hogg was probably busy work – ‘get it in the can, maybe it might prove useful later’.

Get Back captures brilliantly Lyndsay Hogg’s mounting concern as the gog grows farther and farther off, as the Beatles constantly shift brief on him – saying that the project is now this and now that, that the concert is now off and now on again. We watch as over time it becomes apparent to him that there might be no concert at all.

As Get Back shows, he was finally reduced to begging the band to define some kind of climax, anything to give his movie some purpose.

Lyndsay-Hogg tells Jackson he almost had his idea of an amphitheatre concert realised. This seems doubtful, but that tells us everything we need to know.

Lyndsay-Hogg wanted a setting of rolling dunes and gorgeous vistas; shots of the world’s beautiful people arriving in barefoot columns at dusk, entering an oasis arena to see the Beatles mount the stage in godlike splendour. He wanted to make a great concert movie, the first and greatest Beatle concert movie – and in a fittingly grandiose location.

Cold as ice

And what did he get? A bollock-freezing January shambles on a London roof – and a lousy five songs.

FIVE. With an audience of strange office gentlemen and baffled bystanders in the streets below. His documentation of it all was perfect. But to him it would have been very difficult to see it as anything but a disaster: a lot of bits and pieces that nobody could make into coherent film.

Left with a small team to pick up the pieces, with zero interest from the litigious, breaking-up Beatles, it would have been very easy to become depressed about this project. Sure, he could have crafted a better documentary: but he didn’t have the boredom of the pandemic, and however many thousands of assistants Jackson had to sort through the footage and present it all to him in an understandable state. Lyndsay-Hogg had a deadline and a small team and a million miles of film. He had to get something out to get paid. That is what led to this: something that remains a bit of a disaster, however much Jackson has polished it.

I can’t blame Lyndsay-Hogg for it. But I can’t pretend it’s a good movie either. The Beatles sank themselves and took him with them. The poor bastard didn’t stand a chance.