When my Let It Be movie came out in 1970, it was accompanied by a quickly put together book of photos and chat between the Four of Them, me, and the odd other, meant as an attractive souvenir addition to the existing store of Beatles memorabilia.
It was quickly put together because, although we shot the movie at the beginning of 1969, and the Beatles went on to make Abbey Road later that year, storm clouds were darkening over Apple and time was running out. After being held up, Let It Be would be rushed out, and the book rushed out, too.
But it was too late.
The Beatles announced their official breakup in April 1970. The film premiered in May. Oddly—presciently, perhaps—the companion book, with photos by Ethan Russell (later the chronicler of that excess of all excesses, the 1972 Rolling Stones tour), was titled The Beatles: Get Back.
The Calm After the Storm
The Beatles hadn’t done any public appearances since their last tour, in 1966, when it all got too crazy. Someone swan-diving off the second tier at Candlestick Park. Before that, in the religious South (is there any other?), their records were thrown on bonfires, vinyl melting into goo, because of something John had said: “We’re more popular than Jesus.” So they were done performing for the public. Finis.
In 1968, the Beatles and I did the videos for “Revolution” and “Hey Jude.” Here, at least, was something they and I could control.
A few days before, Paul and I got together to talk about what I called “the problem of ‘Hey Jude’” and agreed that, no matter how charismatic and talented and wonderful they all were, once the chorus, “Nah, na, na, nananana,” came in for four minutes, we would need some other ingredient.
So we decided to have people, a crowd, to join in the chorus. Not just Beatles-fan-club members but people who would represent the world—or England, anyway—at that time, from shopkeepers to housewives to the village postman.
England was becoming a different country, not what the four of them had grown up knowing as kids in Liverpool. What had been the Commonwealth, the red stain of England in India, Africa, the West Indies, was no longer a distant group of people. They were now becoming part of the fabric of Great Britain, the homeland. We decided we needed all of it.
On the night of filming, we did six takes of “Hey Jude,” with a crowd of 150 to 200 people. Between each take there’d be a 10-to-12-minute break to reload the video machines with a virgin tape, unsullied by previous use—it was the Beatles, after all.
After a while, the Beatles became the kids from Hamburg again, who’d played till five A.M. to rowdy patrons in smoky bars. They played the songs they loved. The Miracles, the Temptations, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. They were not aloof gods anymore but rock ’n’ roll musicians. And the crowd loved it.
Some weeks later, when I was trying to come up with the idea that would become The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, Paul called me and asked if I would come up and talk to them.
The Beatles became the kids from Hamburg again, who’d played till five A.M. to rowdy patrons in smoky bars.
The conference room at Apple, their building in swanky Savile Row, was really an all-purpose room, containing a big table for meetings but also chairs and sofas for reading, relaxing, or smoking a joint.
Paul said they’d had a pretty good time playing to people during the “Hey Jude” shoot and that perhaps they felt ready to do a performance for an audience again. They had in mind a TV special, and would I like to direct it?
At our next meeting, Paul said he liked the idea of shooting some documentary footage of them rehearsing, to use as, say, a half-hour trailer before the big TV show.
On January 2, 1969, the Beatles started rehearsing at Twickenham Film Studios, where, a few months before, we’d shot “Revolution” and “Hey Jude.” As they rehearsed songs, we talked about what the TV special would look like.
Where? The Cavern, maybe—the small club in Liverpool where Brian Epstein had first seen them. But, we thought, going back to the beginning might not be enough for what we were looking to do.
Maybe we just do it in a field, we thought. Simple and plain.
Then I had the idea of doing it in Libya, in an ancient amphitheater beside the Mediterranean. At dawn, the sunlight breaking the sky, Mal Evans would start to lay out the equipment. When the sun got higher, the Beatles would start to play.
Their music, traveling across the desert as musical notations, would reach a multitude of people, who would start to travel across the desert toward the sound. Men, women, children, everyone, of all ages and races. By midnight, under a glowing moon, the Beatles would be playing, say, “Let It Be,” and it would be the four of them and the world.
The plan eventually fell apart, and we left the big studio at Twickenham and relocated to the Beatles’ studio in the basement of Apple, where, joined by Billy Preston (who’d met the Beatles in Hamburg when he was a teenage keyboard player for Little Richard), they kept working on their songs. And the documentary cameras kept rolling, which was great, in a way, because no one had ever really seen the Beatles rehearsing before.
But I knew the film needed some sort of climax. So, at lunch on a Saturday, I offered an idea. “We didn’t do it at the Cavern, or in a field, or in an amphitheater on the Mediterranean, so why don’t we just do it on the roof?”
“Do what?,” John asked.
And that’s what we did, on Thursday, January 30, 1969.
There was a little back-and-forth at noon that day, in the little room below the stairs leading to the roof.
Ringo opined, quite rightly, “It’s cold up there.” He was thinking of the guitar players, their hands fingering the instruments. He was right—it was 46 degrees, bright but with a cold, biting wind.
George asked, “What’s the point?”
Paul pushed to do it. And Paul pushing is a pretty formidable machine.
There was kind of an impasse.
Then John said, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”
So the four of them walked up the stairs and into history. It was their last and final concert to any kind of audience.
Now, Peter Jackson, with all the original footage, has made Get Back, what he calls “a documentary about the making of a documentary.”
Two Films, Two Books
The reason I tell what is, I think, the interesting story of the making of my film Let It Be and its 56 hours of footage is because they are the seeds that Peter planted in his garden in New Zealand, fresh abundance from more than 50 years ago. And I suspect that some or much of what, for a variety of reasons, I had to cut out of the original film, Peter might have room for.
In 2020, when Peter and I first talked about Let It Be—about how none of the Beatles had gone to the premiere in London in December 1969, and how they’d officially broken up in April 1970, just before the film’s release in America; how no one at Apple seemed to care about the film, and how I was dealing with the distributors myself—Peter said, with his characteristic intelligence and sympathy, “So, except for you, Let It Be was really an orphan.”
A new book celebrates Peter’s project—three two-hour films looking at that time the Beatles and I were trying to figure out what to do with what we were doing—which will be coming out on Disney+ in November. The book, beautifully produced by Callaway, is nothing like the rushed job that accompanied Let It Be.
In it, Peter has written a wonderful little story about picking mushrooms in the woods of New Zealand as a young boy. He used to sell them in a pail by the side of the road, he writes, for pocket money that allowed him to get his first Beatles records. (“I was always barefooted as a lad, walking and running over the grass where we lived, a tiny town,” Peter told me when he and I met in Los Angeles, “but maybe, selling the mushrooms, I’d put on a pair of flip-flops, to look more business-like.”)
The new volume also includes Ethan Russell’s original photographs—accompanied now by Linda Eastman McCartney’s wonderful pictures of that time, at Twickenham and at Apple—as well as an intimate story by the British author Hanif Kureishi about growing up in a glum London suburb and being inspired by the Beatles, working-class boys from tough Liverpool conquering the world.
So there we have it. Two films and two books, half a century apart. Mine and his. I look forward, with great anticipation and goodwill, to Peter Jackson’s Get Back.
The Beatles: Get Back will be published on October 12 by Callaway Arts & Entertainment, ahead of the documentary series’s Disney+ premiere, on November 25
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, director of the 1970 Beatles documentary, Let It Be, is a renowned New York–based writer, filmmaker, and painter. He is the author of the memoir Luck and Circumstance