It was 49 years ago today (May 13th, 1970), that the Beatles' final movie, Let It Be, received its U.S. premiere in New York City theaters. The film, which was shot in January 1969, was originally intended to be a TV special called Get Back featuring the group rehearsing for their first live show in over two years. The early rehearsals captured the group, along with John Lennon's soon-to-be wife Yoko Ono, clearly bored, with only Paul McCartney showing any real enthusiasm for the new material. The first part of the film shows the strain of the early morning sessions held in a cavernous soundstage at London's Twickenham film studios.
The Beatles late-producer George Martin recalled that the Let It Be project held great promise in the beginning: “They were going through a very, very revolutionary period at that time. And they were trying to think of something new. They did actually come up with a very good idea, which I thought was well worth working on; The wanted to write an album completely and rehearse it and then perform it in front of a large audience — and for that to be a live album of new material. And we started rehearsing down at Twickenham film studios, and I went along with them.”
George Harrison, who was the least invested member of the band in regards to returning to the stage, recalled the band's initial plan: “I think the original idea was to rehearse some new songs, and then we were going to pick a location and record the album of the songs in a concert. I suppose kinda like they do these days on Unplugged, except, y'know, it wasn't to be unplugged. It was to do a live album.”
Among the songs featured in the film are “Let It Be,” “Get Back,” “Don't Let Me Down,” “Maxwell's Silver Hammer,” “For You Blue,” “Octopus' Garden,” “I Me Mine,” “Across The Universe,” and “The Long And Winding Road,” and covers of “Besame Mucho,” “Shake, Rattle And Roll,” and “Kansas City,” among many others.
In 1970 John Lennon recalled the nearly month-long film shoot saying: “It was just a dreadful, dreadful feeling being filmed all the time. I just wanted them to go away. And we'd be there at eight in the morning and you couldn't make music at eight in the morning, or 10, or whatever it was . . . in a strange place with people filming you and colored lights.”
The tension between the group is palpable, especially during the sequence where Harrison and McCartney argue over Harrison's playing on the song “Two Of Us.”
McCartney explained that unconsciously, the Beatles were actually telling the world that they were breaking up: “In fact what happened was when we got in there we showed how the breakup of a group works because we didn't realize that we were actually breaking up, y'know as it was happening.”
The movie lightens up considerably during the second half, when the filming moved to the group's new Apple basement studios, with the addition of keyboardist Billy Preston. A major highlight of the film is the final sequence, when the Beatles play in impromptu set on the Apple headquarters rooftop, featuring “Get Back,” “Dig A Pony,” “I've Got A Feeling,” “Don't Let Me Down,” and “One After 909.” Filmed on January 30th, 1969, it would be the band's final public performance.
Reviews for the film, which was released a month after the group's breakup, were mixed, citing the sluggish and depressing nature of the film, as well as director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's sloppy editorial choices. But across the board, both critics and fans agreed on the power of the group's triumphant rooftop set.
Author Ritchie Unterberger chronicled the prolonged Get Back/Let It Be sessions in his book, titled The Unreleased Beatles: “They had bitten off more than they could chew. Y'know, even before they assembled in January, the idea was, 'Let's get back to playing as a live band' — pretty good idea. But then it was, 'Let's make it an album and a film, and we're going to make the album a film of us doing a concert of songs we've never recorded before.' It's kind of like trying to do too much at once. And then you're recording it — the comparison I made in the book is kind of Nixon's 'The Watergate Tapes,' you have no idea that this stuff is going to comeback to haunt you forever.”
Beatlefan magazine's executive editor Al Sussman saw the film within days of its premiere and was left speechless by the group's live swan song: “It was really depressing. But, what made it worthwhile was the rooftop, y'know? Because when I left that theater, I was this far off the ground. Despite the fact that we knew everything that happened afterward. Yeah, that saves the film.”
Let It Be earned the Beatles their only Academy Award, when they won the 1970 Oscar for Best Original Song Score.
The film was briefly available on VHS in 1981, but remains one of the most anticapted reissues in the band's catalogue.
In January 2019, the Beatles announced that Academy Award-winning director, Peter Jackson — best known for The Lord Of The Rings series, among others — will head up a new film culled from the massive amount of film outtakes from the band's 1970 Let It Be movie. The still-untitled film is based around 55 hours of never-released footage of the Beatles rehearsing and recording at Twickenham Film Studios and Apple Studios, shot between January 2nd and January 31st, 1969. This film, which has no release date yet, is being made with the full co-operation of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon and George Harrison's respective widows — Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. The project's executive producers are Ken Kamins for WingNut Films and Jeff Jones and Jonathan Clyde for the Beatles' Apple Corps. Following the release of this new film, a restored version of the original Let It Be movie directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg will also be released. Peter Jackson spoke about the new movie in the official announcement, saying, “The 55 hours of never-before-seen footage and 140 hours of audio made available to us, ensures this movie will be the ultimate 'fly on the wall' experience that Beatles fans have long dreamt about — it’s like a time machine transports us back to 1969, and we get to sit in the studio watching these four friends make great music together.”
He went on to say, “I was relieved to discover the reality is very different to the myth. After reviewing all the footage and audio that Michael Lindsay-Hogg shot 18 months before they broke up, it’s simply an amazing historical treasure-trove. Sure, there’s moments of drama — but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George, and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating — it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate. I’m thrilled and honored to have been entrusted with this remarkable footage — making the movie will be a sheer joy.”