Historically, The Beatles’ Let It Be, the documentary film released in 1970, was designed to show them making magic in the studio by creating an album from scratch. Instead, it represented a look at their disintegration; indeed, the band had broken up shortly before the film’s release. But now director Peter Jackson — the visionary behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the acclaimed World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old — is preparing to present us with a very different view of Let It Be in a new film that will utilize 55 hours of unseen footage and 140 hours of audio.
Of the film and audio at his disposal, he explained in a statement, “It 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.”
That is certainly not the perception that fans have of the original Let It Be. As director Michael Lindsay-Hogg has explained, “Originally, Let It Be was supposed to be a short documentary that would support a television special to back up the new album. The Beatles sort of thought this was OK, partly because they enjoyed the jams they did for the audience in the ‘Hey Jude’ promotional film. They thought maybe it’s possible one more time to go out and do something. But they didn’t have the album together. They thought they should get the album together and we’d do a television special ‘somewhere.’ But they’re sitting there in a cold studio and nobody was getting on. They didn’t know what they wanted to do. The situation was that it was two or three weeks, two cameras, eight hours a day. They’d come in between 11 and one and we’d grind it out and grind it out. You’d do ‘Long and Winding Road’ 30 times.”
Somewhere along the way, that TV special became a feature film documentary, but Mark’s problem was that he didn’t have an ending. “I didn’t want to make a straight documentary,” he had said over the years. “I figured if we just showed them working, we’d learn quite a bit about them. But I did want an ending. We had all of these rehearsals and all this footage and it wasn’t going anywhere.”
Where it did go was the rooftop of The Beatles’ Apple Corp office building, where they performed their new songs live. And the truth is, there is something extremely uplifting about that rooftop sequences that closes out Let It Be, as it’s the one segment that captures the original intent: showing The Beatles at their best, making music, working together and creating some magic. Unfortunately, that positive spin comes after the previous 80 minutes or so of watching them further splinter apart.
John Lennon seemed to sum up the problems that the footage captured: “We couldn’t play the game anymore. We could see through each other and therefore we felt uncomfortable because up till then we really believed intensely in what we were doing and the product we put out; everything had to be just right and we believed. Suddenly we didn’t believe. It’d come to a point where it was no longer creating magic.”
“As time went by,” added Paul McCartney, “I’d talked them into Let It Be. Then we had terrible arguments — so we’d get the break-up of The Beatles on film instead of what we really wanted.”
The Beatles became painfully aware of what had gone on in the studio, and, knowing it was the end, wanted to make sure they preserved their legacy. They went back into the studio to record one of their finest albums, Abbey Road, which did, indeed, leave that legacy intact. But what’s interesting is that Peter Jackson, having now been exposed to all of those hours of footage and audio recordings, believes that a very different portrait will emerge in his new documentary.
“I was relieved to discover the reality is very different to the myth,” he said. “Sure, there’s moments of drama, but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George [Harrison] and Ringo [Starr] work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating — it’s funny, uplifting, and surprisingly intimate.”
The release of the new documentary will be accompanied by a remastered and restored version of the original. No release date for either has been announced as of yet.