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Peter Jackson's restored 'Let it Be' is a TV treat for Beatles fans

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Disney+ has just begun streaming a newly restored documentary film that has been out of circulation for more than 50 years. It's called "Let It Be." It stars The Beatles, and its restoration was overseen by director Peter Jackson, director of the "Lord Of The Rings" films. In 2021, he used outtake footage from the same movie to create his nearly eight-hour documentary miniseries version, "Get Back," also released by Disney+. Three years ago, when Peter Jackson got to tackle the video and audio outtakes from the original "Let It Be" film by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Jackson wasn't just restoring images and sound, he also was restoring the reputation of a long-neglected chapter in Beatles history.

The footage for the "Let It Be" film was shot in January 1969, but the movie itself wasn't released until the following year, after The Beatles had shocked the world by breaking up - so at the time, "Let It Be," a little less than a 90-minute movie, was seen largely as the chronicle of a musical divorce, a dark film both visually and emotionally. But Jackson's nearly eight-hour "Get Back" miniseries disproved all that, showing other, happier scenes that lightened the mood while also making the sound and images much more crisp and clear. Now he's using his same post-production tricks to polish the original "Let It Be," and yes, even for those Beatles fans who devoured all the hours of "Get Back," this buffed-up "Let It Be" is a must-see TV treat. And time brings a new perspective on the events in the movie, allowing us to focus not on the acrimony but on the creativity. On Disney+, "Let It Be" is preceded by a brief prologue, filmed earlier this year, in which Peter Jackson and Michael Lindsay-Hogg put the original film project into context.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL LINDSAY-HOGG: So I was going to do a concert movie with The Beatles, and they hadn't been in public - they hadn't performed for - 1966, but then, after about 10 days, we're not doing a concert anymore, we're doing a documentary.

PETER JACKSON: And so this footage that you were shooting just for a sort of a little lead-up, trailer-type piece, ended up being a large part of what you had to craft a film from 'cause that - and you never actually shot it with that in mind.

BIANCULLI: As a concept, though, "Let It Be" was about as ambitious as it gets. The Beatles planned to compose, rehearse and perform the songs for a new album all in the space of one month because drummer Ringo Starr had to leave at the end of January 1969 to co-star in the movie "The Magic Christian." And the "Let It Be" camera crew would capture it all in an effort to show the creative process in action. Jackson's "Get Back" dug out several of those astounding moments of creation when sifting through the outtakes - Paul McCartney discovering the chords to "Get Back" and George Harrison struggling with the lyrics to a new song called "Something."

In the restored "Let It Be," the images are lighter, and the mood seems to be, too, but the happier moments were there in "Let It Be" all along. When McCartney and John Lennon are rehearsing "The Two Of Us," they're face-to-face, singing into the same microphone, and the two of them start flubbing the lyrics - which is understandable, since they're still writing them - but they keep going and laughing, and by the time McCartney gets to the bridge, he's loose enough to launch into an impromptu Elvis impression.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LET IT BE")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Two of us sending postcards, writing letters on my wall - you and me (inaudible) on our way back home. We're on our way home. We're on our way home. We're going home. (Impersonating Elvis) You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead. (Singing) Two of us wearing raincoats, standing solo in the sun.

BIANCULLI: Almost 55 years ago, when the original "Let It Be" came out, what stood out most were the moments of tension, like when Paul asks George Harrison to play his guitar a certain way.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LET IT BE")

GEORGE HARRISON: Yeah. OK. No, I don't mind. I'll play, you know, whatever you want me to play, or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play. You know, whatever it is that will please you, I'll do it.

BIANCULLI: But now, the songs are familiar, the film feels much more joyous, and the fact that The Beatles pulled their whole creative concept off by staging an impromptu mini concert on top of their Apple headquarters now seems almost miraculous. In less than a month, they wrote an album's worth of music, learned it, recorded it and performed some of it live. Both the "Get Back" and "Let It Be" documentaries climax with that rooftop concert, which ends when police arrive to shut down the noise. And we can finally see for ourselves that Jackson lived up to his pledge, as much as possible, to not duplicate the images from the "Let It Be" film. Lindsay-Hogg had 10 cameras in use that day - five on the roof, one on the building across the street, three at street level and one hidden camera in the Apple reception area. Both films capture that same seminal event but from different angles and with the same perfect, triumphant conclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LET IT BE")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Yeah, get back. You've been out too long, Loretta. You've been playing on the roofs again, and that's no good 'cause you know your mommy doesn't like that. (Inaudible). Get back. Oh, get back. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged. Get back.

(APPLAUSE)

RINGO STARR: Thanks, Mo.

JOHN LENNON: I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we've passed the audition.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. On Monday's show, feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna. With her band Bikini Kill, she helped form the so-called riot grrrl movement, challenging the sexist punk scene in the 1990s. She'll talk about helping girls at her shows deal with sexual violence while dealing with it in her own life. Her new memoir is called "Rebel Girl." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and John Kelsey (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO OF US")

THE BEATLES: "I Dig A Pygmy" by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids - phase one, in which Doris gets her oats. (Singing) Two of us, riding nowhere, spending someone's hard-earned pay - you and me, Sunday driving, not arriving on our way back home. We're on our way home. We're on our way home. We're going home. Two of us, sending postcards, writing letters on my wall - you and me, burning matches, lifting latches on our way back home. We're on our way home. We're on our way home. We're going home. You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.