The Long and Winding Smoke
When The Beatles were recording Let it Be in 1969, young American director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was there to film their monthlong rehearsal and concert. In 1970, soon after the band announced their breakup, the Let It Be film was released in theaters giving a fly-on-the-wall look at the making of the album, culminating in the now-iconic rooftop performance.
Fast forward to November 2021, when Disney released Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour documentary Get Back, covering the sessions and performances in newly expanded detail. Audiences got to see the Fab Four in a new way and among the jams, laughs, arguments and rooftop performance was Lindsay-Hogg. He was 28 at the time, and was directing the cameras and participating in the group discussions, often between puffs of a cigar. Lindsay-Hogg went on to work with many other music stars throughout his long career, directing music videos for The Rolling Stones, Elton John and Whitney Houston, among other acts. Thomas Pappalardo, assistant editor and tasting coordinator at Cigar Aficionado, recently interviewed Lindsay-Hogg, 81, to discuss the new documentary, the original film, and his enduring love of cigars.
Thomas Pappalardo: It’s been more than 50 years since the release of the original Let It Be film. How does it feel to have the project revisited by Peter Jackson?
Lindsay-Hogg: Well, it feels okay, weirdly. I admire Peter a lot and like him. Let It Be was always going to be an hour and a half or hour and twenty minutes long. When we made Let It Be, they hadn’t broken up. We shot in 1969, then we went on editing it through 1969. We showed them a rough cut in June or July, then another one in September, they liked it, everything’s fine. The movie’s ready to go, and then everything starts to implode at Apple, their company. Let It Be got released in May 1970, and they announced their breakup in April 1970, but when we were shooting and editing the movie, they were together: It started with four Beatles, ended with four Beatles. No one went to the premiere in London. It got bad mojo because of all that and also Apple had kind of washed their hands because of it because they were dealing with The Beatles breaking up. It had a bad rap as the breakup movie, which was unfair, and so there was a lot more I wanted to put in the movie.
Peter is a big Beatles fan and when they said he was going to have a look at the material, I was thrilled because I didn’t want to do it, I’d done it 50 years previously and Let It Be is what it is, it’s of its time, but it’s really like a cinema verité fly-on-the-wall about what happened and it ends with the roof, which is one of the great occasions in rock ‘n roll history. So, I was very interested to see what Peter was going to do because he’d probably show some stuff that I hadn’t been able to get in the first movie, which he does.
Q: Did you get a sense that the breakup was happening or was it a surprise to you?
Lindsay-Hogg: Good question. On July 20, 1969 I showed the four Beatles and some others the first rough cut, about half an hour longer than what was released. Then after, Paul and Linda, John and Yoko, me and my girlfriend and [Apple executive] Peter Brown went out for dinner. Totally good time, we drank some nice red wine, talked about any old thing, everyone was getting on—no sense that within months they would break up.
The Beatles themselves were not heavy-handed about the edit. They needed to relay an idea to you, it usually would come through a third party. And the third-party said at one point, “There’s no point in putting George leaving for a week in, because he came back.” And The Beatles were happy enough to be seen as not The Fab Four, the moptops, anymore, like the scene with Paul and George: “I always hear myself annoying you,” and “I’ll play if you want or I won’t play at all.” That was just a small disagreement about a little bit of music but because people had never seen them scratch them at each other before, “Oh my God, look at this, this is The Beatles breaking up!” They were quite happy to have that in the movie originally because they were happy for them to be seen as growing up. The world blew it out of proportion.
After one of the rough cuts, I got a call from someone saying “I thought that went pretty well with the screening,” and I said, “Me too.” And he said, “But I think maybe there’s too much John and Yoko in it,” because I did have more John and Yoko in one of the cuts. I said I thought it was kind of interesting. And then he said, “Well, let me put it like this: I’ve had three phone calls this morning saying there’s too much John and Yoko.” So, the other three thought maybe we were isolating John and Yoko a bit too much and it looked like there might be some split but the whole point was there was no split.
Q: The Let It Be film has been out of circulation for several decades. Are there any plans to rerelease your film?
Lindsay-Hogg: Yeah, there are. The Let It Be movie was semi-going to be released a lot in the last 20 years but it never was the right time in relation to the other things The Beatles were releasing, which was remasters, all their videos. The Beatles like to make hay when the sun shines. And Apple, they made about five in-house documentaries to go with Let It Be but it never quite was what everybody wanted. A friend at Apple three years ago said Peter’s interested in taking a whack it and I said, “What about Let It Be?” And he said, “Well, the plan is after Peter’s done it, (they didn’t know it would take three years because of Covid), and after Get Back has had its rollout, the plan is to rerelease in some form Let It Be.” To that end for the last two or three years, the director of photography Tony Richmond and I have been working on the print, so it looks totally different and Giles Martin has been working on the soundtrack. It’s a good movie and it’s only 80 minutes long.
Q: Did Peter Jackson reach out to you at all during those three years he was working on the documentary for advice, or to get your perspective?
Lindsay-Hogg: Whenever we were in Los Angeles, he’d show me various edits he’d done on his iPhone and we did interviews together they may or may not use someday. I’d seen the 56 hours, I lived it, and I’d seen it and I did it. I was really more interested in seeing what eventually will happen to Let It Be. I said to Peter, “Any way I can help you, because you’ve got such a massive task in front of you, let me know.” But, every so often, I’d get an email from him saying, “Do you have any idea what was going on on Day Six?” and then he’d send me things like he was especially proud of like the audio separation. Then he’d send me some technical things like in the original film when there’s a shot of Lennon and McCartney, their hair looks very dank because it’s on film and it’s degraded, and he showed me the same shot beside it [where] you can see every strand of their hair. It’s beautifully restored. That goes back to Peter not only being talented but a techno whiz. He’s made the picture look like it’s happening yesterday and he’s also got this great new audio equipment. He was the right guy to go to in many, many ways for Get Back.
Q: What would you say was the greatest challenge of making the Let It Be documentary?
Lindsay-Hogg: Just to keep your eye on the goalposts. They kept moving. Peter said, “You know, I had an entirely different experience on Get Back than you did on Let It Be because George and John are dead, alas, and Paul is 79 and Ringo is 81, and so I was dealing with nice old men whereas you in 1969 were dealing with four guys going their different ways, full of testosterone, full of ideas, full of frustrations.” He said “You were herding cats, whereas I had these sleepy dogs.”
Q: In the film, you frequently are smoking cigars. What’s your favorite cigar?
Lindsay-Hogg: What I’m liking a lot at the moment is H. Upmann Magnum 50. I think they’re very reliable. And also, Montecristo No. 2 because they have really good dark wrappers. They’re wonderful and well-made. For me, the wrapper, dark and oily, is a main consideration. I got some old Cohibas which I got in London because I lived there for a long time, the lonsdale size. The best cigar ever made, in my view, was the Por Larrañaga Magnum. They were like a lonsdale but thicker girth. I got spoiled early on by smoking Cuban cigars because I started smoking them when I was in my teens in New York, because then you could go into Dunhills and for 50 cents get a Cuban lonsdale. I was smoking Cuban cigars when they were still available and it was kind of like drinking French wine. Cuban cigars became like French wine to me.
Q: In the Get Back documentary you were smoking rather thick cigars. Have you been scaling back in terms of size?
Lindsay-Hogg: No, I used to smoke, in the morning, quite big cigars. I used to smoke four or five cigars a day in my twenties and they were more like probably Larrañaga Magnums, which were thicker and longer, or Partagás. I didn’t like little cigars, I tended to like bigger, like robusto cigars.
Q: I noticed that Paul McCartney seemed to be smoking cigars too.
Lindsay-Hogg: I gave him one and then he asked for another. And then he himself then went to a tobacconist and got some smaller cigars, like cigarillos, something like that.
Q: At least he didn’t take your entire stash.
Lindsay-Hogg: No, he did not. I didn’t want anyone to take my entire stash because I was making a little bit of money then, not so much from The Beatles, but from other television work I was doing. I used to get cigars at Robert Lewis, which is on St. James’s Street, which was bought by JJ Fox in Dublin. They used to have a very good stock, they used to keep them well and then even if you bought just a couple boxes, they would keep them for you so they’d age. They used not to sell cigars until they had them shelved for a couple years just so they could have more age on them, which they thought was the equivalent to wine. Like the older the wine, the better it’s supposed to be.
Q: You knew and worked with Orson Welles, who used to give you a Henry Clay cigar once in a while. Could you tell me about that?
Lindsay-Hogg: When I was 18, went to school in America but I got into Oxford. I got pneumonia in my first term and I got behind in Latin or Anglo-Saxon or something and I struggled. Then I had to leave Oxford for a while and come back. In the second winter I was there, someone called me and said “What are you doing?” I said “I’m not doing anything,” I was living in Ireland at the time because I wasn’t allowed to live in Oxford because I failed the exams. He said, “Why don’t you come and work at small parts in ‘Chimes at Midnight,’ which we’re going to be doing.” And I said, “Who’s ‘we?’” He said, “Well, me and Orson.” Orson had started at this guy’s theater company in Ireland. I said, “It sounds better than living in Dublin with my mother and my sister.”
So, I went over to London where they were rehearsing and Orson was playing Falstaff. He used to smoke Henry Clays then, big ones, I don’t think they make them anymore. I wasn’t getting paid much money but he every morning when he came in he would give me one of his Henry Clays because he knew I liked to sometimes smoke cigars. And that’s sort of when I got the habit. He’d have this halfway smoked one when he came in and it smelled so luxurious and aromatic. I really became the poorest big cigar smoker. I couldn’t afford those ones myself but over time, when I started to do rock ‘n roll and stuff, I began to be able to afford better cigars. So, I got paid in cigars and not much cash.
Q: What is your favorite time of day to smoke a cigar?
Lindsay-Hogg: In the morning after a cup of coffee. Evening too.
Q: How many cigars do you smoke now?
Lindsay-Hogg: One a day.
Q: You directed part of Brideshead Revisited, starring Jeremy Irons, and you two would smoke cigars between takes. Could you tell me a little about that?
Lindsay-Hogg: These were the days when people smoked. Anthony smoked cigarettes, Jeremy often smoked a pipe in those days and I would have a cigar. Then after a couple of weeks, I said to Jeremy, do you want to try a cigar? And he said sure. And then he had a cigar after breakfast, I’d say a lonsdale size. So, I was still smoking about four or five cigars a day and then when we were shooting, I’d often to say to Jeremy, do you want to try this or try that? He also looked so elegant with his pipe or his cigar, I mean it’s hard for the rest of us when Jeremy Irons is walking around.