Directing the Beatles Was Just One Part of His Long and Winding Career
HUDSON, N.Y. — Of course I wanted to talk with Michael Lindsay-Hogg about the Beatles. Everyone wants to talk with him about the Beatles, especially since his star turn in “Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s epic documentary, which debuted last fall on Disney+.
In January 1969, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg was the brash young film director who tried to charm and cajole John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr through warring agendas as they hashed out new songs and gave their last concert on a London rooftop. Soon after that, he started shaping his nearly 60 hours of footage into the documentary “Let It Be,” a film largely unavailable since its initial theatrical run in 1970.
Mr. Lindsay-Hogg’s footage, as well as more than 100 hours of audio that he recorded with his crew, some of it with hidden microphones, got new life when Mr. Jackson cleaned it up and reassembled it for his nearly eight-hour series. Mr. McCartney and Mr. Starr, along with most critics, hailed “Get Back” as an upbeat corrective to Mr. Lindsay-Hogg’s more somber take.
So would he like to talk about his time with the Beatles?
“That was a small part of a long career,” he said in the sitting room of his three-bedroom Civil War-era house in Hudson, N.Y.
He had a point. In the so-called Swinging London of the 1960s, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg made a name for himself as a creator of the music video, directing promotional films, as they were then called, for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who a decade and a half before MTV. In the early 1980s, he was again a trailblazer, as the co-director of “Brideshead Revisited,” an 11-hour adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel that was a forerunner of prestige television dramas like “The Sopranos.” He is also a Tony-nominated stage director, painter and author. Oh, and Orson Welles may very well be his biological father.
It’s almost too much to get through. No wonder he had a request, delivered in a deadpan voice: “Please make the entire article about my painting.” But eventually, over the course of three interviews, we got around to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The Third Man
Mr. Lindsay-Hogg, 82, lives with his wife, Lisa Ticknor Lindsay-Hogg, a former fashion model and casting agent, in a narrow cream-colored house in this river town nestled into lush green hills. The rooms have a lived-in feel, with book stacks rising from table tops and the walls blanketed with paintings, many of them scavenged from flea markets, and photos from his varied career.
“I am the maximalist,” he said. “Lisa is the organizer.”
Sprinkled among the decorations are posters from past projects, including “Agnes of God,” a 1982 Broadway play he directed, for which the actress Amanda Plummer won a Tony, and “The Object of Beauty,” a 1991 film written and directed by Mr. Lindsay-Hogg, with John Malkovich and Andie MacDowell in the lead roles. A sculpture of a rabbit head sits on a credenza. He got it in Harare, Zimbabwe, when he filmed Paul Simon’s “Graceland: The African Concert” in 1987.
Three cats provide daily entertainment. “She’s a movie star waiting to happen,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said when a black cat named L’il Mew brushed against my leg.
The couple has lived here less than two years. During lockdown, they rented a rock-star-style tour bus and fled Los Angeles, where they had lived since they were married in 2002. California’s wildfires were part of what drove them out.
“The sky was yellow,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said. “You could taste the soot.”
The move meant abandoning a city where he had deep ties. Although he was born in Manhattan and educated at Choate, the Connecticut prep school, he spent six years of his childhood in Hollywood, mingling with William Randolph Hearst, Olivia de Havilland and Humphrey Bogart.
His mother was the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, who starred opposite Laurence Olivier in William Wyler’s “Wuthering Heights” in 1939. His father — at least, according to his birth certificate — was Sir Edward Lindsay-Hogg, a baronet of Rotherfield Hall in East Sussex, England. The younger Mr. Lindsay-Hogg inherited the title upon the elder’s death in 1999.
“Technically, I could be a ‘Sir,’ but unlike Mick and Elton, I didn’t earn it,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said, referring to his friends Mick Jagger and Elton John.
A young man in Swinging London: Mr. Lindsay-Hogg in 1965, when he was a director of the British pop music show “Ready Steady Go!”Credit…Evening Standard, via Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The question of paternity has long hovered over him. His mother, born in Ireland, made her American stage debut opposite Orson Welles in a 1938 revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House.” The production was directed by Mr. Welles at the Mercury Theater, the New York repertory house he had co-founded. When Mr. Lindsay-Hogg was a teenager, his mother told him of the rumors that Mr. Welles, best known for his 1941 film classic “Citizen Kane,” was his biological father.
“It certainly played into my life growing up, partly because of the way I look,” he said. “I was heavy when I was young, and Orson was heavy. I have a round face; he had a round face. I didn’t look like Edward Lindsay-Hogg, who, if anything, looked more like, say, Jeremy Irons.”
At 19, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg had a small role in Mr. Welles’s stage production of “Chimes at Midnight” in Dublin. “I knew him over the years, and he’d pop up every so often,” he said. Shortly after the run, Mr. Welles offered him a job in a London production of Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” “He said, ‘I’ll call you in a couple of days and you can come over,’” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg recalled. “I then did not hear from him for five years.”
Decades later, his mother, who had Alzheimer’s at the time, gave a cryptic confirmation that Mr. Welles was his father — then seemed to contradict it. Mr. Lindsay-Hogg got an answer when he spoke with Gloria Vanderbilt, a friend of his mother’s whom he had dated in the 1980s, while working on his 2011 memoir, “Luck and Circumstance.”
“Gloria said, ‘I hesitate, because I promised your mother I wouldn’t say this, but she’s dead now. Geraldine told me Orson was your father,’” he recalled. He took a pause. “I’m kind of past that,” he said. “Whoever was in the bed that night was in the bed that night.”
He led me up a narrow staircase to a well-lit bedroom that he had converted into a painting studio. His latest work was on the easel: a portrait of a couple with haunted eyes that recalled the German Expressionists of the 1920s. Painting has become “a seventh career of sorts,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said.
He said he recently sold four pieces at the Frieze Art Fair in Los Angeles, but art is more of a passion than a business. Painting also comes as a relief for someone who has endured the pressures of directing. “It’s all yours,” he said. “There’s no producer to say, ‘I don’t like that scene, why don’t you cut it out.’”
He hasn’t abandoned show business entirely. In recent years he directed several episodes of the web comedy series “Tinsel’s Town,” about a YouTube star in Hollywood, and he is writing a script for a film he hopes to direct, set in 1946 Nevada.
On the wall next to the staircase were two black-and-white close-up portraits of Mr. Jagger in his early 20s, both stills from the 1960s British pop music show “Ready Steady Go!,” the program that gave Mr. Lindsay-Hogg his start in directing at 24, a few years after he dropped out of Oxford. On the third episode he directed, the Rolling Stones performed “Play With Fire,” and Mr. Jagger made an immediate impression.
“He was absolutely beautiful, like a Botticelli cosh boy,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg recalled, using an old British slang term for stylish teenage hoodlum.
He went on to direct more than a dozen Rolling Stones music videos, from early hits like “Paint It Black” to “Start Me Up” in 1982, and has remained close with Mr. Jagger. Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said he called him for advice last year, shortly before he was scheduled to have valve-replacement heart surgery, a procedure Mr. Jagger had gone through.
“Mick is creative,” he said, “but he’s also extremely practical.”
In 1968, around the time of the release of the Rolling Stones album “Beggars Banquet,” Mr. Jagger asked him to direct a TV concert film. A few weeks later, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg called Mr. Jagger and said, as he recalled it: “‘I’m going to say seven words to you: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.”’ And he got it. It just sounded right.”
The production, filmed during a grueling one-day shoot on a London soundstage, included performances by the Who, Jethro Tull and a supergroup called the Dirty Mac featuring John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Yoko Ono. The Rolling Stones closed the show. Now considered a classic, the film was shelved until 1996, when it premiered at the New York Film Festival.
“In late January ’69, while doing ‘Let It Be,’ I showed a rough cut to Mick, Keith and Allen Klein,” he said, referring to the guitarist Keith Richards and the group’s manager at the time. “When it was over, they thought the Who were great, but didn’t think the Stones were as good as they could be. Keith said, ‘If it were called “The Who’s Rock and Roll Circus,” I wouldn’t mind.’”
Mr. Lennon’s appearance came as little surprise. Mr. Lindsay-Hogg had been working with the Beatles since 1966, when he directed promotional films for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” Two years later, he was at the helm for the videos for “Revolution” and “Hey Jude.”
Let It Be?
In late 1968, Mr. McCartney asked him to direct a television special meant to accompany the album the band was about to record. Mr. Lindsay-Hogg was enthusiastic, but he knew from experience that “four Beatles would be four opinions.”
“Giving an idea to them was like putting a lump of meat in an animal’s cage,” he said. “One of them would pick it up and sniff it and toss it to the next one to take a bite.”
After 10 days of filming, it became clear that the production he had envisioned — a concert in a cinematic location, with Mr. Lindsay-Hogg pushing for an amphitheater in Libya, as well as a separate show documenting the rehearsals to run as a kind of teaser — was not going to happen. In the end, he did what he could to salvage something of the original idea by nudging the Beatles to the roof of the Savile Row building that housed Apple Corps, the group’s media company. There they played a glorious lunchtime set as passers-by peered up quizzically from the sidewalks below.
Drawing from the dozens of hours that did not make it into “Let It Be,” Mr. Jackson turned Mr. Lindsay-Hogg into a major character in “Get Back”; his efforts to maintain some kind of momentum against long odds provided the three-part series with a narrative through-line. When “Get Back” started streaming, however, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg found himself in a vulnerable position: The man accustomed to a behind-the-camera role was now in the spotlight.
And so he was seen chomping on a cigar and suggesting that he could film the Beatles playing a benefit show for orphans or sick children. “But I don’t mean for really sick kids,” he was quick to tell the group. “I mean for kids with broken legs. I mean, really, kind of, 1944 Hollywood musical Bing Crosby kids.” On social media, Disney+ viewers took swipes at his 28-year-old self, calling him “the upper class twit of the year,” among other insults.
“I try to steer as clear from social media as possible,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said.
He added that he is more concerned about the legacy of his own documentary. The Beatles skipped the premiere, and “Let It Be” has never appeared as a DVD or on streaming platforms. Most fans know it from washed-out videocassettes; and its reputation has suffered thanks to remarks made by Mr. Starr and Mr. McCartney. “There was no joy in it,” the Beatles drummer said last year on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
Mr. Lindsay-Hogg disagrees with that assessment.
“There are moments of great sweetness,” he said. “No matter where you put the camera, no matter how you edited it, they loved each other. Anybody who sees ‘Let It Be’ again will find that.”
He believes the tone he struck is not really so far from that of “Get Back,” which he said he found “terrific.” Mr. Jackson’s account, he added, had the advantage of being five times longer, its images and sound enhanced by 21st-century technology. “He had canvas to fit a Rubens painting,” he said, “and I had a canvas to fit a little David Hockney painting.”
On July 20, 1969, the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, the four Beatles and some family members attended a private screening of a rough cut of “Let It Be” in Hanover Square. They seemed pleased, Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said. Afterward, he and his girlfriend at the time, the British actress Jean Marsh, went for a late dinner at Provans, a restaurant in the Fulham section of London, with Paul and Linda McCartney, Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono, and the Apple executive Peter Brown.
“It was a friendly meal,” he recalled. “We had a couple of bottles of wine and mostly talked about our differing childhoods. They were happy with the way things were going, certainly, otherwise there would have been no dinner.”
“They were grown men, not the Fab Four of the early 1960s,” he added. “And they were OK with being shown navigating relationships which were old, but changing.”
The film was a victim of bad timing, in his view. By the time of its May 1970 premiere, the Beatles had broken up. Traumatized fans saw it as “a breakup movie: ‘Mom and Dad are getting divorced!’” he said.
Apple has said in the past that it had plans to rerelease “Let It Be” at some point, and Mr. Lindsay-Hogg believes it deserves a fresh viewing; but he doesn’t dwell on his time with the Beatles, or the past in general, he said.
“I have a very, very good memory,” he said. “It may be because I never took all the drugs. But I’m very not-nostalgic. Nostalgia is, for me, like the vermouth that I do not put in my martini.”
He has preserved much of what he went through with the Beatles in diaries, which he has kept since the “Ready Steady Go!” years.
He led me to a bookcase in the memento-filled library next to his art studio. It was filled with dusty leather-bound diaries, many overstuffed with letters and photos. At my suggestion, he dug out the volume from 1969. It was curiously slender.
He thumbed through the pages and landed on January 30, the blustery day in London when the Beatles played in public for the last time. As captured by Mr. Lindsay-Hogg and his team, their swan-song performance was the climax of both “Let It Be” and “Get Back.”
The diary page was blank, except for one word scribbled in black ballpoint pen.
“The busier you are,” Mr. Lindsay-Hogg said, “the less you write down.”