LET IT BE

(1970 - filmed early 1969)
With John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston
Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Reviewed by JB and JL

"The two of us/fighting over/silly nonsense..."     Many people think of LET IT BE, which shows  the Beatles rehearsing new songs for an album and possible live appearance, as the film that chronicles the Beatles breakup, but in retrospect, LET IT BE chronicles almost nothing.  Director Lindsay Michael-Hogg had 30 days worth of footage to work with and yet came up with a finished film with almost no narrative.  The first half of the film shows the Beatles going through some very sloppy rehearsals of new songs and sloppy jams of old ones.  Then comes three Paul McCartney songs, shot in the studio.  The songs themselves - "Two of Us", "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" - are among the most tuneful and tasteful of the sessions, but McCartney looks so sincere he looks insincere, and John Lennon and George Harrison both look like they'd rather be a million miles away.  John's contributions on bass are forgettable, while the sounds George coaxes out of his guitar are a symphony of boredom.  Finally, the film climaxes with a rooftop concert featuring the Beatles actually sounding like the great band they were, energetically rocking their way through such Beatles classics as "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down".

     Some of what Hoggs does include is priceless, such as a discussion between McCartney and Harrison, in which Paul is trying to tell to George that his guitar is not needed on a particular song.  The exchange cuts off right after Harrison's now classic reply "I don't mind.  I'll play whatever it is you want me to play, or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play.  Whatever it is that will please you, I'll do it."  Sharp-eared listeners may catch Paul's reference, through all the crosstalk, of a similar argument that took place during the recording of "Hey Jude".  Yet, although Harrison actually quit the band (temporarily) a day or two later out of frustration - he had problems with John too - this moment just sits there in the film, with no context and no followup.   There is also a short section of Paul trying to drum up support for playing live again, while John just stares at him without any interest and more than a hint of real contempt.  But Hoggs does not allow us to hear Lennon's ultimate reply, which was probably some witty Lennonesque variation of "Yer daft!". With John and George both off their game, and Ringo reduced to a session player with little input on the music, the film is centered around Paul, to such a point where it becomes obvious not enough footage was shot of John, leading to some badly mismatched editing where John is singing on the soundtrack but not on the screen.

The breakup blues     The film has some other minor charms, mostly found in off the cuff moments, such as Paul and Ringo performing a Jerry Lee Lewis style duet on a piano, or George helping Ringo out with his composition "Octopus's Garden".  (Note that the second Paul walks in, the good times stop dead!). Even during some fairly average numbers such as John's "Suzy Parker", George's "For You Blue" or the old standard "Besame Mucho", the sense of fun you can only get from a group of friends playing music together shines through.  Even at a time when the group was splintering and getting on each other's nerves, they still enjoyed playing together when they sensed a good groove going on.  This is evident in the rooftop concert, where they run through several of the songs they have been practicing and refining all month.  Tellingly, however, the impromptu concert consisted of only five songs, some of them repeated, though only "Get Back" gets a reprise in the film. The highlight, for me at least, is the resurrection of "One After 909", a Lennon-McCartney song from the early days, refashioned as an all-out rocker and featuring one of George's hottest guitar solos and some funky electric piano courtesy of Beatle friend Billy Preston, who was brought in halfway through the sessions to help break up some of the tension.

     The film has long been unavailable except through underground channels, and both Paul and Ringo seem to think that a new LET IT BE movie, freshly edited from all available footage, would tarnish the Beatles carefully crafted 21st Century image.  So LET IT BE will eventually become known as a lost classic.  It's not.  There are some nice songs and moments, but like the album of the same name, it's one of the group's least rewarding endeavors. Three stars rewarded simply because the best musical performances in the film are worth five stars collectively.  3 - JB 


"You quit last album, Ring... I'll do it this time."     As John B. says, the film, as edited, turns a rather unflattering spotlight on Paul. Enough footage was shot, however, to make a month-long film, such that you could take another 80 minutes and turn it into The Mal Evans Story (which might have been more interesting). The original edit reportedly had much more John-and-Yoko footage, which was cut at the behest of Lindsay-Hogg or Paul, depending on which version of the story you read. I'm sure that Paul thought the final edit would portray him positively, as the "true" leader of the Beatles, but it's his feigned sincerity and forced enthusiasm that leaves the most lasting impression. His dewy-eyed camera stare as he sings his piano ballads cry out for John to break in with one of his goon faces, but John was about three years removed from that sort of clowning by 1969.
 
     But what really brings the film down for me, even more so than the gloomy boredom, is the musicianship, rooftop concert notwithstanding. Old rock chestnuts are given perfunctory walk-throughs, bum notes and forgotten lyrics abound, and the guitars never sound in tune. It's clear that they knew it, and equally clear that they didn't give a damn. Five years earlier, they would have blown the roof off the joint with three-chord rockers they could have played in their sleep. By '69, they approach "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Be-Bop-a-Lula" as if they really were asleep. You almost long for the moptops from A HARD DAY'S NIGHT to charge through the doors and show these old burnouts how it's done.  But John was then more interested in nuzzling with Yoko and shooting various chemicals into his bloodstream; George wanted to hang with Eric Clapton and other musicians who respected him, rather than with the guys who'd treated him like a dopey kid brother for 11 years; and Ringo probably enjoyed his gin rummy games with Mal more than the jam sessions. Despite his delusions to the contrary, Paul couldn't carry the show by himself, and came off looking like a fool on the Twickenham hill when he tried to.
 
     Perhaps the most effective way to approach this material would have been to edit it down to an hour-long television special that focused on the rooftop concert. It might have altered our perceptions of Beatle history, but if it would have made for a better film. In a way, however, I'm glad the film exists as it is. It's an important warts-and-all document that brings the Beatles' saga to a dramatically satisfying, if depressing, conclusion. Yes, they had one more miracle in them with Abbey Road, but it's not as if their final recorded work marked a return to groovy vibes amongst them. I sense (based on comments made in the Anthology) that they mustered their remaining pride and professionalism in order to make a grand exit, keeping their personal animosities in check for a couple of months.
 
     That LET IT BE is an accurate and important document does not mean it is an entertaining, or even endurable, hour and twenty minutes. But it is the Beatles, there is that rooftop concert, and therefore earns a two-star rating. 2 - JL

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