A fascinating rock doc whose interest stems more from historical significance than cinematic merit, Let It Be came closer than any other artifact to capturing the breakup of the Beatles while it was happening. The film’s history is complex. After completing The White Album, a stressed-out Fab Four followed band member Paul McCartney’s suggestion to make a stripped-down LP featuring live-in-studio jams rather than another record filled with elaborate overdubbing. The concept eventually grew to include a visual component, with British filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg recruited to shoot the recording sessions for a proposed TV special. At the time, circa early 1969, the project was titled Get Back after one of the songs slated for inclusion.
However, the tensions that eventually broke up the band, exacerbated by the intrusion of film cameras, threw the recording sessions into disarray. Although a dramatic finale was shot, featuring a legendary rooftop performance in London that became the band’s final concert, the movie (and the album) went on the shelf while the Beatles recorded their last album, Abbey Road, and then disbanded. Thus, by the time the Get Back project was resuscitated for audio release (with superstar American producer Phil Spector hired to sweeten the raw tracks, defeating the project’s original purpose), the Beatles were effectively a memory, at least as a performing/recording entity.
Linsday-Hogg’s footage, trimmed down to an unvarnished 81-minute snapshot for theatrical exhibition, became the antithesis of the loose celebration McCartney originally envisioned. Instead, the movie is dreary and slow, despite the inclusion of many wonderfully energetic songs, so watching the picture is like eavesdropping on the tension preceding a divorce.
McCartney and his longtime songwriting partner, John Lennon, look as if they can’t stand each other, and they’re clearly operating on different frequencies. McCartney is a hard-driving populist eager to give the people what they want, whereas Lennon (with Yoko Oko at his side) has already transitioned into a more experimental phase in his creative life. Guitarist George Harrison actually gets in a few snippy comments against McCartney—although the ugly moment when he temporarily quit the band was left on the cutting-room floor—and easygoing drummer Ringo Starr simply looks uncomfortable.
Still, despite the sometimes-painful studio footage, Let It Be ends on a triumphant note with the arrival of irrepressible keyboardist Billy Preston. His optimism and spirited playing seem to reset the Beatles’ brains so that, for those few glorious moments atop the Apple Records building, they actually seem to enjoy performing with each other. Good luck finding a copy of Let It Be these days, however; after a brief VHS release in the ’80s, the movie went out of print and is now mostly available via bootleg DVDs.
Let It Be: GROOVY