Of all The Beatles’ films, “Let It Be” is the hardest to watch, but it’s still worth seeing. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director, actually made two rock films that took their time growing to full potential: “The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus,” which gathered dust for nearly thirty years, and “Let It Be,” which is only now close to a DVD release. The Beatles weren’t thrilled with the finished product, and reportedly only released it at the insistence of their accountants, as their company, Apple Corps, was rapidly losing money. But, “Let It Be” is interesting from both historical and musical perspectives, and even the casual fan will experience its emotional moments.
Yoko Ono has been painted as a villain for so long, as the one who “broke up The Beatles,” that it’s hard to not respond with some prejudice to an early shot of her sitting inches from John in the studio. The least-jaundiced eye observes that none of the other Beatles seems to have brought a date… But, moments later, that shadow is swept away by the chemistry of John and Paul sharing a microphone, making the film painful one minute, and exhilarating the next. In the band’s early days, John allowed that the group didn’t have a leader, but that if there had to be one, he supposed he’d be it. Watching the film, you can sense that John’s now bored with being a Beatle, and wants to break away, leaving Paul to step into the role of bandleader and cheerleader. Struggling to keep The Beatles together, Paul had taken to steering the band into their next project almost immediately after wrapping their last, to keep them too busy to break up. But that also meant he got to choose their next project. Magical Mystery Tour, the Sgt. Pepper’s album, and “Let It Be,” were ALL Paul’s babies. By this time, the Beatles were fragmenting, and writing and recording separately more often than not. Songs were credited to “Lennon/McCartney” due to an agreement they’d struck as teenagers, rather than any real collaboration. Paul’s idea was to recapture the energy of the band recording together, playing live, with fewer overdubs, thereby putting a stop to sessions where only one or two Beatles were present. Filming them recording and rehearsing the album would turn the sessions themselves into “product” and, at the same time, promote the new album, just as their short promotional films had in the past.
It was a good idea, but the presence of the cameras served to magnify the tensions within the group, which are most visible during an exchange between Paul and George where “the spiritual Beatle” tells a passive/aggressive Paul: “I’ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want to me to play. Whatever it is that will please you… I’ll do it!” It’s easy to forgive McCartney when you stop to think of what was hanging in the balance, and how much he wanted to be in a band that performed live… Paul was the only Beatle that went on to form an ongoing band that recorded and toured, but never one that matched his first. “Let It Be” allows us to watch the preeminent rock stars of the sixties – four of the most influential and imitated people in history – struggling with the same things we all do, and in many cases failing to come to grips with them. The Beatles were always ahead of the curve but, here, they essentially foreshadowed “reality television.”
The songs are reason enough to see “Let It Be.” In the course of the film, you watch Paul and Ringo improvise a bit of boogie woogie on the piano, which will put a smile on anyone’s face, AND you get to see The Beatles perform oft-bootlegged numbers like “Suzy Parker” that didn’t see legitimate release for another 20 years. You’re treated to everything from chestnuts like “Besame Mucho” being given an operatic overhaul, and “Shake Rattle & Roll,” to George unveiling: “I Me Mine” and one of John and Paul’s earliest compositions; “One After 909” finally and triumphantly making it onto an album. The cameras illustrate why The Beatles could no longer stay together, and the exhilarating “rooftop concert” makes you wish that they never broke up. The concert is the climax of the film, and documents their last live performance. The Beatles casually rip through: “I Dig A Pony,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got A Feeling” and “Get Back,” and Paul says: “Thanks, Mo!” to Ringo’s wife, Maureen, for cheering them on. John quips his now famous: “I’d like to say thank you, on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition” and the Bobbies reluctantly put a stop to the proceedings. I always shake my head and wonder: “Someone actually COMPLAINED that they were getting a FREE BEATLES CONCERT?!” Intercut with the twenty minutes of on-screen concert footage are a variety of reactions from the people on the street below, and an older man puts it best: “I think The Beatles are crackin’. You can’t beat ‘em.”