Let It Be (1970, Michael Lindsay-Hogg)

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This is the famous swansong of the Beatles as a functioning unit, the documentary — released in theaters a month after their breakup made headlines — about the January 1969 rehearsals and recording sessions that produced the unissued Get Back album, reconfigured by Phil Spector as the soundtrack LP for this film. You most likely are aware of the genesis of, and story behind, this project, since even the Beatles’ less proud moments have become iconic, roadmaps of rock & roll mythmaking; if by some chance you aren’t familiar with all this, I’ve written extensively about the project at my other blog in these pieces: a review of the album Let It Be, a review of a bootleg deluxe edition of same, a review of the unissued assembly of the album Get Back, and a lengthy guide to an unauthorized, 16-disc collection of session material from throughout the month. I will try not to repeat any observations I made in this review of what is, ultimately, probably the grandest artifact of this uneasy experiment but has managed to become one of the most elusive major products in Beatles lore.

Part of the legend that’s gathered around Let It Be, the film, is that it captures the Beatles falling apart; the most famous moments of dialogue and interpersonal interaction, often reproduced in documentaries like the band’s own Anthology project, certainly bear this out. Although we do not witness George Harrison’s famous departure from the Beatles after one too many instances of bickering with Paul McCartney, we do see a remarkably uncomfortable confrontation between them over George’s contributions to the song “Two of Us.” This is the legendary argument that culminates in George’s sarcastic “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all; whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it,” a rupture weighted down with over a decade of personal history that one really feels we have no right to see, even though it’s been the model for warts-and-all behind-the-scenes portraits of rock bands (and parodies of them) ever since. Additionally there is the cringe-inducing moment of Paul prattling on about his grand plans for the project and the band while John, on whom the camera is focused, looks increasingly bored and irritated as the monologue continues and continues; and, perhaps most telling of all, George joyously helping Ringo out on “Octopus’s Garden,” eventually joined by John and George Martin, only to abruptly cut it out when Paul walks in the room. We also get the curious, awkward presences of Yoko Ono, who looks (or is made to look, by editor Tony Lenny) terribly resentful of the whole process, and little Heather McCartney (Paul’s stepdaughter), whose pestering of the various band members is cute but rather incongruous.

What’s surprising, however, is how little of the film is actually comprised of this material. While session tapes reveal that the Beatles and others did a great deal of chatting and bickering in Twickenham and at Apple, only a few very perfunctory moments of the film pass without music. The bulk of its 82 minutes consists of the Beatles performing in various configurations, but that’s not how it lives in one’s memory; for years, whenever I thought of this movie, I thought of the drab, palpable coldness of the studio walls, the graininess of the 16mm footage (the film was originally conceived as a project for television; director Lindsay-Hogg had worked with the Beatles on some of their promo clips in the past), and the clear misery of the participants. The film’s reputation as a sort of excruciating document of the breakup (which was still some ways, and an additional full LP, off at the time of shooting) has been sort of tacitly encouraged by the Beatles; there is the story of John, Yoko and Jann Wenner wandering into a public screening of the film in New York in 1970 and walking out in tears. And someone in their camp is evidently embarrassed by the film and aside from a rather poor VHS and laserdisc transfer in the early ’80s plus some TV broadcasts, it has been nonexistent on home video despite being fully restored and prepped for a DVD release in 2002.

While the film pops up on torrent sites and Youtube now and then, it’s fair to say that a lot of relatively dedicated Beatles fans have never seen it in its entirety, and among those of us who have, it’s nearly exclusively through low-quality transfers of ragged-looking prints. Its status as a suppressed artifact has given it a bit of a Song of the South-like glow as some grand, unattainable artifact; and this is, without question, not particularly well-deserved. The film isn’t edited well enough, nor is it substantive enough as narrative, to provide the kind of window one naturally expects; it is largely so benign that the Beatles’ own evident discomfort with it is somewhat mysterious. (One insider has said that the holdup on rereleasing it has always been down to just one of the four decisionmaking parties, though it’s anyone’s guess which.) None of them come off badly in the film except perhaps Paul McCartney, and even his rampant bossiness is somewhat sympathetic when you consider he’s trying to corral a bunch of guys who’d rather be doing almost anything else. Lindsay-Hogg’s construction gives us about twenty minutes of Twickenham footage, with early versions (sometimes fragments) of songs as well as some jams; followed by a good half-hour of Apple studio footage which is somewhat more productive, climaxing with the somber performances of Paul’s ballads “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”; and lastly, there is Lindsay-Hogg’s ace in the hole, thirty minutes of the Beatles playing in public for the last time, on the Apple rooftop on January 30, 1969.

Fans who are very familiar with this phase of the Beatles’ career will find a lot to appreciate in this footage, though they will also find it a bit perfunctory; having always viewed the film as something of a chore, I was surprised by how quick it seemed on this viewing (my fourth or fifth), maybe because I’ve recently heard so much of the January 1969 session tapes and this footage barely even skims the surface of the surface. It would obviously play very differently to a more general audience, and as a film, there’s not much to it, even though a lot of what once seemed stultifying and obvious has attained a certain elegiac quality with age — that is, until the climax on the rooftop, when suddenly the whole thing becomes utterly sublime. Every bit of it is beautiful: the opportunity to see the four of them (five with the great Billy Preston, who appears a fair bit in the film but not nearly enough) playing in a relaxed but professional mode, completely in sync on these new songs, confidently projecting them to the streets of London, and proudly capping off a decade and a half of their lives. It wouldn’t work if they weren’t absolutely brilliant in this performance, but they are, and it’s one of those moments when you wonder how anyone could even question that they were head and shoulders above even the best of their peers in England, even at this late date. Naming highlights would be daft when every second is so thrilling (unbroken by the amusing drive-by conversations with passersby, and the clips of the police making their way up to the roof to stop the noise), but if we must be succinct, there may be no more affecting footage in the vaults of the Beatles playing than their performance of “Don’t Let Me Down” here. And every shot of John, Paul and George in their lineup, exercising all manner of nonverbal communication, feels like a privilege to witness.

Let It Be ended up receiving an Academy Award for its song score, and not all that surprisingly; one of the major problems with the LP release is that it’s not enough material, spread too thin, but that isn’t nearly as troubling in an 80-minute film in which the point is to hear the songs progress — “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Get Back,” the antique “One After 909” (one of the first songs John and Paul wrote, revised in a much faster, harder arrangement than the one attempted at EMI in 1963 and left unreleased) and “Two of Us” (heard in a wonderful rock version as well as the finalized ballad) are all terrific, and there are windows into the process of creation on “I Me Mine,” “Across the Universe,” “Dig a Pony” (no more than an OK John song, but it sounds wonderful on the roof), “Octopus’s Garden,” “Oh! Darling” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” as well — even when the montage is messy and clipped, the music almost never falters, and if you are fond of this era of the Beatles’ work, there’s a lot here to appreciate.

I first saw Let It Be in 1992 when I was still a somewhat new Beatles fan and rapidly becoming obsessed, and perhaps because it was only available to me in a low-quality BETAmax dub taped off HBO, it always bored me quite a bit. Even the music was relatively dour to my ears. Of course I came back to it repeatedly, keeping my third or fourth-generation VHS copy safely stowed away through multiple moves — it’s now almost thirty years old — and was always put into a hushed, awestruck state by its first scene, an almost eerie montage of Mal Evans and the crew setting the Beatles’ equipment up at Twickenham, accompanied by solemnly quiet opening credits appropriating the classic font from the Beatles’ drumhead. It felt like walking on hallowed, legendary ground; but as soon as the Beatles appeared, it was clear that what we were hearing were works in progress: unfinished songs, chords being shouted out, lyrics incomplete, the band rehearsing and tweaking and ironing things out like they probably always did, but now in front of cameras. And at age eight or nine, I didn’t really want to see the frail twilight Beatles (at their ripe old ages of 28, 28, 26 and 25!) slogging through new material, I wanted to see them work magic.

Now, it all seems different to me, for a number of reasons. For one thing I find it fascinating to watch the Beatles learn their own songs and figure out what they want to do with them, and of course I now have the full background of what actually is going on; the great failing of Let It Be is also its greatest strength, that Lindsay-Hogg plunges us into it with no context whatsoever, we just get random songs and conversations and a three-act structure (Twickenham, Apple, rooftop) and even that makes more sense if you know the full story of what went on that January. That’s the chief reason Let It Be is a very different movie for Beatles fanatics than it is for casual viewers or listeners; unlike A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine, it’s not something you can just sort of jump into and enjoy. I also became, in my early twenties, a diehard acolyte of 1950s rock & roll; and since a great deal of time here is spent on the Beatles jamming on some of their favorite tunes of the era, the songs that originally inspired them to set off toward their destiny, I enjoy watching how much and how clearly they love that music.

Something deeper is going on too, though, and I started to realize it about two or three years ago when I saw D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop for the first time. When I was a teenager, despite my love of the Beatles and some of their brethren, I found myself increasingly filled with disdain over the sort of entrenched, immobile culture of “classic rock” that seemed to completely occupy the radio, the cable channels, the mainstream “establishment” imagination in regard to music more generally. Not only did it seem ideologically contrary to the purported countercultural intentions of rock & roll as a cultural force, with all of the complacenet corporate stagnation the imagery had taken on, it also felt like a surrender to a kind of macho, exclusionary notion of rock music that felt very far from the elements of the form that appealed to me. I think there’s still a lot of truth to this; Chuck Berry, Patti Smith and the Clash will always matter exponentially more to me than Pink Floyd or the Who. And yet: as I’ve aged and lost my reliance on hegemonic radio and TV, and the ’60s have gotten farther away, that world has become less ubiquitous, and I now see some of the individual elements of that moment for what they were. Never a massive fan of either Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, I nevertheless find their performances in Pennebaker’s film profoundly moving, because the baggage has fallen away and it is now possible to marvel at them without a voice emanating from the void, constantly asserting how important all this is. What I also see now is a moment when commercial interests had to bend to youth culture, rather than the other way around, and I hope it does not come off as curmudgeonly to say that I deeply yearn to return to that kind of an atmosphere.

As a teenager with Boomer parents who were (at the time) Republicans, I was raised on the notion of the hippie movement (and, to a lesser extent, the burgeoning teenage culture of earlier years in which it had its roots) as an aesthetically pleasing bit of innocence, as something to be remembered with fondness but also gently mocked as pie-in-the-sky idealism: John and Yoko and other rock stars advocating unapologetically for peace, young people taking to the streets for their beliefs, and the belief that art could be the soundtrack if not the unifying force of what might have constituted a sea change in the way we thought about our lives and about other people. It once seemed very easy to condescend to all of it, and like most things it certainly deserves a certain level of skepticism, but as I get older, I just don’t know anymore why exactly trumpeting the cause of love while fighting war and poverty and prejudice is something we should look upon cynically. The compression of all this down to a simple pop culture apex, in the Hard Rock Cafe conception of the universe, is one of many ways capitalism has reasserted its dominance over what once was an idiosyncratic, potentially earth-shaking movement; and while norms ultimately proved too powerful or seductive to be laid to waste in pursuit of something better, it does not feel fair to castigate the attempt. The late Robert Hughes — talking about dadaism — once said: “It’s hard to think of any work of art of which one could say, ‘This made men more just to one another,’ or ‘This saved the life of one Jew or one Vietnamese.’ […] The difference between us and the artists in the ’20s is that they thought that such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was their naivete that they could think so, but it’s our loss that we can’t.” I guess that, for all the letdowns the world has dealt us since the ’60s, I can’t stop myself from being in awe of the faith driving so much of that music and the people making and listening to it, whether I personally enjoy it or not.

How do the Beatles fit into all that? I never stopped loving them because I never lost touch with what their music, specifically, meant to me, specifically; as inescapable as they were, they never stopped being “my” thing, because my idea of and relationship to them was inevitably somewhat different than yours, or my dad’s, or VH1’s. Even I, however, reached a certain point of wanting to rebel a bit from their massiveness; there was a phase in which I loudly preferred the Beach Boys, another in which my love of their early work became so intense (as it remains) that I became downright dismissive of almost everything they put on tape after Rubber Soul, which felt like it had all become the overly trodden ground of what we’d now call rockists. That was as close as I could get to an adolescent, punk rock rebuke: I could still love the Beatles while shirking all possible conventional wisdom about them, and basically meaning it. The Beatles in Let It Be modeled to me, in many ways, an example of them catching up to trends rather than setting them — their hard rock is less vital than the Rolling Stones’ records from the same period, and to return to Monterey briefly, the likes of Canned Heat and Country Joe & the Fish, while not all that inspirational to me, display a confidence that the Beatles simply don’t have here in this latest guise of their collective personality, and at any rate it felt like they were aspiring to stuff that was largely beneath their abilities.

And I don’t necessarily have a counterpoint to that at this stage — my feelings about the album Let It Be are more muted than those of any of the other ten canonical Beatles LPs — but it seems to me that what this cynical purview misses is the visceral thrill of seeing actual masters of a certain craft at work, even if the specific work they’re in the middle of is comparatively flawed. And not mere masters of a craft, but the fucking Beatles, a band that has had as big an impact on my life (and, more likely than not, yours) as any body of artwork ever could. I’m not a nostalgic person, but as I grow old I do feel a certain desire to hold on just a little tighter to things that are shrinking into the past; please don’t misunderstand, I am not being overprotective of the legacy of a band whose work doesn’t even remotely need my help to ensure its endurance. As a phenomenon of youth, it’s safe to assume the Beatles will always have communicative power and resonance if not actual cultural omnipresence… and for now, for better or worse, even the latter is unthreatened. But when I look at all the people in this movie that have died — Mal Evans, John Lennon, George Harrison, Billy Preston, George Martin — and think of how little time we likely have before the rest are gone, what can I tell you? I can’t express it any better than Lennon could in “In My Life,” and if you’re reading this I assume you know those lyrics. I don’t wish I lived in the time of the movie, but I feel very fortunate that I get to watch it unfold in this medium, and like seeing Joplin and Hendrix and Otis Redding and all the rest in Monterey Pop, or Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith in Martin Scorsese’s absolutely throttling Rolling Thunder Revue, it does make me feel like I can briefly breathe in a moment of pure grace and power and, despite everything, joy.

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