The Beatles — Let it Be (DVD)
Pros: The rooftop concert is simply awesome
Cons: Depressing, hard to find a copy (and possibly not worth it if you do), watching the grumpy Beatles in the studio isn’t as entertaining as you might think.
In spite of the impression you might get from the next few paragraphs, I’m actually glad I saw this movie. Keep that in mind…
While there may be some historic importance attached to this film, Let it Be isn’t exactly a pleasant thing to watch. In fact, Beatles fans might want to avoid this one for a slew of reasons. And, yes, I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was a kid. I grew up with my parents listening to them, I have an aunt who grew up in San Diego and saw the Beatles live when she was a kid and I’ve always had a Beatles album in one format or another in my car since I was 16-years-old. That being the case, perhaps my negative reaction to a lot of this film is due to my lifelong adoration of a band that remains my favorite of all time.
For those interested in historical context, Paul McCartney decided in late 1968 that the Beatles should get back to basics for the band’s next project. That meant writing and rehearsing songs that could be played live and a full-blown concert to coincide with a new album. The rehearsals and work done on the new songs was to be filmed and used for a television special. Apparently, the notion was that the band members were drifting apart and needed a project that would allow them to tap into their roots, regroup and perhaps find that sense of unity for which the band was once known. Or, something like that.
What we see in Let it Be, however, is a band that is quickly falling apart and watching that terrible process is a true drag. The band started the sessions at the first of January 1969 by meeting at Twickenham Film Studios on a sound stage for rehearsals. The footage from Twickenham, frankly, sucks. You’ve got Paul McCartney gabbing on constantly (as he does throughout the movie, really) George Harrison using a wah-wah pedal on virtually all of his guitar parts to produce an annoying, distracting bunch of leads and rhythms on which notes just wobble and pulse all over the place (it’s worth mentioning that the pedal wasn’t used on the Let it Be album that came from the sessions — good move). John Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, hangs around the studio like a phantom haunting the band while Ringo Starr simply lurks in the background and shows up to play drums from time to time. Lennon just seems vaguely interested in the sessions.
Viewers are treated to a movie showing four fellows who look like they’d be doing anything other than working on a new album. In fact, they just look dog tired. At one point during the Twickenham sessions, we see McCartney and Harrison arguing over a guitar part and Harrison ending that fight with a few simple words — “I’ll play 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.” What the film doesn’t show was Harrison taking his wah-wah pedal, heading home and deciding to quit the band. That would have been interesting. Sadly, the most interesting parts of the Twickenham segment may be a version of “Suzy Parker,” an early version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and Harrison getting shocked by a microphone. The songs are largely in early form and most of them aren’t much fun to listen to . It’s rather like watching sausage get made at that point — you don’t want to see how that’s done and are better off simply enjoying the end product and not worrying about it too much.
At any rate, it seems that the band hated Twickenham and decided to hold the rest of the sessions in the comfortable, familiar confines of Apple studios. What the film doesn’t show is that Harrison actually quit the band for five days and agreed to come back on the condition that concert plans be dropped and work continue at Apple. Also, there was some talk of trying to replace Harrison with Eric Clapton prior to the Apple sessions. Clapton? Yeah. Yuck. He ruined one Beatles song on The White Album and we might be lucky he didn’t get to destroy a whole album or two.
At any rate, the film improves with the Apple sessions. Harrison left his wah-wah peddle at home and the audience is treated to a great version of Harrison’s “For You Blue” as well as three fantastic McCartney-led tunes — “Two of Us,” “Let it Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Billy Preston shows up and plays his organ throughout the sessions, McCartney’s daughter shows up to dance around in the studio and the individual Beatles don’t seem as surly. The only bad part of the Apple segment is when the band goes through some of its back catalog and cover songs as Lennon plunks on a Fender, six-string bass and gets a lot of words wrong.
The best part of the film undoubtedly comes in the last 20 minutes when the band heads to roof of Apple and puts on what would be its last live performance. Yes, the elaborate concert plans may have been dropped, but that rooftop performance is the thing that makes this film worthwhile. That concert, folks, reminds us of why a lot of people still love the Beatles — the band was just playing and doing a hell of a good job of it. They weren’t bickering, distracted or goofing around — just producing great music. Considering the circumstances that led up to that rooftop concert, the fact the band could lock in and give such a fantastic performance is phenomenal.
Perhaps this would have been a better film had the Twickenham sessions been cut out entirely with an emphasis on the work at Apple. As it stands, this film paints an unflattering portrait of a band in decline, but it is saved by the great concert performance at the end.