Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Overlook: Let it Be

by JB
Gee, think there would be any interest in a revealing documentary about the most popular band of all time?

This year, I’ve been writing about films I feel are “overlooked”—forgotten works that, good or bad, are worth considering. Let It Be, the documentary film about the Beatles recording their 1970 album of the same name, has been BURIED. Though released on VHS in 1981 and on RCA CED disc in 1982, Let It Be has been out of print on home video for almost 35 years. Is Apple Corp. waiting for every first-generation Beatles fan to die before they will re-release a re-mastered, legitimate version?
Let It Be was originally titled Get Back, and was originally conceived as a television program devoted to the Beatles rehearsing songs for their new album. (The TV program was never made; the project grew into a feature-length documentary film.) Everyone involved felt that the program should conclude with a live concert of some sort, but the four Beatles could never agree on a venue. At various times, possibilities they discussed include a flourmill, an ocean liner, and a Roman amphitheater. Their final choice ended up being much closer to home—but has become one of the group’s most iconic, lasting images.

Let It Be contains essentially three pieces. The first section of the film takes place at Twickenham Film Studios and details the Beatles rehearsing. The studio was cold, and the Beatles were not used to early film studio hours; they were more accustomed to recording at Abbey Road Studios late at night. George Harrison described these Twickenham sessions as “the lowest low, miserable.” John Lennon described them as “hell;” of course, the fact that he was then strung out on heroin could not have helped.
Filming eventually moved to the basement studios they had just installed at Apple Headquarters in London. George Harrison brought along Billy Preston to play keyboards, and everyone later agreed that was a great idea—the four Beatles would stop bickering and make nice when “company” was present. The basement studio footage comprises the film’s second section.

The third section involves the Beatles last-minute compromise to end the show with some sort of live concert. Not wishing to travel, they simply went up to the Apple rooftop on Thursday, January 30th, and played for the delighted and bewildered lunchtime crowd on the street below.

Although Beatle fans and film critics now consider Let It Be a document of the bickering and bad feelings that eventually split up the group, there is a lot to like in this intimate, 80-minute film. Here are a few of my favorite moments:

1) John Lennon and Paul McCartney share a microphone on “Two of Us,” singing, smiling, and trying to crack each other up.

2) Ringo Starr and Paul share a piano and play a great, fast boogie-woogie number together.

3) George Harrison helps Ringo with the lyrics of “Octopus’s Garden” and plays it for the first time to producer George Martin. John eventually walks into the studio and joins them on drums.
4) Paul sings “Besame Mucho” in his best high-pitched, Perez Prado accent.

5) George, Paul and Ringo play “I Me Mine” while John and Yoko waltz around the studio.

6) Paul’s daughter Heather sneaks up behind Ringo and hits a cymbal with a drumstick. Ringo reacts with a comical take that sends her into fits of giggles.

7) John Lennon muffs a lyric while singing “Don’t Let Me Down” on the Apple rooftop. He sings, “Gee gee ho-ho honey googy-doo.” Paul and Ringo laugh.

Maybe if the four of them had enjoyed more moments like these, the Beatles would have stayed together.
On the negative side, the editing really favors Paul. John once said that his main objection to the film was that it portrayed Paul as God, and showed the rest of them just “hanging around like dopes.” Paul talks and cajoles and rallies and lectures the other Beatles, and John looks like he wishes that he were a hundred miles away. Yet somehow, the Beatles finally make some terrific music on a very cold January rooftop in a sequence that would be referenced (and parodied) for decades to come.

Now you are asking me, babies, “how can we see this intriguing, but unavailable, film?” As a public school teacher—and as a manly man and a member of the Illuminati (oops-- NEVER MIND)—I live by a strict moral code. But I have heard rumors that there are dozens of vendors on the Interwebs that will gladly sell you a copy of this film—one vendor even has it on Blu-ray!
In addition to the officially released film version of Let It Be, there is a wide variety of additional material available about the making of the album and the documentary. How is this possible? Director Michael Lindsay Hogg was rolling film and soundtrack almost every minute at Twickenham Film Studios and the Apple basement studios, and these Nagra tape reels eventually found their way into the hands of bootleggers.

There are vendors on a certain Internet auction site that will gladly sell you every minute recorded for the film between January 2nd, 1969 and January 31th, 1969, neatly organized onto 66—yes, sixty-six—CDs. There is also a shorter version available, popularly titled Thirty Days, that contains just the musical performances and omits all the between-song chitchat. That version runs a mere 17 CDs.

This is how we know that on January 10th, 1969, George Harrison quit the band. He informed the other three Beatles of his decision, went to lunch, and did not return to the studio. After he leaves, the Beatles discuss what to do next and John Lennon can be heard on the tape asking Paul and Ringo if they should “ring up Eric Clapton?” Why didn’t THAT make the official version of this documentary?
In fact, quite a bit did not make the documentary. Many bootleg versions of the film include more than an hour of outtakes. Actually, if the idea of “bootlegged” content makes you feel ooky, there are so many separate scenes, outtakes, and versions of the complete rooftop concert posted on the YouTubes that one can easily cobble together one’s own personal “director’s cut.”

The ubiquity of these bootlegs makes me wonder what Apple thinks it is accomplishing by withholding Let It Be from the home video market. There were plans to rerelease a re-mastered version in 2003 to coincide with the release of the re-imagined album Let It Be… Naked, but the two surviving Beatles scotched that idea, saying they had no wish to reopen old wounds. Old wounds? The events shown in the film happened more than 45 years ago. We need this film to be available to the next generation of fans…. Guys, get over it.

Let Let It Be be.

If you would like to read my previous column on Help!, the Beatles’ second feature film, you can find it here.

If you would like to explore a display case I designed at my school to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America last year, you can find it here.

If you would like to hear the wonderful podcast we did on A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ first feature film, you can find it here.

If you would like to read about the sorts of things one notices when watching a beloved film like A Hard Day’s Night for the 185th or 186th time, you can find it here.

If you would like to take Doug’s delightful picture tour of A Hard Day’s Night locations, you can find it here.

Finally, if you haven’t tired completely of the lads from Liverpool—that is, if you are not some sort of miserable Beatle-phobe—read about another great Beatles documentary here.


  1. I recently purchased All Things Must Pass. It's one of the best things I've ever listened to. Makes me wonder why George wasn't more a part of the song writing for The Beatles.

    1. One of George's frustrations was that by the late sixties, he was writing great songs (almost half of All Things Must Pass was previewed during the Let It Be sessions) and he was only allowed one or two songs per Beatles album.

    2. Mostly because he seems to represent the full package of good person and great artist, the more I've learned about The Beatles over the years, the more George has become my favourite.

  2. As you point out, I remember it being big news back with the CD release of "Let it Be...Naked" that we were finally going to get official versions of both this film AND a CD of the complete rooftop concert. My local newspaper promised it was just around the corner, so I waited...and waited...and waited. I eventually did what everyone else who wants them did, and bought bootlegs.

    That "old wounds" comment is very telling. I don't think any of the Beatles ever really got over the things that were said and done in those final days of the band. Let it Be must feel to them (Paul especially) like home video footage of a married couple shortly before a divorce. It's probably even worse because one of them died before there had been real closure. If I were in that position, I imagine that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Still, the music they created is something to be proud of, and it deserves to be released. Even near the end, there was nothing to compare to The Beatles.

    Great write-up, JB.

    1. Yes, watching it again for the column, there is more joy than sorrow in the film.

    2. Actually most of the music sounds tired, makeweight, and evidence of a band that had become sorely out-of-practice after being enslaved to studio gimmickry the previous few years. The Stones in the Gimme Shelter doc. of the same year simply blow them off the stage.

  3. JB, I could be mistaken, but I think I saw Let It Be at two different Beatlefests in Chicago. I remember hearing hissing at Yoko and Terri Hemmert asking the crowd to show respect for a woman who "gives a lot of herself to good causes". Do I remember correctly, and if so, what version was it?

    1. Mark Lapidos, the guy in charge of Beatlefest, used to show all the Beatles films during the weekend on 16mm. He stopped doing that; I always thought he assumed that, because of home video, fans could watch that stuff at home and would prefer more "conventional" activities. I miss the movies. I miss watching Let It Be with a hotel ballroom full of Beatles Fans

    2. Yeah... I haven't been to Beatlefest in forever, but the movies were my favorite part. For the most part, the ballroom had a great time and there was a respectful level/mix of rowdy energy and sincere appreciation.

  4. Aw man, I've always wanted to see this for the warts and all look at my favourite band during their worst period - a sick fascination I guess - but yeah, so damn hard to find. I'm thinking I might break my code on this one and get some kind of less-than-legal copy because you're right, it makes no sense that a legitimate release is being withheld at this point.

    1. Yes, I keep wondering if that new blu-Ray version is just a port of the old, shitty looking Magnetic Video VHS release.

  5. Great write-up. Love this documentary. Watched it dozens of times during my teenage years. Props to the Elk Grove Public Library for having a copy of it on VHS!

  6. Really nice words JB
    My dad loved the Beatles more than anyone else I knew and John was his Hero, the music was always on in my house as I grew and now 30 years later I still listen to this day, "She's Leavin home" is my Favourite track, I like all the classics but song really resonates with me, its really clever song writing

    Your display in the link is kinda Epic, Fantastic collection

  7. Peter Jackson has rectified a long standing injustice.

    1. Thanks Ron B for directing me here...its great to see JB's thoughts on the original doc which ive never seen. And, yup, Peter Jackson has done the music world and beatles fans a HUGE service with his recent release of the brilliant Get Back.