“Let It Be” (1970)
(Originally posted on Nov. 5, 2013)
Sitting through Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s “Let It Be” is not dissimilar to sitting behind someone in a theater and staring at the back of their head, mentally trying to make them turn around: it’s pointless, it doesn’t really work and, in the end, its a pretty much a waste of time. This film features recording sessions during which The Beatles perform material which would appear on their penultimate (though the last to be recorded) album “Abbey Road” and their final album release “Let It Be”, though from the evidence presented in the film- and that’s scant – it is unclear as to what the actual purpose of this filmed document is meant to serve. Originally conceived as a companion workplace documentary to coincide with a planned televised concert and corresponding album release which would return the foursome to its technologically unfettered musical roots, the eventual grand scheme collapsing under the weight of collective indecision and growing personal animosities. The footage comprising “Let It Be” is, therefore, merely cobbled together material from an abandoned project, but retains the possibility of significant historical significance since in the intervening time between the filming and the film’s release saw the release of both “Abbey Road” and the “Let It Be” albums, but more significantly, the break-up of The Beatles as a group. Certainly, with reportedly hundreds of hours of footage shot, even the most rudimentary of documentarians would manage to capture- under the dispassionate but observant eye of the film’s cinéma vérité technique -the creative mind in flux. If it is meant as a inside look into the creative process, it is apparent that the compositional work and major musical discussions had already taken place outside the range of the cameras, and if the filmed performances were meant to represent a companion to the vinyl recording, why not include the contributions of the record producer Phil Spector, whose eventual “Wall of Sound” irretrievably altered the resulting album’s sound? If the film is meant as a document to witness the end of the major cultural phenomenon that was the group, where are any direct commentaries or confrontations related to such a fracture included in the film- beyond the incessant moping -that would justify the film’s very existence? It is rumored that such strained footage indeed exists, but was excised at the insistence of the musicians, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that “Let It Be” is not a documentary in the truest sense, but merely a promotional film gone astray. Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that the film has an feel of being carelessly unfinished. even the finale is abrupt, which may be due to unpredictable intrusion from local bobbies, however, there is no visible attempt at any sort of summing up.
The first thing immediately noticeable is the drastic shift in tone from all previous Beatles film projects, the air of solemnity if not outright directionless apathy is a reversal of the carefree and breezy public persona the quartet nurtured throughout the prior decade; an interesting portrait of collective fraternal diffusion, but oddly antithetical to the purposes of an intended background document with the sole intention of commercial promotion. With the exception of the final outdoor rooftop concert, the film is claustrophobically set in the dim space of the film cum recording studio, the isolated atmosphere magnifying the, at times, not-so-simmering hostilities. The tensions in the room (and they are considerable) are never explained, though artistic dissatisfaction is a good bet, and the film has the fly-by-night, grainy quality of 16mm unceremoniously enlarged for uncharitably grungy looking theatrical proportions (it is).
Worse yet, with the original promotional intention of the film being abandoned during production, a renovated motive for the film finds no substitute focus: as an eventual commercial for their last collaborative album “Let It Be”, there is far too much unexplained animus- though the Sphinx-like omnipresence of Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono in the sessions could not have helped to develop an air of conviviality (the later arrival of Billy Preston enlivens the boys considerably), as well as the film showing no cohesive intent to demonstrate the creation of the title album when it also contains versions of songs which would be used on the “Abbey Road” album. Additionally, as a form of public confessional, the members of the group remain aggravatingly mute, communicating little with each other except by way of furtive glares (few get the chance to speak as McCartney never stops); the choice of footage seems to be randomly assembled, without an eye toward following the most rudimentary aspects of album compilation: novices will leave the film equally ignorant of the group’s creative process as before they purchased their popcorn.
Those following the dubious philosophy that the greatest of actors would be compelling reading the phone book might well take a lesson in cultural icon-based optimism from “Let It Be” as there is very little to command the attention when the first two-thirds of the film are taken up in a rhythm deficient succession of what appear to be outtakes of guitar picking, unintelligible mumblings and fractured bits of songs: the world’s most famous band seems absolutely stymied at the very concept of having to usefully occupy its time. So random and broken are the music session that the film begins to resemble an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that forgiving minds might find intentional as symbolic of the group’s eventual fracturing, though the slipshod editing only makes the film feel unfinished: members will argue over minutae in playing a particular bar of music and the film cuts to an entirely different song, making the insider view absolutely meaningless. The resulting film leaves the impression that the talent involved assumed that as long as the movie is filled with wall-to-wall music- no matter how fractional -that admiring viewers would be satisfied, though only dedicated aficionados of the albums in question will be able to identify the music through all of the abbreviated segmentation. It is, however, doubtful that even admirers will find anything but frustration in the continuous self-interrupting nature of the film.
Eventually, there are a few relatively uninterrupted (and expurgated from Spector’s later transgressive influence) performances of “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”, but these McCartney close-up heavy rendering only emphasize the controlling mindset of this particular member (evident in the way others seem to drift off when he’s talking) and the film’s heavy imbalance given him, often to the point where the film might be considered An Evening with Paul McCartney and Friends. However, the final third is a breath of fresh air (literally) as the group finally emerges from its somnambulism in a lively rooftop concert which seems to not only awaken their musicianship (which is alarmingly sloppy many of the earlier segments), but also their camaraderie and their signature sense of humorous anti-authoritarianism, as they seem rejuvenated in ignoring the bobbies who have arrived (in the film’s only unexpected and spontaneous bit of fun) to shut down what would prove to be an historic concert (it would be the group’s last in “public”).
Which leaves the film either as a historic document or a peep show curiosity. In either case, “Let It Be” can only be truly appreciated as the cinematic equivalent of the most uninformed, confused set of liner notes an album has ever inspired.