Revisiting the original “Let It Be” movie the night before the new Peter Jackson doc hits Disney+
Some fun facts for Fabs fans:
• Paul is still dead (the Walking Dead actually)
• Yoko broke up the band in a pact with Clapton so he could get jiggy with George’s wife
• The White Album was mostly done to taunt Charles Manson
• George Martin was the 5th, 7th and 9th (but not 10th) Beatle
• Ringo said John and George weren’t “even the best guitarists in the Beatles”
• If you play all their albums backwards in order, they say ‘I buried Peter Best”
• The boys were at their jolliest when filming the original Let It Be
Ready for the punchline? One of these ‘facts’ is actually a new film done by the Lord of the Rings guy. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that director Peter Jackson, who’s known for epic fantasy, would create a three-part, six-hour film about the Beatles for Disney, who are also known for creating fantasies. We’re all about to see the results of his four years of labor as the extended, redone version of the film, now titled Get Back, will be available online on November 25th. But maybe we’ll find that it would have been better for Jackson to film the other six items on the list instead.
As a disclaimer, I haven’t seen Get Back yet, and this isn’t a review of new flick. Instead, we’re gonna take a trip to yesteryear and review the original cinematic material and we know already about the Let It Be movie, version 1, and also see why in the context of the new movie, it’s important to remember what happened in January 1969 (when most of the material was recorded and filmed) and May 1970 (when the original movie and soundtrack came out).
The real Fab films were always part of the band’s legacy and their ascendency to, as Lennon put it, “the toppermost of the poppermost.” In the space of one year (’63-’64), they conquered the UK charts and then the US charts and the rest of the world and solidified their dominance not only with a string of singles and albums, plus a ground-breaking world tour but also a little movie that they did.
A Hard Day’s Night wasn’t just a smart piece of marketing to make the lads into colossal media stars but it’s also rightfully regarded as one of the finest music films ever released, featuring not just a great soundtrack but also some magnetic screen performances from the foursome. Credit goes to director Richard Lester but also to writer Alan Owen’s punchy, lively script (which earned an Oscar nomination).
To capitalize on their success, they took on Lester again for a second flick, 1965’s Help!, which also had great tunes but was a cinematic mismatch for the group- like early Elvis, they were much better suited to play versions of themselves than to be James Bond wanna-be’s in assorted vacation locales, now penned by Marc Behm (who did much better work scripting another comedic action-adventure, Charade).
After the Beatles hit their stride with their streak of ground-breaking albums and ended their road career, they returned to the silver screen, but with more mixed results. Magical Mystery Tour was seen as their first real misstep, with the bizarre idea of filming an extended psychedelic countryside trip with no real script, even though the reshaped, single-enhanced US version of the soundtrack is a true gem in their catalog (see an extended case for that here). Alongside AHDN, the charming 1968 animated feature Yellow Submarine is seen as their most beloved film, though it’s also the one with the least direct involvement from the band itself (they didn’t even do their own voices in the movie).
All of which leaves us at January 1969 and their final film. Sgt. Pepper and MMT had been Macca machinations of an extravagant kind, but now he had an idea for a scaled-back concept: a back-to-the-roots album conceived in front of the cameras, appropriately with the title Get Back initially. You gotta give him credit; in an era of excess that they helped to usher in, this was an interesting path to take, even though the likes of The Band and The Byrds had already beat ’em there.
Like MMT, it was a risky, script-free cinematic venture and, like MMT, it showed some of the worst sides of the band. The former flick highlighted their self-indulgence which got the better of them, while the original Let It Be movie, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, showed the other side of the story- as expansive as they become in the studio, turning it into a sonic place of adventure and wonder, the four walls of Abbey Road also became something of a prison for them. No longer travel buddies, it was one of the only places they’d still all convene and they were growing less tolerant of each other there. This movie was going to be a peek behind the scenes of their creative process at that time so what could go wrong?
The original LIB movie was inseparable from the album and as such, it’s a flop on many levels though it’s definitely got some historical interest to it. Meant to show a behind the scenes look at how the boys were gonna ‘get back’ to the basics and create an album before our very eyes, the magic only happened with the scenes of the rooftop concert where they’re actually letting loose and having fun for a short time. Otherwise, we see fatigue, arguments, boredom, half-hearted songs- compare that to ADHN or Help! which radiated joy from start to finish or even MMT‘s goofy spirit (granted, none of those were docs).
Oh, and then there was Harrison quitting the band in the middle of the sessions, which didn’t lead the rest to soul search but (as we recently found out) instead to glibly wonder if they should give Clapton a ring. Mind you, this was only a few months after Ringo quit the band (August ’68) and had to be begged back. John quit about eight months after George, and that was that. Fun times indeed.
As for the music itself, the recent expanded version of the album has been nicely dissected here and here, but a little context of the original record helps as it ties itself closely into the film. On the 1970 version of the soundtrack, we’re treated to Paul’s two stunningly beautiful ballads which yank the heart-strings mightily (the title track and “The Long and Winding Road”), John at his cosmic-nonsense best (“Across the Universe”) and “Get Back” which is nice, hilarious rocker about Linda McCartney’s ex. Beyond that, all you’d wanna hear is John and Paul striking back and forth on “I’ve Got A Feeling.”
Months later, George would outshine his bandmates on Abbey Road. But here, the best he has to offer is the dreary (except for the chorus) “I Me Mine” and the slight “For You Blue.” You can skip the rest and live a meaningful life, unless you really wanna go to the mat for “One After 909” “Dig A Pony,” etc.. Sure, “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” are rude and funny but they could have just as easily made it into the out-take pile without any fuss.
By the time Phil Spector fancied up the session tapes a whole year later, the band had secretly called it a day and Macca was furious that the girl group producer added strings and choirs to their bare-bones recordings, such that he prompted a un-Spector-ized version in 2003 (Let It Be… Naked). Even in the redone version, LIB is only classic because of the chaps who made the album, not because most of the songs themselves. Once, the band was making history with their music but by then, they were struggling under the weight of it and landed flat on their asses. if you need a classic album about a band disintegrating, you’d be much better off with There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Sister Lovers, mostly because Sly and Alex were much more articulate and honest about their fuck-ups and failures. Not coincidentally, Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is also a great and artful piece of self-destruction, especially after he’d had years of practice with his old band.
Picking on their least-loved album is too easy granted, but it’s also important to note the context here. The film was based on a crappy record and while it’s possible to make a great movie out of fucked-up music (thank you, Spinal Tap), such an undertaking handicaps the whole film since the flick is based on a flawed, unloved source.
The other problem with the original film that made it such a drag wasn’t just the passive-aggressive fighting; it was the goddamn drudgery. A doc about the making of a record, with the band and various anointed experts describing and talking about the process after the fact is much more interesting than seeing the grueling process of actually putting the songs together- the Rolling Stones’ 1968 One Plus One movie was already proof of that. That’s why any good behind-the-scenes documentary of a movie concentrates more on a removed, narrative looking-back perspective about the process rather than the lengthy pain-staking process of actually making the whole movie itself. That’s why Heart of Darkness is a great doc which helps you appreciate the madness of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now all the more so, while you probably wouldn’t waste your time about a doc on say Cappola’s ill-conceived One From the Heart. As for the LIB movie version 1, it’s a fascinating look at the band’s recording process in theory, but how many times has anyone pulled it over the shelf or streamed it for actual fun or interest? Not many, I’d bet.
So why revive and redo the LIB film material? Sure, there’s money to be made from fans and nostalgic boomers but there’s more to it than that. John thought that Spector did the best that he could with the music (which has a lot of truth to it) and George and Ringo never really chatted it up otherwise. That leaves Paul, and that’s where the whole crux of the matter resides, leading to a mountain of off-screen drama that eclipses the on-screen events. Even though it was his whole idea, the original movie made Macca out to be a jerk and bully, especially to George- think of the “I’ll play… whatever you want me to play” sequence.
After all of those hours of filming and recording, what happened to Paul’s grand project? THE WHOLE FREAKING THING WAS SHELVED FOR OVER A YEAR. Then, when it was finally excavated, Spector came in to add his flourishes, which infuriated Paul and effectively ruined his whole ‘get back’ concept. After having his project languish and then seeing it re-hauled in a guiding-the-lily kind of way, is it any wonder he was pissed and defensive?
After Lennon became the third guy in the band to bolt in a year, making the split final (sorry Yoko-haters), Paul hit the skids and crawled into a bottle up at his farm. With help from his wife Linda, he pulled himself together to craft his charming, slight self-titled album. The problem was that he was planning to put this out around the same time as LIB. The other three ‘ganged’ up on him, sending Ringo as the lovable emissary to ask him to hold off so that they (the other three of them, effectively claiming the mantle of the Beatles) could put out the film and their album before his album.
This didn’t go well. Macca actually threatened Starr and threw him out. Then things got even worse. For the promo of McCartney, the ‘cute’ Beatle decided to include a glum, egotistical self-interview, which included quite a take away tucked in there- he wasn’t gonna be a Beatle anymore. Of course, the British press downplayed everything in their usual non-hysterical manner- ‘PAUL IS QUITTING THE BEATLES,’ they screamed and so it was echoed around the globe. Even though Lennon fumed that his old partner was the one who got to say it out loud while he had to keep mum for months, Macca himself fumed that the whole split was put in his lap, leading him to recently insist that he wasn’t the one who broke up the group. But back then, he was seen as the villain of the story and broke the hearts of millions of fans around the world. It’s no wonder that Let It Be is huge psychic wound that he’s longed to heal for decades. Who could blame him?
And as for the fans, don’t we wanna try to believe that the LIB era wasn’t actually such a bad and sad conclusion for the band? I mean, the Beatles deserve a happy ending, right? That’s what Peter Jackson wants to think. Sifting through hundreds of hours of footage, there had to be some upbeat moments to focus on instead of what we saw in the original flick.
VIDEO: Good Morning America’s First Look at Get Back
Part of the hoped-for outcome of Get Back, the extended/updated LIB remix, is that some supposedly authoritative record, like the Wikipedia entry, will include something in the later-day section about how LIB is being re-evaluated now. Some news outlets are already crowing that the new movie ‘rewrites history,’ which must delight Macca, and Ringo. Even Giles (son of George Martin, who produced the new extended album version of LIB, and spent much more time that any sane human being should with those tapes, admitted in an interview that he doesn’t discount the friction the boys had then but hopes that the new, longer version of the film/album will show some glimmers of light there. But will the new version paper over the facts of the original film/album and its history? The answer is that both will be part of the story. Even if Get Back is six hours of the Fab laughing, joking and tickling each other, it can’t totally blot out so many of the ugly circumstances of that grueling Jan. ’69 session and its aftermath.
Will most Fab fans sign up for a temporary Disney account to see Get Back and then quit once they threaten to start charging them? Of course. Just think of what ‘fun’ we’re all have sitting around and watching them hash out what’s arguably their worst album for six whole hours. But still, it’s the Fabs so we’re glued to them and fascinated and want to keep hearing more of the story so we ourselves can hash over it, argue about it and obsess over it. Disney has wisely kept the Get Back on ice until the holiday weekend, to build up anticipation for it, much more so than for the album’s re-release, which happened back in mid-October.
Still, you have to wonder what ‘out-takes’ we’re missing in the other 50 hours or so of footage that isn’t there, and which will eventually come out for other anniversaries and other pay-days for their estates and a savvy deal-making streaming service. Bathroom break, take 40 and George yawning, take 135 will become part of their legacy, no doubt. I’d also imagine that the whole entire-footage version (Get WAY Back) will also give some perspective on what Jackson cherry-picked for the extended 2021 version of the movie. Maybe then we can appreciate how much work he did and how much he struggled to make his movie more palatable that the original version so that it’s a more light hearted romp as opposed to a dour tragedy, not unlike the brilliant YouTube transformations that creative fans have done with turning horror movies into comedies.
VIDEO: Silence of the Lambs as a romantic comedy
After appearing at the premiere, no doubt that Paul is happier now with version 2 of the film, which even restores his original title- of course, he didn’t show up when the original film came out. John’s children, Julian and Sean, even managed to bond over the film, which is pretty touching. Ringo’s also given Get Back it a thumbs up, saying that it got the real history of that time right, claiming that at the time, the boys were ‘laughing and angry.’ Starr also got into a war of words with the MLH about the LIB film, with Lindsay-Hogg rightly defended his work and explaining that he was just showing what was happening then and there.
John and George of course aren’t here to give their thoughts on the latest (but not last) version of the film but you can probably guess what they would have to say about the movie being revisited, again. Mostly likely, their response was be just three words- no swearing, but instead, just saying to Jackson, to Paul, to Ringo, and to all of us a simple, familiar message. “Let.. it… be.”
VIDEO: Original “Let It Be” film trailer