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The Beatles Were Never More Human Than in ‘Let It Be’

For the 54 years since “Let It Be” premiered in theaters in May 1970, the documentary that chronicled what turned out to be the last studio album the Beatles released has been most notable for its absence. The Fab Four despised it. (“I was stoned all the time, and I just didn’t give a shit,” John Lennon would say later about making the movie. “Nobody did.”) Since then, it’s been nearly impossible to find. Now, after the release of 2021’s “The Beatles: Get Back,” which spent almost eight hours covering the same terrain (and incorporating some of the same filmed material), it hardly seemed worth excavating. For even diehard Beatles fans, “Let It Be” was something not seen and, presumably, better left forgotten.

And yet, newly restored by Peter Jackson, who made “The Beatles: Get Back,” and streaming on Disney+, “Let It Be” turns out to be a pretty great Beatles movie, even in this compromised form. (The band members apparently demanded cuts from director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, whose initial version was about an hour longer.) Running 80 minutes, the film has a fragmented, inconclusive feel—a jagged, pieced-together energy that matches the mood of its four subjects, who have been together too long, their friendship still intact but fraying badly. History tends to view the Beatles as perfect creatures—a joyful foursome who created one of the great bodies of work of the 20th century—and while “The Beatles: Get Back” observed this fractious period in more detail, “Let It Be” has a skeletal rawness that cuts deeper. It reminds the viewer that even being in a rock ‘n’ roll band can feel like a job sometimes. It reminds us that the mighty Beatles were also very human. 

Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary features no title cards, no interviews, no introductory text to explain what we’re watching. But the opening shot tells you what you need to know: The Beatles’ distinctive logo on Ringo Starr’s drum set is shown prominently before it’s whisked away by one of the band’s crew, unceremoniously added to a pile of other random music paraphernalia. By 1969, when “Let It Be” was filmed, the Beatles were already legendary, but they were also a lucrative brand—a commodity, a business entity—and the innocent magic of yesterday was gone. That unromantic opening sets the stage for everything that follows, which takes place in three movements. The first involves the Beatles working out the “Let It Be” album tracks on a London soundstage. The second finds them at Apple recording the songs. The final (and most famous) segment features the group performing on the studio rooftop, exciting passersby while annoying the police. “Let It Be” is a story about the world’s greatest band just trying to get through something—and, with the benefit of collective hindsight, starting the process of letting each other go. 

“The Beatles: Get Back” strenuously pushed back against the lore that the Beatles were at each other’s throats constantly during this time. There were plenty of happy passages in Jackson’s film, but they’re also evident in “Let It Be,” which is understandable considering the band members allegedly asked Lindsay-Hogg to trim the more rancorous moments—the moments which, ironically, made their way into “The Beatles: Get Back.” But while Jackson’s documentary is encyclopedic and exhaustive—not to mention occasionally exhausting in its memorialization of minutiae—“Let It Be” feels more pointed, emphasizing the mundanity of the rock-star life. 

Not unlike other rock documentaries of the time—the 1967 Bob Dylan film “Don’t Look Back” and the soon-to-be-released “Gimme Shelter,” the 1970 portrait of the Rolling Stones—Lindsay-Hogg’s film seeks to demystify, showing viewers the unglamorous nuts and bolts of the lifestyle. We get a few instances of rancor in “Let It Be”—notably, Paul McCartney and George Harrison tersely discussing how best to do a certain guitar part—but the film is less about outright fights than it is about a general uneasiness that intermittently broken up by the band’s indelible tunes. Think of “Let It Be” as the most stilted all-hands office meeting, and you’ll get a sense of the heavy, awkward vibe that permeates the documentary. You don’t need title cards and context—the spiky editing and handheld cameras belie the fragile truce that’s been negotiated by the band members so they can get this damn album (and this damn film) completed. 

Decades later, music fans have become accustomed to this sort of demythologizing mythologizing. We’re suckers for every scrap of “Here’s how this genius wrote that incredible song” trivia we can get our hands on, and subsequent documentaries such as “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” have been heralded for their unvarnished look at a band’s less-PR-polished side. We want the dirt, but we also want to be reassured that our heroes will triumph over such obstacles, reasserting their brilliance and validating our love for them. 

In that sense, “Let It Be” was ahead of its time, which may explain why the Beatles (who were all but officially kaput once McCartney left the group soon after) hated the film. Both the album and the movie didn’t feel like grand swan songs—they were rough, ragged affairs occasionally interrupted by transcendent interludes. Consequently, they weren’t the happy endings the Beatles’ fans wanted. But while not making any ridiculous claims that the “Let It Be” album is a misunderstood masterpiece, I do think the record’s considerable flaws dovetail nicely with the group’s on-screen attempts to keep hostilities at bay. There are lots of smiles in the movie, and even though “The Beatles: Get Back” provides a sharper perspective on just how contentious this period was—we don’t see Harrison quitting the band in “Let It Be”—those smiles are flecked with exhaustion and faded memories of a once-blossoming alliance now withering. Bearded, long-haired, tired, and/or bored, the Fab Four badly need a nap—or just time away from each other. Neither happens in “Let It Be,” and so on they toil until the task is completed.

Which is why that rooftop performance remains so epochal. If they’re faking their enthusiasm at being on stage, they’re even better actors than they seemed in “A Hard Day’s Night,” which sold them as happy-go-lucky young lads—a falsely sunny image that “Let It Be” effectively kills off. Up on that rooftop, McCartney the clear leader (as he is throughout the documentary), they slay on “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” The tension is released—there’s a catharsis that radiates out of their performance, as well as maybe a little relief that there’s at least one thing they can still do well together. 

But that catharsis is also poignant—that one good thing wouldn’t be available to them as a unit for much longer. In that moment, they remember that the Beatles were once more than just a job. It was something they loved, and god, were they good at it. Lindsay-Hogg shows the cops trying to get up to the roof to shut them down, which creates an unexpected degree of suspense. The police aren’t just stopping the Beatles—they’re stopping them for all time. Feeling the fuzz closing in, the Beatles try one more rendition of “Get Back” before laying down their instruments. Lennon makes his iconic comment about hoping that the band passed the audition. And then it’s over. 

Not really, of course—in real life, the Beatles will reconvene one last time to do “Abbey Road,” which will come out before “Let It Be” and serve as a more proper, wistful sendoff. But to fans’ minds, “Let It Be” (the movie and the album) will always be when it ended. Peter Jackson gave that historic period its grandeur. With “Let It Be,” Michael Lindsay-Hogg gave it a scruffy integrity. Reviewing the “Let It Be” album, influential music critic Robert Christgau acknowledged its shortcomings but was forgiving: “[E]ven the great are allowed to falter now and then,” he concluded

The Beatles had faltered on screen before—good luck suffering through the “Magical Mystery Tour” flick—but here, the struggle is ennobling. And it’s no failure: The “Let It Be” film is what happens when mere mortals try to conjure up past magic. In real time, we watch them unbecome the Beatles. No one has replaced them since.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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