The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ Film Is Still Sad, Even After a Vibrant Peter Jackson Restoration

(This article is unintentionally a counterpoint to my colleague Owen Gleiberman’s considerably more-positive take on the Beatles‘ “Let It Be” film, restored by Peter Jackson and released today on Disney+

Published Time: 08.05.2024 - 16:31:41 Modified Time: 08.05.2024 - 16:31:41

(This article is unintentionally a counterpoint to my colleague Owen Gleiberman’s considerably more-positive take on the Beatles‘ “Let It Be” film, restored by Peter Jackson and released today on Disney+.)

When I was a Beatles-obsessed seven-year-old, my mother, in an act of selfless parental love, took me to a Fab Four film festival: “Hard Day’s Night,” “Let It Be,” “Yellow Submarine” and “Help!,” one after the other. My mom was a cool assistant professor of English at the local university who dressed “hip,” loved music and picked up some listening habits from her students. My obsession began after she brought home the “Sgt. Pepper” album a year or two earlier.

“Hard Day’s Night” was the Beatles the world fell in love with — sweet songs, charming cheeky personalities, matching clothes, screaming girls, moptops. But “Let It Be” was so different: the Beatles as grown-ups, real people who weren’t always joking around or even friendly, Paul’s cherubic face hidden beneath an unkempt beard and greasy hair. And as everyone in the theater knew, we were watching our beloved Beatles break up, practically in real time.

I remember the film being not very fun, kind of claustrophobic — and seeming long, even though it’s actually a few minutes shorter than “Hard Day’s Night.” At any rate, it wore out my mom, whose indulgence had reached its limit after a few minutes of the evening’s third film, “Yellow Submarine.” She led me out of the theater, probably by the hand, as I cried with disappointment in my striped bell-bottoms and fringed coat.

Apart from a second viewing decades later on a battered VHS, that was it for me and “Let It Be” — and for most people, since the Beatles effectively took it off of the market sometime during the 1980s. Official copies —as opposed to grainy bootlegs or streams from shady Russian websites —went for a couple hundred dollars. Even as Apple Corps, the group’s de facto estate, exhaustively plumbed the archives, “Let It Be” remained quarantined, as if the surviving members didn’t want to face it.

Like so many forbidden things, its story became distorted over the years — and with the 2021 release of Peter Jackson’s eight-hour, seemingly revisionist “Get Back,” which presented the footage from that gloomy January of 1969 in a much brighter and more full sense, it became even more so. Was it really the murky-looking, gloomy death knell that legend contended, or had our perspective been warped by decades of people saying that’s what it was? And weren’t many of those people presumably fans who’d seen the original in the theater while still traumatized by the group’s recent divorce?

Director and longtime Beatles associate Michael Lindsay-Hogg has said so emphatically, noting that he watched early cuts of the film with the Beatles in July and November of 1969 and had a jolly old time. “I would say most people who saw Peter’s picture as a corrective to mine haven’t seen mine, because no one was able to see it for 50 years,” he told the New York Times last month. “So unless they were children when they saw it in theaters, the only way most people would have seen it was on VHS or bootlegs, which changed the original aspect ratio and -

had dark and gloomy pictures and bad sound.People didn’t see it for what it was, and went looking for what it wasn’t.”

OK fair, and “Get Back” and the counter-narratives of recent years might make one think that. But even after the rare privilege of viewing the film on a giant screen with dazzling sound at a press screening last week (complete with a live Lindsay-Hogg interview as a preview), one must say the original narrative holds: “Let It Be” is still a downer.

Maybe not as much as legend would have it, but the awkward moments resonate — Paul heavy-handedly attempting to rally the uninspired group members and micromanaging George’s guitar part on “I’ve Got a Feeling”; John and Yoko, beatific in a heroin haze, so cocooned they’re invisibly cordoned off from the rest of the world; George dour and frustrated while Ringo looks on dejectedly.

Sure, that’s partially due to the awkwardness of the bandmembers trying to find creative inspiration in front of spotlights and movie cameras first thing in the morning — and for the viewers, 50 years of hindsight and the fact that we’re hearing rough, unpolished versions of songs by a group that set a new studio standard for rock music. But regardless, the writing was on the wall; Ringo said as recently as 2021 there was “no joy” in the film.

Of course, the magic remains as well: a bounty of great new songs in various stages of completion were debuted, we get to see George helping Ringo develop “Octopus’ Garden,” and the famous “rooftop concert” that closes the film is genuinely exhilarating. The sound and visuals have been beautifully restored: The colors are brighter, the shadows of Twickenham Studios less consuming and the faces clearer. But as with all close-ups, these are double-edged swords: viewers can say, wow, Paul’s hair really was that greasy; yep, John’s pupils seem pinned there; Ringo looks just as bored in hi-def.

And although the Beatles would be back in the studio just three weeks after these sessions wrapped and spent the summer recording their masterful and majestic swan song, “Abbey Road,” the Fab Four would record their last notes together within eight months of the final scenes of “Let It Be.” “I want a divorce,” Lennon told the group on Sept. 20, 1969 — ironically during a meeting in which they were finalizing the details of their new contract with EMI Records. They signed the deal and kept any breakup talk to themselves, but a month later Lennon released a solo singleand followed with an album. By the time “Let It Be” was released in May of 1970, their split was public and three of the Beatles had released solo albums. None of them attended the film’s premiere.

Even after Jackson’s expansive, happier “Get Back,” watching “Let It Be” is still like watching footage of a couple during the weeks leading up to their divorce. For all the hindsight, restoration and counter-narratives,“Let It Be” remains a sad ending to rock’s greatest fairy tale.

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