Tackling the Twelve: Let It Be
Some of my list of Twelve Holy Grail movies will inevitably come my way. For I have said so. Especially with my disc-dealing friend Ian on the case. First up: "Let It Be".
Here's the thing about the "Swinging" 60s. It didn't seem to swing. It was a swing-free zone. The swingless 60s. I mean, Pop Culture generally strengthens stereotypes, feeds the maw of the lowest common denominator. The easiest impression is favoured by mass media, and once its established, it can be impossible to change. In the case of the 1960s it has been crystallised - it is the era of Woodstock, free love, rock music, long hair, psychedelia, protests. All the cliches, man. Austin Powers is based upon them. Forrest Gump frolics through them.
London is an important City in the 60s myth. The capital of the Swinging World. Much of the most important music of the era came from the City and Carnaby Street was a style and fashion spot of worldwide interest. In "Blow Up" (1966) , Michaelangelo Antonioni exposed the city as still the same old grim, grey Imperial Capital of years past. In Antonioni's world, the 60s are happening, alright, but London barely notices. The Beatles relocated to London as soon as business demanded they live there rather than Liverpool. Their presence was a part of what made the city so fashionable - the fact that they went to gigs and parties and opened boutiques, the fact that you might see Paul McCartney on the bus between his house and Abbey Road studios. But "Let It Be" , Michael Lindsay-Hogg's 1970 documentary, echoes "Blow Up" in that it, too, is located in a City far removed from the Swinging London of legend. The Beatles, four bearded, wounded individuals, live in a Post War City, surrounded by men in overcoats and hats, men smoking pipes, men carrying umbrellas. "Let It Be" makes the reality of London at that time its main focus for the last 20 minutes or so, when the band take to the roof of the Apple Corps Offices and play a few songs. Lindsay-Hogg's camera traces the reactions of the passers-by, looking at the sky, forming little groups upon pavements. Some ignore it all, and just keep walking. Some get excited, some climb onto nearby roofs for a better view. Eventually the police are called - the best symbol of the 60s establishment imaginable, their eyes mostly hidden beneath their helmets - and their humourless presence brings the film to a close, but it has already been established that the Beatles are not like the other Londoners in the film. They were some of the most famous and photographed individuals on earth at the time, and they have an aura of ridiculous fame about them. While the crowd on the street is mostly short-haired, sensible, with an abundance of overcoats, the Beatles wear fur coats, long hair, beards. George Harrison is wearing what look like green trousers and converse sneakers. They look like they belong in Laurel Canyon, not Marylebone.
It isn't really a good film, "Let It Be". The Beatles are only interesting because they're the Beatles. Otherwise there's little reason to watch it. It is interestingly minimalist - footage of the band in studio, messing about, chatting, tuning up, then playing live on the roof. That rooftop finale is a brief euphoric burst after the claustrophobia of the first hour, where we see the band struggling through rehearsals and recording. None of it is contextualised or explained - it just drifts by in some badly-edited chunks. McCartney at one end of a film set (for much of it was shot at Twickenham Studios) cut with Lennon and Yoko, as if they're in the same room at the same time. Badly cut, though, the edit always obvious. Then there is song after song of turgid retro material, the band lumbering through it all, groping for the best ways to play these songs. All of this complicated by the fact that their personal relationships were crumbling. Their conversations are snapshots of the tensions between them, and as such more inherently dramatic than the music ever is. Paul McCartney and Harrison share a famously bitter exchange: McCartney trying to explain how he wants a part played - "I'm trying to help you" - to which Harrison responds "I’ll play whatever you want me to play or I won't play at all if you don't want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you - I'll do it." The references they make to earlier arguments suggest a group in deep trouble.
Later we see McCartney desperately trying to sell the idea of the Beatles as a band to a silent Lennon. It is difficult not to feel sorry for McCartney. He loves being a Beatle, you can see that. He is frantically trying to keep the band together, cajoling, lecturing, trying to gee them up, giving the songs his all. But he is just not the type to lead these men. They are old friends and the dynamic is too delicate for him to drive them forward. His personality means he is hard to like, too, so eager, so cocky, so unassuming that you suspect him of a hidden agenda at every turn. His ego is exposed at a couple of points - the three songs in a row he sings self-importantly straight to camera feel wrong, too posed and controlled for the otherwise casual feel of the film.
The others almost seem to be there only in body. McCarteny is to the forefront, the engine of the project, but the others hold back, with even Lennon's personality seeming muted. He was so in love with Yoko Ono at the time that he seems unable to take anything else seriously, gurning through songs, hitting bum notes, making up lyrics. This brings out the likeable side of McCartney on a few occasions - he too indulges in funny voices, improvised lyrics, when prodded by Lennon. The way they share excited glances on the rooftop is perhaps the most human moment in the film - here is the poignancy of an old friendship ebbing away, yet still all that history plays between them when they revisit it together. Yoko hangs at Lennon's shoulder at all times like the angel of death, silent, straight-faced. Ringo seems bored, vaguely baffled. Harrison seems nonchalant even through his argument with McCartney. He didn't need the band anymore by then. He sweetly helps Ringo with his song, and gamely plays his part on the others, but you can almost see him pulling away.
For a Beatles fan, its interesting, of course. To see them talking about the Maharashi, to see them mess up over and over, to glimpse the downtime in the studio, the clusters of their entourage, the voices off-camera. The music is so-so until the rooftop scenes, which is where most of the album versions come from. Then they are briefly, thrillingly restored, a rock and roll band again, raw and inventive, cooking, an audience seeing them live for the very last time. In the MTV era it all seems amazingly naive and simple, captured with two camera and rudimentary cutting. But it is the Beatles, after all.
So, twelve becomes eleven. Thanks, Ian!