Review: The 'New' 'Let it Be' Looks Great But its Flaws are More Evident Than Ever


I enjoyed streaming the newly restored "Let it Be" on Disney+ over the weekend and thought that it looked and sounded great. 

Finally, those gloomy Twickenham scenes look a bit brighter and the Beatles are brought out of the shadows. Everything is more colorful and sharp. I think part of this film's reputation as a "downer" was due to the poor image quality. It's worth remembering that the footage originally was shot for TV and then blown up for display on movie screens and never did look that good -- not on movie screens nor on VHS. Once again, Peter Jackson's team has performed a visual feat of magic.

Meanwhile, Disney and Apple have performed a bit of PR magic, too, in changing the narrative around the film, telling us that it's not a depressing look at the Beatles breaking up, but a joyful document of them working together -- a lost, misunderstood classic. 

The intro to the restored film with Jackson and the film's director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was part of the strategy, framing the film as a portrayal of a great band at work. That little flare-up between Paul and George? No big deal. It's just the sort of thing that happens when any group works together. There's conflict that's easily resolved and everyone gets on with the job at hand. The movie got a bad rap, Lindsay-Hogg says, because it came out after the Beatles broke up. 

Based on many of the reviews I've seen of the restored film, the PR magic has, for the most part, worked.

But, even with the improved visuals and sounds, I saw the same old "Let it Be" -- a film that places Paul McCartney at its center as bandleader, arranger and driving force and which, as a result, gives us the impression that the other Beatles are disengaged, disinterested and, sometimes, like George, dissatisfied. 

My daughter, viewing the film for the first time, and without any nudging from me, asked, "is this movie just all about Paul?" 

The answer is, yeah, it pretty much is. 

In Lindsay-Hogg's cut, Paul's actions drive the narrative of the film. More than any of the other Beatles, he's the one we see counting off tunes, providing on-the-fly arrangements, talking and singing. He's the one we see in close-up in two back-to-back set pieces performing "Let it Be" and "The Long and Winding" with the rest of the Beatles looking like the proto-Wings.

The audiences who saw "Let it Be" in 1970 as documenting the Beatles' breakup weren't wrong. The film Lindsay-Hogg put together aptly tells that story, even if that's not what he intended. His cut easily lends itself to the break-up narrative, with Paul's domineering musical direction of the band, George's annoyance and frustration, John's disinterest and Ringo's boredom. While the band didn't break up immediately after these sessions, the fractures were setting in, and some of them are on display here.

"Let it Be" remains the same film. What's changed is the context in which we can now place it as a result of having seen Jackson's "Get Back," which is not "all about Paul," but which is all about the Beatles.

Jackson had way more time to work with than Lindsay-Hogg, but the difference between the two films isn't strictly down to playing time, but in the choices each director made about how to tell the story of these rehearsal and recording sessions. 

Where "Let it Be" zeroes in on Paul, in "Get Back" we see George talking enthusiastically about his songs and the prospect of maybe even doing a solo album. We see John being enthusiastic about the rooftop idea and showing leadership. And we see Ringo often smiling, happy and having fun. We also see that amazing scene of Paul in the act of creating "Get Back." And we see the arrival of Billy Preston at Apple and how everyone's mood brightens. He doesn't just appear out of nowhere, as in "Let it Be."

But we see elements of the breakup, too. George quits, leaving John and Paul to discuss their treatment of him. We see John talking excitedly to the others about his meeting with Allen Klein. We also see Lennon clearly strung out on heroin during one day's session. And we see Paul's sad face as he talks about his frustrations in trying to keep everyone engaged.

Lindsay-Hogg might've included more of the above and a little less Paul and a lot fewer slogs through half-remembered rock'n'roll oldies and emerged with a far more satisfying and more accurate portrayal of where the Beatles were at as a group in early 1969.

"Let it Be" isn't a bad movie, and it's not as depressing as its reputation makes it out to be. But it's also a greatly flawed film -- partially due to the circumstances and conditions Lindsay-Hogg was contending with, but also due to his directorial choices. I'm glad to see "Let it Be" restored and available, but, in the wake of "Get Back," it's more a curio and period piece than it is a great work of cinematic art.

The sad truth is that, beyond the wonderful rooftop performance that ends "Let it Be," Lindsay-Hogg's greatest contribution to documentary filmmaking is the footage he left on the cutting room floor.

- John Firehammer

Comments