The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.
When Let It Be finally premiered in 1970, subtle interpersonal tensions on display throughout the film had already burst into public knowledge. The Beatles were over. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film captures a month of one of the band’s final recording sessions at Twickenham Film Studios and Apple Studios in London, and culminates in The Beatles’ final public performance in January 1969. Instead of matching the festive tone of earlier Beatles movies, Lindsay-Hogg’s film presents them in a more sobering light, making their eminent dissolution all the more apparent.
Let It Be has a rough, disorganized quality to it that is matched by its production history. Lindsay-Hogg shot on 16mm film for an intended television special to accompany The Beatles’ new album Get Back. Lindsay-Hogg worked in television and had directed TV promotional performances for The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. When he began filming, The Beatles were planning an internationally televised concert that the “behind the scenes” documentary would accompany. George Harrison, however, threatened the leave the band for a variety of reasons, including the concert. As the footage grew and television plans dissipated, the idea for a 35mm theatrical feature began to form.
United Artists brought The Beatles to American audiences with Richard Lester’s sensational comedies A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Although both films were successful, the group’s following television specials, including Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and Yellow Submarine (1968), were critically reviled. Despite the band’s lack of interest in making another narrative film, United Artists had originally signed them for three theatrical releases. After the group jettisoned their broadcasting plans for the material, it became the third and final Beatles/United Artists theatrical film. The album and film were renamed Let It Be and released in May 1970.
The film took a year to edit, mainly due to Lindsay-Hogg’s difficulty in capturing genuine reactions from the different band members. Later some of The Beatles admitted that the recording session was one of their worst experiences together, and Lindsay-Hogg added, “I don’t think I got them when they were their most charming.” Despite these later admissions, actual conflict in the film is rarely apparent. George Harrison’s departure from the sessions was removed from the film, which creates an atmosphere of unexplained and unresolved frustration throughout the recordings. At the same time, there was a push to call this an authentic Beatles experience despite the melancholy. Advertisements refer to the film as “intimate” and The Beatles’ representative Allen Klein claimed that the film is the band’s “own original idea.”
Many critics caught on to the reality of Let It Be, arguing that it felt disjointed and thrown together. Some were critical of Lindsay-Hogg’s direction, as critic Gene Siskel called his cameras “unimaginative hangers-on.” Even Siskel admitted, however, that when the film showed The Beatles playing it became “electric” and “exciting.” Other critics such as Howard Thompson instead claimed, “The very helter-skelter unstudied nature of the picture provides a revealing close-up of the world’s most famous quartet, playing, relaxing and chatting.” Even critics that dismissed the film in part all admitted that it became a “memorial” to the phenomenon of The Beatles and their enduring talent. History would prove them right, as it is one of the last records of the four together.
Let It Be was not the sensation of The Beatles’ earlier films, but United Artists gave it a relatively significant release for the time in 225 theaters. Variety called the opening weekend’s box office receipts “impressive” and the film continued to find an audience. The Beatles even won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score. Whether or not Lindsay-Hogg set out to make a film of the direct cinema movement, it still had the same aura, as one critic called it a 16mm cinema verité film. The film debuted only two months after Woodstock (1970), and the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter (1970) followed later the same year. Although Let It Be may not share these films’ prominence today, it ushered The Beatles out of cinematic history and gave them a farewell of appropriately mixed emotions.
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.
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