My contribution to this year’s 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon is a look at Let It Be, the winner of the Best Original Song Score Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards. Thanks to Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Clubfor hosting this blogathon, and giving me an opportunity to share a look at this fascinating documentary. My entry last year was on A Man For All Seasons.
The Beatles’ Let It Be is one of the more unlikely movies on the list of films to win an Oscar of any kind. Typically, pop stars win their Oscars by writing a title song, or a song for the end credits. But for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, they received an honor for a film many of them wanted to forget.
By the time Let It Be received the Oscar for Best Original Song Score in April 1971, the group was no more and the events seen in the film were over two years old. A few weeks earlier, McCartney awkwardly accepted the Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, but was wise enough not to attend the Oscars. Instead, Oscars music director Quincy Jones accepted the award.
The story of Let It Be is a tortured one. After The Beatles (“The White Album”) was released in November 1968, McCartney was desperate to make a “back to basics” record. He also wanted to perform live again. While the other members, with wounds still fresh from The Beatles sessions, were lukewarm on the idea, they all got together on Jan. 1, 1969 to begin what would be aimless recordings.
No one was happy, and the idea that they would rehearse for a live show in the caverns of Twickenham Studios so director Michael Lindsay-Hogg could film it all made things even worse. Lindsay-Hogg, the son of Geraldine Fitzgerald, ended up using only about 22 minutes from the Twickenham sessions in the final film and still could not completely avoid bringing the tension to the screen.
The Twickenham portion is a nightmare. McCartney does his best to provide some kind of direction, but only comes off looking like a jerk. Starr looks dejected and depressed, tapping behind his drum kit most of the time. Harrison grew so frustrated with McCartney’s directions that he even walked out at one point. And Lennon looks far more interested in spending time with Yoko Ono, who silently sat next to him during the filming.
Lindsay-Hogg’s final cut included only one major argument that sticks out. While trying to run through “Two of Us,” McCartney and Harrison break into an argument over the guitar part. McCartney insists the part might be too complicated, but Harrison disagrees. “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all,” Harrison tells McCartney. “Whatever pleases you, I’ll do it.” Before the argument gets worse, we cut to a scene of Lennon complaining that they cannot hear the immediate results of their work.
Harrison eventually came back, with his biting anti-ego song “I Me Mine” in hand. Notably, Lennon does not play on the early rehearsals of the song. Instead, he dances with Ono as if it was a waltz. Is he mocking the song? Is he unaware of what it’s about? Nevertheless, The Beatles did not record a serious take of “I Me Mine” until January 1970, and by that time, Lennon already left the group.
Thankfully, the rest of Let It Be captures much happier moments. The group gave up on trying to do anything worthwhile at Twickenham, and moved the operation to the Apple Studio at 3 Saville Row. Billy Preston was brought in, and suddenly it looked like the “back to basics” idea McCartney had might come to fruition after all. They still didn’t have great material and ended up spending their time jamming on old Rock classics. There are even bootlegged outtakes of them performing old Beatles songs between recording new takes of the material they worked on at Twickenham.
While the material they ended up performing at Apple and during the famous Rooftop Concert that makes up the film’s final third isn’t too much different from what they worked on earlier, there is su1ddenly an unmistakable joy in their faces. During the concert, a flash of the “old Beatles” comes back. They are just “four guys” (and a fifth on keys) playing music loud enough to annoy their parents.
Lindsay-Hogg cobbled Let It Be together into an 80-minute, ragged, “fly on the wall”-type documentary. There isn’t much of a plot, and the reason why the film suddenly jumps from Twickenham to Apple isn’t explained. (In reality, Harrison insisted he would only come back after walking out if they changed venues.) The police receiving noise complaints about the Rooftop Concert turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since it provided at least some tension, some proof that not everyone liked having their quiet workday interrupted by rock musicians.
When Let It Be was finally released in May 1970, the Beatles no longer existed. McCartney publicly announced the group’s break-up on April 10 and Lennon already left in September 1969, after they finished Abbey Road. The public had no idea Let It Be was more than a year old by the time it came out, although the “Get Back”/”Don’t Let Me Down” single was released in April 1969. Perhaps that perceived “freshness” played a role in the film’s Oscar win. Or the Academy realized it made a mistake by not recognizing A Hard Day’s Night in 1964.
On Jan. 30, the 50th anniversary of the Rooftop Concert, Apple announced that Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson will create a new film based on unused Let It Be footage. McCartney, Starr, Ono and Harrison’s widow Olivia Harrison will also allow for the release of the original Let It Be film, marking the first time it will be legally available since the 1980s. In the years since then, there had always been rumors about an official Let It Be release and theories as to why it never came to fruition before. Time heals all wounds, and in this case it took 50 years (and an excuse to put out another big box set fans need to spend $150 on).
Whatever the reason was for it, the Oscar win did cement how important the Beatles became by 1970 and the ultimate sign that their decade of dominance was over. From 1963 until 1970, those four guys from Liverpool were constants in every aspect of cultural life in the West. However, it all came to an end – like most great empires – with infighting and a final product that was a whimper of the best they could do. Abbey Road was supposed to be the curtain call, yet Let It Be was a more truthful end. Everybody had a hard decade, but at least the Beatles made sure we had a good time while it lasted.