There’s been talk recently that a new movie version of Let It Be may be edited together. (Update: Yes! It was announced on January 30th, 2019. More info on that farther below.) But first, let’s explore what got us to this point.
In November of 1968, The Beatles released their double album The Beatles…known forever as The White Album. At times The Beatles worked on their songs in separate studios. The bickering of The Beatles during other recording sessions caused engineer Geoff Emerick to stop working with them, and even somewhat alienated George Martin.
Paul McCartney had an idea…maybe it was a bad one.
McCartney suggested they “Get Back” to playing in the studio as a live band, instead of overdubbing the recordings. That part of the idea might have been good. The real error may have been when he suggested they could film their recording sessions for a television special that would end with a live performance of the songs they’d written. What could go wrong?
(My “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single from 1969.)
John Lennon suggested The Beatles should just break up instead. Ringo Starr had already left the group for a time during the recording of The White Album. After they started rehearsals at the beginning of January 1969, George Harrison left the band for a few days. It was up to Paul McCartney to try to hold the band together, but he was resented for taking a leadership role. And that was just the beginning of the Get Back/Let It Be recording sessions.
Further complicating matters…George Martin was only there for some of the sessions, and Yoko Ono was there for all of the them.
George Martin had relinquished some of his duties to producer/engineer Glyn Johns & tape operator Alan Parsons, and the sessions were much less organized. Further confusion with recording takes vs filming takes created problems for assembling the album. Having a girlfriend at Beatles recording sessions was an irritant to the other band members, especially when Yoko would make suggestions.
(Apparently, things weren’t going well at this moment.)
The rehearsals and recording sessions for the Get Back album only lasted a month, January 2nd to January 31st, 1969.
So what happened with the music? Despite all the problems, The Beatles were able to knock out “Get Back” & “Don’t Let Me Down”, and later release them as a strong single. “Get Back” stayed at #1 for five weeks. Even though sessions were sometimes contentious, other great music emerged…”Let It Be”, “Two Of Us”, “Across The Universe”, and “The Long And Winding Road”.
Add to the above six songs…”For You Blue”, “I’ve Got A Feeling”, “One After 909”, “Dig A Pony”, “I Me Mine”, and maybe one of their jams, and you’d think Get Back was done. But, various mixes of the album were rejected, and the album was shelved. The television project fell through. The film footage was to be turned into a movie, but it was delayed while the producers waded through 56 hours of film.
After that bad experience, The Beatles didn’t break up! Instead, they convinced George Martin and Geoff Emerick to produce an album like they used to make, and they promised to behave. The resulting excellent album proved to be the last one they recorded, Abbey Road, just a little later in 1969.
So how did Get Back become Let It Be in 1970? First of all, they couldn’t name the album after a single that had been released a year earlier. The title was chosen for the album’s best song, and maybe as an indication that the group was simply letting The Beatles be over.
Even on the 2009 digital remaster of Let It Be, they mentioned the “freshness” of the live performances. In fact, the production had been turned over to wall-of-sound producer Phil Spector. He added orchestration, a choir, and other major production elements, especially to McCartney’s “The Long And Winding Road” and “Let It Be”.
Maybe the song “Let It Be” is best with the orchestration and a new guitar lead by McCartney, but “Road” is over-the-top with “angel voices” McCartney never approved. It would be interesting to hear a version that kept the orchestra, but dropped the choir. McCartney might have been okay with that. The big productions were the exact opposite of the original intent, and while the result is a mix of good and not so good, it was mostly unnecessary.
As can be seen in the film, the original versions of “Get Back”, “Let It Be”, “Two Of Us”, and “The Long And Winding Road” were excellent long before Phil Spector was involved. George Harrison’s original non-Spector versions of “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue” sound great, with George’s voice clearer. Spector also should have chosen the simpler version of John Lennon’s “Across The Universe” that appeared on the anthology series.
Phil Spector certainly deserves credit for wading through the tapes to pull the album together, but maybe George Martin’s quip is the best description of the result. He said the album jacket should have said “Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector.”
In 2003, Paul McCartney tried to remedy the situation with Let It Be…Naked. It does a good job of providing the unadorned versions, and it puts back “Don’t Let Me Down”, which should never have been left off the original album in the first place. But at the same time, this album wasn’t going to replace the version people had enjoyed for over 30 years. The original album won an Academy Award and a Grammy in their respective soundtrack categories.
About the film…
My wife and I saw Let It Be in a theater when it was originally released in 1970, and it was a bit shocking to see The Beatles angry with one another. Because the film came out at the time The Beatles split, it’s generally believed that the movie portrays the band’s break up. Although it shows the tension in the group, the movie also shows some excellent live studio performances, plus the fun The Beatles had jamming in the studio and playing together in the rooftop concert. The real breakup came later with Allen Klein handling the business side of the group and alienating McCartney. Eventually, all The Beatles fired Klein and battled him in a lawsuit.
(The movie has not been available to the public since the RCA Video Disc release in 1982. I had this movie & a disc player, but it was not a good system.)
A new version of the film would have to be approved unanimously by the remaining Beatles and the wives of John & George. The basic idea would be to downplay the bickering, and show more of the positive interactions.
It may be the 50th anniversary of the movie (in 2020) before we know if there will be a new version of the film, or whether they’ll just decide to let it be.
Update: It was announced on January 30th, 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the famous rooftop concert) that Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson will be putting together a Beatles documentary. The news release said he will be using in-studio film from January of 1969. This would be the 56 hours of Let It Be footage. Here’s a statement from Jackson where he says the footage is much more upbeat than the general feeling of the Let It Be movie:
”I was relieved to discover the reality is very different to the myth. After reviewing all the footage and audio that Michael Linsey-Hogg shot 18 months before they broke up, it’s simply an amazing historical treasure trove. Sure, there’s moments of drama, but none of the discord this project has long been associated with. Watching John, Paul, George and Ringo work together, creating now-classic songs from scratch, is not only fascinating, it’s funny, uplifting and surprisingly intimate. I’m thrilled and honored to have been entrusted with this remarkable footage. Making this movie will be a sheer joy.”
Interestingly, the original version of the movie will also be made available for streaming after the release of this new documentary.