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Beatles Redux

February 21st, 2005 (12:00 am)
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© 2005 D. Gordon. First posted February 21, 2005 on Milkplus.

Okay, so pretty much everybody knows who the Beatles were, so I don't have to explain that.

And most folks know they put out a number of movies, so I don't have to explain that either.

But despite plenty of opportunities over the years to catch A Hard Day's Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine, most people don't get a chance to see Magical Mystery Tour or Let It Be.

I fell under "all of the above" until this past January, when a film historian friend hosted a Beatles weekend at our local library and I finally saw Let It Be (on the 36th anniversary of the rooftop concert - more on that below).

The print itself, one of the original release prints from 1970, wasn't the greatest quality. The colors are grainy and the film looks in need of restoration. The audio was a pain, although it's not clear how much of that was deterioration, how much was technological innovations since 1969-70, and how much was uncorrected taping issues (especially when the group talks over random instrument noodling). Most of the time the Beatles (except for Paul) aren't speaking with the camera in mind, and they're not trying to temper the northern accents. It's a little hard to understand what's going on.

The film also wasn't what I was expecting: a straightforward "making of" movie that also inadvertently captured the last days of the Beatles. The miles of film footage, events, and press coverage of the Beatles (not to mention the Anthology DVD box), from early days to last, show four young men who were in no way camera-shy. But instead of a "Beatles in their native environment" feel, Let It Be is a study of how to ignore television cameras. With a few exceptions (mostly Paul), there's no recognition that the outside world is even there much less combing over every detail.

The movie doesn't quite make it as a "creative process" film, either. We see snatches of song development, but not much; there's a lot more jamming on oldies and goofing around that you would expect in a movie about making an album. This isn't about getting down to brass tacks and working through the kinks of developing music. The Anthology section on the Let It Be episode does a lot better job of explaining what was going on.

But the movie isn't a 1-1/2 hour depressionfest. Most people see Let It Be as a chronicle of the end. Just by dint of when it was filmed (January 1969), there are traces of the adventure coming to a close, with John, George, and Ringo fairly sullen through the whole hour and a half. Maybe the most infamous example is the Paul/George exchange, when Paul tells George how to play and George very quietly gets pissed at him. Apparently there were 96 hours of film shot, and there may be several hours of open hostility cut from the final print (George's resignation never gets mentioned). But most of what's on the screen isn't anger, it's apathy (again, with Paul as the exception) with scattered bits of affection: George helping Ringo go over an early version of "Octopus's Garden," Ringo goofing around with Paul's stepdaughter Heather. There is, of course, the screaming exception of Yoko Ono, who communicates only with John (and the hostility wasn't one-sided) throughout the film. I think the woman gets a bum rap in general - why not blame Woodstock for showing George he could walk away anytime he wanted to? - but she wanders through from time to time as the somber-faced ghost of Beatles Future.

What does seem to be going on (and the reason why the movie doesn't pull together) is that the Beatles had finally grown up - and apart. This isn't so much the group breaking up as the individual personalities coming out. John was deep into Yoko Ono and doing projects with her (and hooked on heroin). George had been to Woodstock, and had gotten a lot of respect - only to return to the Big Brothers who wanted him to stick to guitar playing, not career development. And, as my film historian friend pointed out, Ringo was about to start filming on The Magic Christian and was ready to launch a full-fledged film career. They all had developed, recognized interests outside of The Beatles and didn't need it anymore...

...Except for Paul. Paul had also been working outside of the group (his first film score was 1966's The Family Way), but playing in a group was what he wanted to do. That's why he came up with the original concept, that's why he's constantly staring the camera in the eye, that's why he's carefully explaining his ideas to a drugged-out John. Because he's the only one who isn't on autopilot and who still cares.

There is one bit that does work - the rooftop concert. It wasn't as spontaneous as it looks - the group apparently decided to do it the night before, with enough strategic planning to put cameras in the right place at the right time. But once The Beatles were playing, they were on - and there was something magical about being with the camera in the street below, with the crowd on the sidewalk and the traffic jam, discovering new Beatles music (sounding remarkably clear from that position) as it was being captured. Even the police intervention wasn't really significant; the cops were wise enough to avoid arresting them for, in effect, being The Beatles (maybe because they'd already gotten them for drug possession). But the concert stands out as the high point of the movie as well as teases out the magic that made them as loved as they were and still are.

The film historian friend mentioned that the original audiotape matching the film footage was recovered about a year ago after disappearing in the early 1970s. (Maybe George hated it enough to hide it?) There's now a good chance that a DVD with some excellent extras will appear in the next few years. Let It Be may not gel as a film with a purpose, but may prove to be a great historical document with the info those extras can provide.