The Beatles’ rooftop concert in Let It Be prefigures This Is Spinal Tap (inset).
The Beatles rooftop concert in ‘Let It Be’ is a template for every great band reunion moment — and possibly every romcom — to come.
Forty-five years ago, the Beatles were kaput, having called it quits in a flurry of torts and acrimony. A final studio album, “Abbey Road,” meant to show them as a functioning unit in 1969, was overtaken by “Let It Be,” recorded earlier but released later as a documentary and album, awash in Phil Spector strings and choirs. (It still won an Oscar for Best Song.)
The documentary is one of life’s painful reminders that people — even Beatles — grow tired of one another. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Let It Be takes us behind the scenes as John, Paul, George and Ringo — but mostly Paul — try to pull an album together out of general ennui.
At this point in time, after the death of manager Brian Epstein, the end of touring, John’s recent infatuation with Yoko Ono and George’s commitment to spiritual detachment, there were few cheerleaders left in the Beatles. Paul, the task-driven Gemini, still fit the bill, and he is the one that takes up the reins on this project.
Lindsay-Hogg’s camera dotes on Paul. He’s there in the opening in a tight shot, vamping some Bach-like inventions on piano (just so you know he’s the “serious” musical Beatle); Paul also gets loving close-ups singing Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road, the kind of close-ups where he’s much too aware of the camera, trying to win it (us) over.
Underneath the surface, though, the rest of the Beatles are wary, weary, disaffected. Ringo sits next to Paul as he improvises on piano, looking miles away, but also appropriately supportive; George sits and previews a new song, I Me Mine, for Ringo and others, with this caveat: “I don’t care if don’t want it.” (After all, he was amassing enough solo songs to release a triple solo album, “All Things Must Pass,” a year later.) John abruptly stops a rough run-through of I Dig a Pony and sighs: “Has anybody got a fast one?”
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Only Paul comes to the party prepared, full of esprit de corps for a group that is now more corpse than corps. His songs are meticulously detailed, and he’s determined that the band hammer them into shape — literally, in the case of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (which ended up instead on “Abbey Road”).
There is no narrative behind Let It Be, save for the narrative Paul tries to insert through short interview bits — telling Lindsay-Hogg that he and John wrote “hundreds of songs” back in Liverpool before becoming famous, and how some of these unrecorded gems were “brilliant.” It’s this urge to “get back” to those innocent days that is constantly at odds with the other musicians.
Tensions mount, and it’s fair to say the first half of “Let It Be” is a discordant bummer. There’s Paul “instructing” the band how to play the guitar break in I’ve Got A Feeling over and over again, as though he’s orchestrating the Wrecking Crew. There’s George getting sulky with Paul, then Paul lowering his voice as though to escape the cameras: “I’m trying to help you, but I always hear myself annoying you.” And George shrugging back, getting on with it: “I’ll play whatever it is you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play; whatever it is that pleases you, I’ll do it.”
Almost by design, the first half of the film proceeds without shape or form; the Beatles play raggedly, warts and all. In their nascent form, the songs fail to inspire, despite Paul’s loud declarations that this is all just another day in showbiz. Clearly, these are four men weary of one another.
Yet moments of light still shine through. It’s when the music catches fire, or sets them free, that you can actually believe these were the men that inspired Beatlemania. It’s there when John starts dancing with Yoko during a run-through of the waltz-like I Me Mine; it’s there when Linda Eastman’s little girl Heather (not Stella McCartney, as some believe) shows up to watch the band and laughs as John runs through a riotous Dig It with Billy Preston on keyboards; it’s there when Ringo does a comical reaction take as another child hits a nearby cymbal.
These unscripted bits are what remind us of the Beatles’ natural chemistry with one another, and with the camera’s eye. (They were movie stars, after all, in A Hard Day’s Night and Help.) It’s when they forget they’re on film that the film comes alive. Moments such as when John and Paul share a mic on a rock version of Two of Us (intriguing in itself); or when Paul and Ringo serve up a Jerry Lee Lewis duet on piano.
Other moments reveal a nurturing spirit: George is shown helping Ringo work out the chords for Octopus’s Garden on piano. And always — though not as intrusive as some remember — there is the figure of Yoko, quietly sitting by, listening to the band, but mostly to John.
But a shift occurs in the second half: in the classic rock bromance fashion, John and Paul resolve their differences; they come together through the power of music. When the movie really clicks is the final 20 minutes: a rooftop concert is staged at Apple headquarters, 3 Savile Row, and it provides a perfect antidote to the chaos that had been brewing earlier. Having worked out a rough “set,” the Beatles begin playing for the neighborhood passersby, and it’s as though the cool London air ignites them: crowds take to adjacent rooftops to hear the band run through Don’t Let Me Down, I’ve Got A Feeling, Get Back and One After 909. Magically, they find the connection that has eluded them in the studio setting; they are a band once again.
And it’s a moment that serves as a template for every great band reunion movie (and possibly every romcom) to come: that final scene from This Is Spinal Tap — where Nigel and David reunite onstage after bitter estrangement — takes its heart and soul from this moment in Let It Be. The only difference is, Spinal Tap went on to tour Japan shortly after reuniting (and even became an actual touring band in real life). The Beatles simply dissolved and went their separate, adult ways, their own reality show suddenly cancelled.