THE BOOTLEG FILES: “LET IT BE”

“Let it Be” is one of the most popular and ubiquitous titles in the bootleg video channels, thanks entirely to the Beatles. While it was initially withdrawn from home video distribution in the early 1980s due to legal problems, the film has subsequently been kept of circulation even though the residue of litigation has long since been wiped away. In fact, the film was remastered in 1992 with the notion that it would be returned to circulation. Over a decade later, it is still nowhere to be found, except in bootleg videos. This absence from the market has certainly cost the Beatles corporate empire millions of dollars while bootleg video providers have cashed in handsomely by reproducing copies from the film’s brief late 1970s release on the long-defunct Magnetic video label.

“Let it Be” was always a sore point for the Beatles. Originally planned as a TV special to cover the rehearsal and recording of an album entitled “Get Back,” the project was expanded into a feature-length documentary in order to fulfill a contractual obligation to United Artists for one last film. The problems with the film began immediately: director Michael Lindsay-Hogg insisted on shooting the film during the day, even though the Beatles did most of their work at night and the bulk of the film was filmed indoors, thus canceling the need for natural daylight. After three weeks of being followed around by cameras and working in the acoustically unsatisfactory Twickenham Studios, the group chafed at the project and filming was halted. It eventually resumed, but by then the damage was already done.

Despite some memorable musical moments, including the performance of the title track and the celebrated rooftop concert, the Beatles eventually lost interest in the film and the “Get Back” album they were supposed to create. The group had no say in the editing or post-production of the film and their disunion was already history when the film won the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score (they never acknowledged this honor, the only time a Beatles film received an Oscar). The unfinished soundtrack LP was dumped on Phil Spector, of all people, who added some musical barnacles to several tracks, which completely deviated, from the studio sound the band was aiming for on film.

Yet in many ways, “Let it Be” is the best Beatles film of all since they are not playing the Beatles but rather are being themselves. This was the only time the Beatles were not working for the camera in the characters associated with their respective personalities since their breakthrough in 1963, and the raw emotion on screen (particularly in the contentious Twickenham sessions) makes for unsettling yet hypnotic viewing. These are not the cheery, wisecracking moptops of “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Help!” or the blissful stoners on the “Magical Mystery Tour.” For once, they are not going through the pretense of trying to entertain and amuse the audience, and it is not a pretty sight on every level, from their ghastly physical appearances to the obviously narcotized nature of their behavior (John Lennon was supposedly on heroin during the course of production) to their barely-disguised agitation of working together (most memorably when George Harrison expresses his irritation at Paul McCartney’s domineering personality). The latter problem is clearly evident in the film’s most blatantly obvious visual: the fact all four Beatles are rarely in the same shot together.

The second most obvious visual is both visual and vocal: that Paul, George and Ringo Starr completely ignore Yoko Ono and make no attempt to communicate with her or with John when she is at his side. For many years, Beatles fans used “Let it Be” to support the opinion that Yoko broke up the Beatles. Viewed today, however, Yoko seems more like a strange shadow following John around (she is never interviewed by Lindsay-Hogg’s camera), while Paul’s overbearing personality at pushing the project ahead despite the indifference of the other three Beatles makes him seem more like the villain of the piece.

Lindsay-Hogg shot hours of footage for “Let it Be” and much of what was not incorporated into the final print wound up in the hands of die-hard Beatles bootleggers. The fact the Beatles did not keep strict control on the materials from the film is the main reason why this footage got loose into the world; the unused footage of their other films never made it into the bootleg channels. One imaginative soul brought together a grab-bag of alternate takes, outtakes and deleted scenes (including a wild visit to the recording studio by Peter Sellers, who waxed rhapsodically about “Acapulco Gold”) to create his own alternative version of the film (which can found online at http://hometown.aol.com/emailpsych along with a plethora of other bootlegged Beatles video goodies, including “Let it Be”).
Rumors of the re-release of the film, including a 25th anniversary edition in 1995, have all come to naught. But hopes are high again with the announcement of a revised version of the soundtrack LP. To be titled “Let it Be…Naked” and slated for a November release, this album will remove the overcooked orchestrations that Phil Spector put into the 1970 soundtrack (including the film’s unfussy version of “The Long and Winding Road”) and will add “Don’t Let Me Down” to the selections; two mini-songs, “Dig It” and “Maggie May” (the latter was not even in the film) are being dropped. No word was made on whether the film itself will come back with the album, but don’t be surprised if this is not the case. A proper video release of “Let it Be” has been a major frustration to Beatles fans…and a goldmine for enterprising bootleggers ready, willing and able to fill the Fab Four’s void.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on September 26, 2003 in Features by
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