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The Duke On “Let It Be” And The Current State Of The Rockumentary

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In a piece written for The Guardian on Friday past, Alexis Petridis yacked about the current state of the Rockumentary, and how a film like Let It Be, what captured The Beatles at the arse-end of their career, could never be made in this day and age, don’t you know.

Presumably, Petridis was looking further than the fact that two of the main protagonists are dead, and was in fact referring to the “aesthetics” and “the tone” of the carry-on. A film like Tupac : Resurrection, Petridis argues, an objectionable marketing exercise masquerading as “cinema”, is much more in tune with contemporary attempts at putting rock back in the cinemas, DVD players, BBC4 etc.

To some extent, one can certainly see a point shimmering somewhere amidst all the yacking about “the state of the world in this day and age” and “you don’t know you’re born” (possible paraphrasing on my behalf). In an era of MTV and VH1 and The Box and 24 Hours Of Continuous Garbage and so on, is there really any need for anyone to take a camera and point it at a bunch of guitarists, singers, harpsichordists, other musicians?

Whereas The Resurrection Of Tupac, says The Guardian writer, is little more than an attempt to add to the somewhat dubious claims of sainthood that have been flung at the fella what got shot ever since those bullets riddled his torso in Vegas, a film like Let It Be was something more, a glimpse of a band in some kind of creative doldrums, a vision of sniping, disconcerted fellas not very happy with their lot, something which would be immediately annexed by the “Corporations” were it to be attempted with, say, Coldplay.

I hate to say this, Alexis Pertridis, but that assumption is a sack of motherfucking horseshit, is what The Duke would suggest.

Pertridis does mention two recent or soon to be released flicks what have something of a spiritual connection to the likes of Let It Be, or Eat The Document, or Take That – Live In Berlin; The upcoming Metallica film, Some Kind Of Monster, and Ondi Timonder’s critically acclaimed Dig!, what concerns itself with The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols.

But these are not the only examples of fairly recent, candid, warts n’ all type rockumentary shenanigans. Elton John threw hissy fits left and right in Tantrums And Tiaras, Robbie Williams worried about life, direction, other existential concerns in Nobody, Someday, Wilco fell out with their record company in Are You Trying To Break My Heart, and GG Allin flung shit with abandon in Todd Phillips’ Hated – GG Allin And The Murder Junkies.

It’s true that these things don’t come along every couple months, but they never have done.

And this is without even mentioning the likes of Pantera or Machine Head who consistently fill their DVD releases with all manner of backstage shitting, pissing, drug consuming and what not. Also, The Marilyn Manson Family or whoever, they did some stuff about tearing pages from a bible, crying and so on.

In fact, in terms of shock value or the sheer enormity of seeing a bunch of superstar musicians sitting around complaining, Let It Be is fairly tame, not only by today’s standards, but by the standards of its own era. Cocksucker Blues had Keith Richards falling asleep in heroin-addled stupor, Eat The Document had Dylan stoned and laughing and puking in taxis, next to a comedically unfazed John Lennon. Hell, even The Monkees took drugs and yacked about Vietnam in Head.

So, today The Duke took a gander at Let it Be, for to see if it truly is the divine plateau to which all music documentaries should aspire, or if it is, as I had suspected, a film about blokes sitting around complaining and playing a few songs.

It turns out to be a bit of both.

The music, lets not be ridiculous here, is fantastic. The first thirty minutes provide utterly transfixing performances of the likes of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, with the still-unfinished lyrics being substituted for McCartney singing about “Em, A suspended 7″ and so on. There are electrifying, rugged versions of Two Of Us and I’ve Got A Feeling, all of which go some way to confirming McCartney’s recent claims that, yes, Let It Be… Naked is how it was always meant to sound.

George Harrison is really the only one who seems in any way upset about anything, being decidedly antagonistic, in a subtle sort of fashion, for much of his screen-time. He feigns indifference to McCartney’s attempts to sort out a guitar line (“Just tell me what you want me to play and I’ll play it, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to”) and, as he demos I Me Mine to Ringo, he sighs about “I don’t care if you don’t want it.”

Conversations, though, are few and far between. John and Paul have a yack about their time in Wales with the Maharishi, about how they weren’t really being themselves and should have been more vocal in their assumption that “It’s a bit like school, really”. Maybe they didn’t want to upset Mia Farrow, I mean come on, she gave birth to the child of Satan, man. I wouldn’t want to be giving her a damn glimmer of an idea that I might be some kind of disruptive son of a bitch.

Later, John and Paul have another natter, this time with regards the nature of the whole undertaking, and the presence of the cameras and what not. Whilst they don’t want to be making another Help! or Hard Days Night, McCartney suggests, this here is something different.

Aside from these short discussions, all you’re left with is a couple soundbites and a bit of post-take wackiness and one-liners from Lennon.

The first half-hour unfortunately gives way to a fairly patience-testing middle third, filled with unwieldy jams and extended mock-ups of various rock n’ roll numbers. By this point Billy Preston has arrived for to tinkle on the organ, and if you didn’t know better, you’d assume this was a band beside themselves with glee. In fact, the melancholy of the first act doesn’t really have much of an influence on the rest of the proceedings whatsoever, from these work-in-progress noodlings, right up to that climatic concert on the roof of Apple studios.

All this musical tomfoolery (“fucking around” is, I believe, the preferred musicology term) is worth sitting through, though, for that spellbinding moment when a terribly earnest McCartney hits the first keys of Let It Be and you realise that shit, all that crap just came together before our very eyes, ears, other orifices, for to culminate in this spellbinding slab of pop-smithery.

And that’s that, as far as in-the-studio malarkey goes, with a handy fade-to-black signalling the beginning of the brief rooftop set, when Get Back, I Got A Feeling, Don’t Let Me Down and a couple other numbers are played for to entertain the citizens of Liverpool who stop in the middle of the street or scale adjacent buildings for to catch a glimpse of these hairy motherfuckers. Maybe some of them were complaining about they stole the idea from U2, but this is never elaborated upon.

As police begin to enter the building and ascend for to put an end to this disturbance, and working types muse about “Yeah, it’s good music and what not, but I don’t think you have to disrupt the whole motherfucking city on account of it” and old fellas with pipes stand beside chimneys for to get a better look, you realise that this was the last time these four performed together in public, and it’s possible a fella could feel a little sad, if it wasn’t for the valedictory feel of the affair.

Let It Be is an interesting work, for sure, although it’s doubtful if non-fans of The Beatles will have the patience to sit through it, unlike, say, Don’t Look Back, where the character of Dylan was so strong that even if you couldn’t give a rancid arse-gas for songs about Tambourine Men or whatever, you were still fascinated by this cocky son of a bitch with the dishevelled hair and the sneering tones.

And really, it’s hard to imagine another group at the end of their tether being so consistently magical. An hour and a half of, say, Back To The Egg-era Wings (“The band The Beatles could have been” according to Alan Partridge) would surely be less pleasing on the ear-holes.

For a truly awe-inspiring work of Beatles-related film-assembling, look no further than the excellent, if oddly sombre, The Beatles Anthology. For a fine appendix to that gargantuan opus, Let It Be does quite nicely, thank you very much.

Good work Fabulous Four or whoever.

The Duke resides at Mondo Irlando

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  • Chris Kent

    Nice work on an interesting film Duke. I saw Let It Be during a midnight showing many years ago and have not seen it since. I can recall the audience hissing when the Bobbies make an appearance on the rooftop during The Beatles’ final show. It’s a sad documentary, detailing the end of one of the greatest bands in history, and most certainly an era. I thought the film had never been released on DVD or video for a number of reasons, but I have the album and listen to it regularly.

    As for rock documentaries, the best detail bands from the 1960s for some reason, and I love the varying versions of Woodstock and Monterey Pop. The greatest rock documentary of all time in my opinion is X – The Unheard Music, a brilliant film detailing the LA punk/rock/rockabilly band and their attempts to break into the mainstream after their third album Under the Big Black Sun. There were great interviews, concert footage from the Whiskey A Go Go and battles with the corporate record companies who felt Point Blank was a better bet for heavy promotion. I saw Point Blank in concert, and X a few years later and can say in all confidence the record companies were complete idiots…..

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Chris, that sounds like a flick i’d like to be seeing. A lot of the classic rock-docs are bieng exhumed for DVD, so hopefully the X flick will make an appearance.
    As to the availability of Let It Be, i believe it was released on video in the mid-90’s for a time, although i’ve never saw it in a store. There have been yackings about a special edition DVD, but as the Amazon link above testifies, nothing is confirmed. Which is odd, all being told. The Beatles have certainly never been adverse to a bout of re-releasing, and yet only three of their films are available on DVD, not counting the Anthology. Hopefully Help!, magical mystery tour and this right here will be granted a release shortly.