The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ and the Tragedy of Friendships Forsaken

Let It Be is not so much a “rock documentary” as the sad documenting of friendship forsaken.

‘Let It Be’
‘Let It Be’ (photo: YouTube screenshot / YouTube screenshot)

More than 60 years ago, in 1960, a group of young friends formed a musical band called the Beatles. Ten years later, in 1970, the same group, older men now, legally dissolved the band. They did so in acrimonious exchanges in an English courtroom and, by so doing, not only ended a musical group but also their friendships.

During the bitterly cold afternoon of Jan. 30, 1969, the Beatles played their last concert on a London rooftop.

That was all captured in the documentary film Let It Be (1970).

The original idea for a concert, as befitting the biggest rock band in the world, had initially been more grandiose. The plan was for the Beatles to be filmed writing, rehearsing and then recording songs that would become the band’s latest album, Let It Be. As a climax for the film, it was felt that a concert should be staged in an unorthodox venue. The Sahara Desert, a 2,000-year old amphitheater in Tunisia and the newly built QE2 ocean liner were all mooted as possible locations for the concert.

In the end, the final Beatles concert was a more makeshift affair on top of the then-Apple Corps building at 3 Saville Row in the center of London. The songs performed in this “concert” were new, however. Joined by Billy Preston on keyboards, in the whole 42 minutes, the Beatles played just five songs. The self-indulgent and ramshackle nature of the performance there for all to see as some of these songs are repeated multiple times: Get Back was performed three times; Don’t Let Me Down and I’ve Got a Feeling were both featured twice. Incredibly for the Beatles, a band with a multiplicity of creative energy, they looked like a group of musicians who were finished creatively. Truth were told, they were.

The open-air rooftop performance was ended by police who were responding, no doubt, to complaints from residents and businesses about the noise and ensuing chaos of fans crowding around the building. As the police arrived in the roof, John Lennon had quipped, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group. I hope we passed the audition.” The final song ended with a bored-looking police officer simply unplugging an amp, a curious coda to the Beatles’ live performances.  

The band’s rooftop performance is the most watchable part of a film that is a doleful affair. Let It Be captures something like the arguments and silences that must often precede a divorce. Yet this was to be the final act of a collective performance that had enchanted millions worldwide. The public was never again to see the Beatles. Following the film’s completion, the band effectively called it a day — the band was legally pronounced dead a mere month before Let It Be was released in May 1970. For years afterward, there followed acrimony between the Fab Four — played out in courts, on talk shows, and even on their solo records — before an uneasy truce descended. Their friendships were never the same, however.

Unlike the other Beatles’ films, Let It Be has been consigned to obscurity for years. This is partly, no doubt, because the band itself didn’t much care for the finished product. Lennon was said to have hated it, suggesting it was too much about his perceived “nemesis,” Paul McCartney. George Harrison was said not to like it much either, claiming he came off as too negative throughout. There was some truth in this as at the time Harrison was trying finally to escape the Beatles — in particular, Lennon and McCartney — in order to pursue his own artistic plans. Ringo Starr had decided to pursue acting possibilities, but found it difficult to hide his boredom throughout the film.

In fact, they all come across as bored rock stars, bored with each other as much as they seem bored with fame itself. Is it any wonder then that for years the film has quietly rotted away?

In some ways, watching the film 50 years later is more poignant than ever it could have been to audiences back in 1970. For a start, we know so much more about the Beatles and their entourage than anyone could have then. With a few exceptions, in the intervening decades no lives have been so meticulously picked-over as have those of the Fab Four. Countless books and films have explored, and more often than not celebrated, the lives of these musicians. They had already attained legendary status by the time Let It Be was being filmed. That legend has only grown over the years.

Which makes Let It Be all the more peculiar as a finale, for it is a pathetic one. The Beatles’ first foray into moviemaking was the complete opposite in both look and impact. The 1964 film A Hard Days Night is full of youthful energy, communicating a zest for life, all spiced with wit and good-natured bonhomie — but, above all, it is celluloid portrait of four friends.

Let It Be lacks all this, and much more besides. In fact, the 1970 film has nothing in common with that earlier film. And, as captured in their last screen outing, it was indifference that marked how the band members felt about each other. That is what makes the film not so much a “rock documentary” as the sad documenting of friendship forsaken.

The year the Beatles formed was also the year The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis was published. In that book, Lewis has this to say about friendship:

 In friendship ... we think we have chosen our peers. In reality a few years' difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another ... the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting — any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends, ‘Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.