Let It Be
It's hard to be more profitable than The Beatles. In fact, besides Elvis Presley, no pop recording act has been so aggressively marketed post mortem. Serious collectors of everything Beatles have a lot more than the original dozen or so Beatles albums/CDs to contend with there's the different U.K. and U.S. albums, along with others worldwide, and a host of re-issues, re-masters, bootleg tapes, and anthology collections. There's the "Red" and "Blue" collections, several "Beatles Tapes" volumes, three "Beatles Anthology" titles on CD (not to mention the home video), "Past Masters" (two volumes there), three sets of interviews called "Quote Unquote" and we're just scratching the surface, because a lot of other Beatles CD releases have gone out-of-print for various reasons.
So with a scenario like that with so many titles being released and re-released, and with the active participation of the "Threetles" Paul, George, and Ringo (along with Yoko) in new Fab Four products every year how do we explain the enormous gaping hole that is Let It Be? Not the CD, mind you that's for sale everywhere but the 1970 documentary, which was meant to be co-marketed with the original album. The music can be had for a common retail price, but rare out-of-print video items fetch pretty prices on eBay. What gives?
Our first suspicion was that there were rights issues associated with the film, normally the reason why anything is out of print for any length of time. Let It Be was originally created by the Beatles' own production company, AppleCorps, with the distribution handled by United Artists (reportedly the result of a prior deal swung by Beatles' manager Brian Epstein long before anybody thought of home-video revenue). United Artists subsequently released Let It Be on home video in 1981 on tape in VHS and Betamax, and on Laserdisc via a license to Magnetic Video. All of these versions were mono, and thus largely inferior to the actual Let It Be studio recordings. Along with these, various other permutations of Let It Be float around eBay as well, including duped V-CDs and (apparently bootleg) tapes that feature "extra footage." It also appears that EMI may have released their own legitimate VHS of Let It Be, but outside of the UA releases, we can't confirm that any other versions are bona fide. As it turns out, the surviving Beatles purchased back the rights to Let It Be from United Artists in recent years, and our understanding is that they own the film outright. They could release it at any time even on DVD and there were several rumors that it would re-appear during 2000, the 30th anniversary of the film's release. Alas, instead Beatles fans were treated to the Beatles Anthology book and the CD release of "1", which stormed record charts worldwide during last year's holiday shopping season. No Let It Be, and a lot more of what's already been.
As a further twist in this long and winding road, the long out-of-print video and laser editions of Let It Be are prized by Beatles collectors the tapes trade between $60 $90, and good LDs can close for as high as $300. However, they are not ideal by any stretch. Let It Be was originally shot on 16mm partially due to the "Get Back" ethos of the album being recorded, partially due to budgeting, and perhaps partially due to the fact that the documentary was originally to air on television. When the decision was made to release the film theatrically, the print was blown up from 16mm to 35mm, making this final print gritty and sometimes troublesome. Furthermore, the 1981 transfer to home video was not done with the sort of precision and care that we expect on quality DVD releases nowadays it was pretty much ported in the most convenient fashion and quickly forgotten.
Some Beatles fans, at least when they let their guards down, also will admit that the Let It Be documentary isn't a great film in its own right it's just a compelling document of an enormously popular rock band consumed by egos and infighting. As a documentary, it has a slap-dash quality the songs aren't always edited together properly, voices sometimes don't match the video and only the final "rooftop concert," which turned out to be the band's final public performance, really delivers something special, something that reminds us why the Liverpudlian mop-tops were so charming just six years earlier (but, again, that's just the opinion of some Beatleologists).
Because of these issues, many Beatles obsessives have discussed the possibilities of an improved or extended cut of Let It Be, since hours and hours of raw footage were shot for the project. One rumor (that we can't confirm) is that the Beatles actually restored the entire film as long ago as 1992; some restored footage did appear in the Beatles Anthology, but that's all the public has seen so far. Other fans have speculated on an improved Let It Be that would be called Get Back, the original title of the album/film, and the title of a gray-market CD of the Let It Be album sans Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" post-production (and, without veteran producer George Martin at the helm, there's all sorts of ways these recordings theoretically could be produced).
Are The Beatles waiting to spring Let It Be on us when the time is right? Will there be an extended cut? Can we expect all sorts of deleted footage? The DVD to end all Beatles DVDs?
It's hard to come up with definitive answers, and we already know that by even talking about the Beatles today we are going to get lots of feedback bluntly put, Beatles fans know their shit, and certainly a lot better than us (so send in those pesky, detailed letters). Our conclusion is that Let It Be is being held back by the Beatles themselves for one or more reasons. Perhaps it's simply due to time-related issues, with all of the surviving members involved in various projects. However, the most common conclusion on Web-based Beatles discussion boards is that George Harrison would rather the film not be put out, at least not in its 1970 cut. This theory has merit: Harrison probably has been the surviving Beatle most willing to distance himself from his mop-top past, or at least not feel the need to make a buck off everything; he's known as a consummate professional, and the hodge-podge of the early Let It Be sessions reportedly were so ill-planned that he quit the band briefly; and he openly feuded with McCartney, even on camera, as the entire project threatened to become Paul's and Paul's alone. If we don't see Let It Be on VHS/DVD in the next few years, somebody possibly George would rather let it go.
But we think such a scenario is unlikely. For all of its faults, Let It Be is far more important in the annals of Beatleology than all of the second-tier items on CD today. And if a re-release of the Beatles greatest hits can sell more than Britney and Eminem, there's no lack of consumer dollars waiting to get this unique, unusual account of Fab Four in their final days. If it happens, expect any return of Let It Be on home video to arrive with maximum publicity.
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