Since it was the film soundtrack that won the Oscar, let's have a listen first to the version of this song that appears in the movie. Beware: this is another video in which Paul makes love to you with the magic of his eyes. Use protection as necessary.
There are a number of versions of this song, thanks to the weird stuff going on with the Beatles catalog at the time, and you can catch different versions on the single (later to be found on greatest hits collections including One), the Let It Be album, Anthology 3 (an early version featuring John mocking it), the Let It Be... Naked album released a few years ago, and then of course the film version, above. And these are just the legal versions-- there are lots more on bootlegs. One interesting bit about the above film version is that George clearly is still ironing out the kinks in the guitar solo-- in the clip above it just doesn't ring the way it does elsewhere. The same was true for the studio master track that would form the basis for the released versions. For the single version, a guitar solo was overdubbed, and then for the album version, stand-in hack producer Phil Spector kept that solo on the down-low but moved a different solo up front. There are other differences too, various levels of echo and backup singing and so forth that really change the character of the different versions. It's actually all very confusing, the history of this song's many recordings, so I urge the completists and the curious to consult the work of Mark Lewisohn, the king of completist Beatles scholars, for all the details-- or the decent account here at Wikiepedia for a quick runthrough.
Listening to "Let It Be" all but crushes my natural cynicism. See, it's that cynicism that makes me very slightly biased towards John and his songwriting style, and there's a part of me that totally gets why John made fun of this song, why he placed it on the album between his own deprecating introduction and a bawdy folk song about a prostitute. Then there's this other part of me that wants to slap John across the face for ever making fun of this song. Paul wrote it during the tense White Album recording sessions, which were the first sessions in which the group's strain was really starting to show and the band's members were beginning to actively hate each other. At the height of the bad times, poor Paul would lie awake through the night, worried about the future of the band and himself. And one night he fell asleep and his mother, Mary (her real name-- this is NOT meant to be a song about the Virgin Mary or any other Christian iconography, folks, as I'm sure Paul would appreciate my reminding you), who had died of breast cancer when he was 14, came to him in a dream and told him to try to relax, that everything was going to be OK. When he woke up, he wrote about it in "Let It Be."
It's songs like "Let It Be" that have cemented Paul's reputation as a musical genius, rightfully so. It also proves that all it takes is four chords (I, IV, V, and vi) in the hands of such a genius to totally destroy you emotionally. From its subdued gospel piano introduction to the devastating pinnacle of sound that it reaches at the finish, "Let It Be" is a masterpiece of pop. It's probably one of the greatest pop ballads ever written, and that's largely due not only to Paul's skills as a songwriter, but to the way the song is played. Paul's piano part, which is all we have through the first verse and first refrain, is straightforward and restrained. (Contrast this with the piano part on "The Long and Winding Road," recorded at around the same time, and you can hear the virtues of such simplicity-- where "The Long and Winding Road" sounds syrupy and all over the place, "Let It Be"'s assuredness grabs you immediately.) And it's not just the piano-- Ringo is actually in rare form here, and on the single and album versions, George has worked out a terrific solo that adds the right element of actual rock & roll to this. (Interestingly, John is playing bass here, which he didn't do terribly often.) Together, the band keeps it from becoming more confection than pop ballad with just solid, rocking playing. This might be Paul's show, but he's benefiting hugely from having the Beatles supporting him.
Even Phil Spector, who produced the Let It Be album, couldn't ruin this song-- though he did try, doing some weird futzing with reverb effects (see above links for details if you're nerdy) that Paul and Ringo, whose drums were produced particularly weirdly, have never loved. The single version remains the gold standard, so here it is below.
I'm struck by Paul's gift of translating his own personal struggles into something very universal, as "Let It Be" does so beautifully. Paul has a reputation for writing impersonal songs, which he does do much of the time, whereas John rarely writes about anything other than himself (sometimes making us all rather uncomfortable in the process). But this is a song that is very much about Paul's own issues, made into a thing of beauty understandable to everyone. I think that's a definition of great art-- art that even the Academy couldn't ignore.
"Let It Be," released in the U.K. as a single c/w "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," March 6, 1970; in the U.S. March 11, 1970.I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous Beatles-Discography.com.