The New Beatles Documentary, Get Back, is a Mind-Blowing Master Class in Creativity. Here are My Top Takeaways.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to tell you that I am a Beatlemaniac through and through. I grew up with the Beatles. If I’d been older, I’d have been one of those screaming, fainting girls in the audience at The Ed Sullivan Show. I cried when the movie Help ended because I wanted it to go on forever. I was a Paul girl, while some friends were John girls, and one friend from arts camp — clearly a freethinker — chose George (and of course we all adored Ringo). My father bought nearly every Beatles album as soon as it came out. My friend group proudly wore t-shirts in powder blue or yellow with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper images emblazoned on them. Decades later, when I got a new job, my husband and son, knowing my enduring obsession, bought me a Beatles lunchbox. The first concert I went to with friends was George Harrison, and even though his voice was a scratchy rasp, we were in heaven. Intent on forming a Beatles bond with my son, I’d sing their songs to him at night when he was a baby, and when he was older, I brought him (even though he had a fever of 101) to see Paul in concert. I feel justified about it to this day. My friends and I had sleepovers to listen to the band’s old radio holiday specials. In more recent years, I’ve argued with friends about Beatles trivia, like whether the song “Dr. Roberts” was on the Revolver album or not (British, yes; American, no — turns out we were all right). I’ve even managed to work the Beatles into a college seminar I teach.
When it comes to the Beatles, I have no objectivity, personally.
But, professionally, I’m an author/speaker/teacher in the creativity field, so I watched all 7 hours and 48 glorious minutes of Get Back, the new Beatles documentary by Peter Jackson streaming on Disney+, with a goofy, nostalgic smile on my face and a deep appreciation of the Beatles as a creative force whose songwriting and playing process might hold valuable lessons for all artists.
Here are my top creativity takeaways:
· Be open to influence. Hell, be open to imitation. When the future Beatles were young Liverpudlian lads, they’d eagerly await the arrival of ships carrying rock ‘n roll records to their seaport town, and many of the band’s first songs and live performances were covers of hits by American performers. Paul’s “woooh,” which would make girls scream and even faint, is a direct rip-off of/tribute to Little Richard. John’s lower-range vocals are often tinged with an Elvis inflection. Motown girl groups were among their favorites. In Get Back, we see what unadulterated joy it brings them to play those songs years later in the recording studio. In those moments, the pressures, the frustrations with each other, the fickleness of the creative process itself evaporate and sheer exuberance takes over.
· Recruit an outsider to infuse new energy and ideas and openness into your collaborative process. Get Back captures guest keyboardist Billy Preston’s awe at being in the presence of the Beatles and thrill at getting to play with them. He probably didn’t even realize that what he brought to them was just as important as the opportunity they’d offered him. His enthusiasm, talent, excitement, and, yes, reverence for them changes the mood in the studio to such a degree, it’s as if they’ve been sitting in the dark and a light switch has suddenly been turned on.
· We can’t all be geniuses. But we can’t let that stop us from creating. Okay, I’m just going to say it: Paul McCartney is a musical genius and George Harrison wasn’t. Whether it’s nature, nurture, an invisible spirit, relentless practice, or whatever magical alchemy produces a genius, it produced Paul. And that was especially hard on George, who already suffered the disadvantage of being the perpetual younger “brother” of the group, not listened to or respected enough by John and Paul. So, when George tells John that he’s thinking of doing a solo album while continuing as a Beatle, it’s a declaration of semi-independence and empowerment. And it contrasts so poignantly with an earlier moment when George seems to almost abdicate his role as lead guitarist by saying, let’s bring in (guitar god and future wife-stealer and anti-vaxxer) Eric Clapton. George couldn’t be Paul and he couldn’t be Eric, but he could be himself, and some of his songs became instant classics.
· Sometimes the creative process is really tedious. One of the greatest gifts director Peter Jackson has given us with Get Back is conveying just how boring the creative process can be at times. For centuries, creativity has been so romanticized and mythologized, so consumed with the idea of divine inspiration, that learning about artistic legends has often been de-motivating rather than inspiring to people who actually have to work at their craft — which is to say, all artists, even the Beatles. The yawns, the glazed expressions, the infernal repetition of playing songs until they come out just right — the Beatles (all except Paul) are bored. Hours upon hours upon hours of sitting around, trying things out or waiting for their turn, punctuated with inspiration, excitement, success! It’s those special, breakthrough moments that make the tedium worthwhile.
· Even simple ideas can be elevated into something great. Classical music producer George Martin must have wondered if he’d done something to offend his boss and been cruelly demoted when he was assigned to help turn the Beatles’ songs into the Beatles’ songs. After all, the early Beatles’ numbers like “Love Me Do,” with their simple melodies and almost childlike rhymes, should not have set the world on fire (though they did). Years later, the other Beatles could have been forgiven for scoffing at Ringo’s rare foray into songwriting, with these opening lines to “Octopus’s Garden”: “I’d like to be/Under the sea/In an octopus’s garden/In the shade.” But, no, Get Back shows George coming over to Ringo at the piano and jumping right in with suggestions for making his song better and developing it further. And it turned out to be one of the best-loved songs on Abbey Road.
· Deadline pressures are horrible…unless you want to get something done. In the early years, the Beatles had to crank out hit song after hit song, best-selling album after best-selling album to keep the Beatles machine humming and to make sure their phenomenal success didn’t suddenly disappear. During the Get Back sessions, they’d just recently released the double album, The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), but here they are, back in the studio for the sake of making an album (that will eventually turn into two albums: Let it Be and Abbey Road) and a TV special about the making of the album (which they abandon) and a documentary film about it. Oh, and on top of all that, they’re prepping for their first live performance in years…and the performance is scheduled to take place in a few weeks’ time at a site that hasn’t even been chosen yet! Spoiler alert: They get the job done, in large part because the deadlines spurred them into action.
· Stay humble. Poor studio sound, bland, uninspiring surroundings, microphone issues, the question of who’s going to tune the keyboard, George needing to shlep his own recording equipment in — what’s going on here? Isn’t this the greatest band in the history of rock? Get Back reveals the Beatles getting annoyed by these less-than-ideal circumstances at times, with George doing quite a bit of complaining, but considering their status, there’s a surprising lack of divo behavior or demands (unless you count Ringo wanting mashed potatoes for lunch). And their entourage consists mainly of wives or girlfriends and the two Hare Krishna disciples sitting on the floor. The Beatles have said that they didn’t suffer the fate of Elvis, a solo artist surrounded by “yes men,” because they looked out for each other and kept each other’s egos in check. That — and maybe their humble beginnings and typically self-deprecating British humor — make even Paul, the newly self-ordained leader of the group, seem relatively untouched by fame and focused instead on the music.
· And, finally, find a creative collaborator who looks at you the way John and Paul looked at each other. The knowing glances Paul and John shoot each other during the Get Back sessions are impossible not to notice. And, after listening to some of their lyrics, John even says to Paul, “Yeah, it’s like you and me are lovers.” Their bond comes across as intimate, a Platonic ideal. It’s a thing of beauty, and it infuses every aspect of their creativity.