For those who came in late… So did I. Get Back (released in November 2021) is a 7 hour documentary in three parts, made almost entirely with original studio footage of The Beatles writing their final album (Let It Be) on a self-imposed, pressure-cooker deadline. They have 21 days to write and record an album and to be ready to perform the new material in what will be their first live performance in more than two years.
It’s a study of the creative process; of friendship and group dynamics; of growing up; of social change since the 60s; of manhood then and now. It’s entertaining drama. It’s fascinating musical history. The music is brilliant… and if you don’t subscribe to Disney+, you might just be able to get it bundled with a mobile phone package.
A fair amount of ink has been spilled about it:
- Jonathan Freedland’s piece in The Guardian is a good place to start;
- Ian Leslie’s long piece in The Ruffian (newsletter) is really tremendous;
- Seth Godin does a great riff on what the film reveals about creative practice;
- Tyler Cowen (who has written quite a lot about the Beatles over the years) has some insightful reflections.
I only have a few thoughts to add.
1. Flying Hours
One amazing part of the experience of watching Get Back is the feeling of watching what are now classic Beatles songs come together almost from nothing. It’s magical… and makes it easy to forget the hours – the years – behind the magic.
7 hours is a long documentary. 60 hours is a lot of raw footage… but a fraction of the time the group spent in those rehearsals. We’re watching highlights of the highlights.
The Beatles are already a case study for the value of practice – they famously played four or five hours a night for more than a year in the clubs of Hamburg, which is apparently when they became the tight musical and creative unit that they were in the early 60s.
When we watch Get Back we’re seeing only the very tiniest tip of a very big iceberg.
2. Ace of Aces
The Beatles still look pretty young in the Get Back sessions (the oldest, Ringo and John, were 32). The early photos in the opening sequence remind us that they were very young when they started playing together. John and Paul were 17 and 15 respectively when they met in 1957 and played as The Quarrymen. Harrison joined in 1958 aged 15 (he was deported from Germany at one point for being underage). Ringo joined years later, shortly before the group’s first number one in 1962, an old man at 22.
This level of expertise and success reminds me of two things. First, the careers of World War 1 and World War 2 pilots, and of military leadership in major conflicts. People started young (often lying about their age, a la Harrison), rose fast and aged fast – if they were lucky enough to age. Rock and Roll had its own high rate of attrition. I wonder on their behalf what I’ve often wondered about that war generation: would life ever be as exciting again?
I was also reminded of Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen – again starting working together in school, jamming all night, discovering that they were talented enough to make it, and staying together long enough to make to the big time.
Writing songs every day, sharing hotel rooms, living on the road – this was Lennon and McCartney’s startup.
3. Collaborative Intimacy and Growing Up
I said that I read it partly as a film about growing up. The intense time of touring together, of living in each other’s pockets, of John and Paul sharing hotel rooms and each other’s brainwaves, is over. They couldn’t do what they did forever: Ringo was married and had already left the band once; John was serious about Yoko (and heroin); George was ready for collaborators that would appreciate his contributions; Paul was trying to hold it together but knew he had to let some things go.
As we watch The Beatles wanting to be, trying to be The Beatles, we all want to be in the band too. We want youth, the joyful spark of collaboration, sympathy and understanding, and emergent genius.
To get back.