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Get Back

December 5, 2021

The Beatles have been with me ever since I have been conscious. I was a toddler when they became famous. The first book I ever bought – at my school’s Scholastic Book Fair – was a paperback of all the Beatles lyrics. I spent hours reading them over and over, trying to parse their meanings.

When I was young, everything the Beatles did was news. Their music was the soundtrack of my life.

Because I had heard Beatles music so much, I rebelled a few years ago and started boycotting. I figured I had heard those songs so many times that I would be fine never hearing them again.

It’s probably strange, then, that I recently sat down to watch all 7 hours and 48 minutes of the documentary series “Get Back,” which is mostly footage of the Beatles practicing for their last album. But I did it, and I’m glad I did.

I liked it for a variety of reasons. First, it was lovely to see the Beatles as they were, free from all the hype, myth and speculation that surrounded them and that has persisted until now. The footage shows that they were at heart just musicians who really, really loved to play.

During their practice sessions, they spontaneously drop practicing their songs to launch into joyous, silly versions of numbers by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and others. It’s clear from their schedule that they should be urgently practicing their music so they can produce their album, but they can’t help themselves. They are playing because it is fun and it is what they want to do more than anything in the world. Every time they slam into some old rockabilly tune, they are grinning and laughing.

They also play at songwriting. They are unafraid to start playing songs in front of each other that aren’t fully formed yet. Some are barely begun. This spoke to me because I always want to have all my bases covered before I present my work to others, nervous that it won’t be perfect.

John and Paul just blare out tiny bits of song over and over, substituting mumbles for words, building the composition, growing and embroidering and changing so fluidly. “Get Back,” one of their most famous songs, comes together during a break as Paul fiddles on the guitar, then gets played and replayed, changed and improved over the next three weeks into the hit song we have all heard.

There is a lot of love between them, that is clear. The flashback scenes remind us that John, Paul and George have been playing together since they were young teens. They each have their own role. Paul is the leader and the poet, willing to keep sculpting songs as long as it takes to achieve perfection. John is the jester, always showing up late, making jokes and playing with language, changing lyrics to make himself laugh. George is the mystic, quiet and thoughtful, observing everything. And Ringo is the steadfast workman, showing up early, staying on task.

Another joy of watching the documentary is the nostalgia factor. The Beatles, for all their success, had so little management or business wrapped around them. If they had that level of fame today, they would probably have a team of dozens working on management and marketing.

It’s stunning to see how shy they were in front of the cameras and to realize how abnormal it was back then to have people filming you. Even if you were quite famous it was weird. The Beatles awkwardly joke about it the whole time. They mug for the camera, wave at it. In 2021, toddlers are used to being filmed and know how to strike a pose.

They discuss their plans for a concert vaguely the whole way through the month that the documentary covers, but it never becomes concrete. No one gets very upset about this. They don’t even know if they’re going to do their famous rooftop concert until the day before they do it. No team of marketing and finance people is screaming at them. No attorneys are reviewing terms. They are just allowed to bumble their way through. It’s like this is a fifth-grade play, not the biggest music group of all time.

I also loved seeing the 60s fashion as it was, too. George is one stylish dude, appearing in purple satin ruffly shirts and striped bell-bottoms. Ringo is often on trend, showing up for the rooftop concert in a red vinyl trenchcoat. Paul is in his bearded farmer phase, and John tends toward shaggy furry things.

The middle episode starts to be depressing. The band was mired in an endless swirl of practice and indecision. The documentary began to drag, as nothing seemed to be happening. Everyone seemed checked out and a little sad. George even quit briefly, simply saying that he would see them around the clubs before walking out suddenly.

George came back a few days later. Then a miracle occured – pianist Billy Preston showed up. He was just in the neighborhood and dropped by to visit the new Apple studio. The Beatles asked him to sit in and suddenly everything burst into technicolor with Preston’s infusion of talent and soul. It’s like watching a garden spring back to life after a drought. The Beatles started to have fun again, and Preston kept coming back every day.

There was a bit of talk about asking Preston to be the fifth Beatle, but the idea got shot down by Paul, who said that it wass difficult enough to make decisions with four of them. I think he doomed the Beatles at that moment. Billy Preston was the best thing that ever happened to them. Not only was he a genius on keyboards and vocals, but his sound filled in and lifted theirs. Everyone could feel the difference. Their music became joyous again.

The last documentary I watched before this was Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana.” It was a good contrast. Taylor seemed to have a precise vision for her songs, always. The Beatles had a drug-fueled, loosey goosey approach to making an album.

The Beatles documentary inspired me. I took from it the lesson of focusing on fun and joy while being creative. Don’t be afraid of throwing a silly little start out there and building on it. The process is as important as the outcome. Don’t expect perfection the first time around, or the seventh, or the thirtieth. Just let it be.

  1. Robin permalink
    December 6, 2021 04:44

    I like what you took for yourself from the doc. I’m going to watch it. I want more perspectives of flexibility and joy in the process of creativity.

    My first album was yellow submarine. I brought a piggy bank full of change To the store and it took 10 minutes for the cashier to count it out. I love that album. The Beatles were a constant soundtrack in my childhood as well. I love growing up in that time.

    • December 7, 2021 08:38

      That’s amazing about your first album! I can see it in my mind.

  2. December 6, 2021 07:15

    That is a long documentary. Even though you recommend it, I’m not sure I want to spend that much time watching. I get the sense of it and the takeaways from your post. Thank you. I grew up with the Beatles, too. I was always in love with Paul, and I’ve seen him twice in recent years at a concert. The movie “Yesterday” reminded me of how much I enjoy their music. Your post has done that, too. But the best part of your post is your reminder to have fun while being creative and to be okay with it not being perfect. Great post!

    • December 7, 2021 08:37

      Thank you. I’m glad to watch it so you don’t have to!

  3. Anonymous permalink
    December 6, 2021 08:34

    I was home for college with a nasty sinus infection the weekend the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was hooked. They were so stinking cute! The man I met in college and married was also a Beatles fan so we had all their albums. I still have one or two, but not the husband.

    • December 7, 2021 08:36

      “but not the husband” lol. That’s funny!

  4. December 16, 2021 20:35

    Love this post! I didn’t grow up with the Beatles, but my mom did and I love all their songs.
    I like what you pulled from the documentary. I’ve been curious to watch it myself sometime.
    Thanks for always having such posts to read. 😊

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