Like so many music fans, I could not wait to see director Peter Jackson’s Get Back, a new eight-hour documentary on the Beatles’ Let It Be recording sessions, based on 60 hours of film footage and more than 150 hours of audio that were the outtakes of Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary film. As I reflected on what it takes to be a great band, I was struck by the similarity to what it takes to be a great school community like Colorado Academy—things like valuing collaboration, hearing many viewpoints, nurturing creativity, and working together through the challenges of accomplishing a collective goal.
Lindsay-Hogg’s film was completed before the recording and release of the iconic Abbey Road album. The film was released after the Beatles broke up, and it formed a narrative of a band at odds. It was dark and hard to watch; but someone had the brilliant idea to open up the archives and re-discover this extraordinary moment in music history.
Jackson was invited to look at 60 hours of footage and re-examine this history. And, he found something different. To be sure, there were intense moments, like when George Harrison quit in response to Paul McCartney’s overbearing direction. We hear a surreptitious recording of McCartney and John Lennon analyzing the tensions in their relationship. Jackson also uncovered footage of these four 20-somethings trying to create music and work through disagreement. You see their love for music and for each other. And, along the way, we learn some lessons about collaboration, leadership, and what it takes to be a creative force.
Here are a few that stand out to me.
Leadership and discipline: These recordings follow the release of The Beatles (White Album) and a desire to record live, without the type of elaborate overdubbing of past albums. Other than rare TV appearances, the Beatles had not performed live since 1966 and wanted to create an album and TV show. The eight-hour documentary is hard to watch at times because they wander aimlessly. They note that, without their former manager Brian Epstein, who died in 1967, they lacked discipline and focus. In fact, they refer to him as “Mr. Epstein,” clearly conveying their respect for how he guided their early career and kept them focused. Without him, it appears as though McCartney tries to fill the void, creating all kinds of tensions.
Group dynamics: What will strike the viewer is how young the Beatles were. Lennon and Starr were 29, McCartney was 27, and Harrison 25. Their song writing reflects individuals deeply in touch with their feelings and self-understanding. They come into these recording sessions having difficulty communicating with each other, and they tend to use humor to communicate and to insulate themselves from criticism. McCartney is so focused on his vision that he can’t listen to Harrison and Lennon. Lennon shows up with little material, and you can sense his insecurity. Harrison eventually walks out and quits. In a conversation secretly recorded by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Lennon and McCartney discuss their relationship, their tensions, their competitiveness, and their treatment of Harrison. It’s a compelling conversation. Their candidness and directness lead the band to being able to come back together and finish their recordings with a sense of joy and openness.
Letting go of egos: A painful part of the documentary is Lennon and McCartney’s inability to see Harrison’s brilliance as a song writer. At two points, Harrison brings in two great songs—“All Things Must Pass” and “I, Me, Mine”—and gets “ho-hum” reactions from his bandmates. It’s clearly Lennon and McCartney’s band. Harrison wrote “I, Me, Mine” in response to the egotism and acrimony of those sessions. But, after his walkout, you see the band listening more to Harrison and giving their all as they record the song for the Let It Be album. Their commitment to excellence is seen as they work through multiple songs, all contributing in various ways. After the Let It Be sessions, the Beatles recorded Abbey Road, where a number of Harrison originals stand out, like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” This conflict is a good reminder that any team, organization, or band is best served when all opinions and contributions are considered.
Making mistakes: If you watch the documentary, most of what you watch and listen to is not really that good. The band muddles through some of the most mediocre songs in their catalog, with a few notable exceptions. We are not watching the making of Revolver or Sergeant Pepper. But, in some ways, this is more satisfying because you see a band struggling to come up with an album and record it live in a little more than two weeks. For me, the best part is watching them collaborate on “Get Back.” We see the genesis of this song, as McCartney is strumming a basic chord while they wait for Lennon to show up. (Note: Starr surprised me as being the most punctual of all the Beatles, as he appears to be the first one in the studio every day.) We see McCartney come up with nonsense lyrics and sounds as he makes out the melody. We see Lennon contribute, as he and McCartney play with various word combinations. Harrison offers thoughts on the arrangement. Through this creative process, they are willing to make mistake after mistake. Eventually, they get through it and create a masterpiece.
Ten thousand hours: Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes 10,000 hours of experience and practice to gain mastery is apt. None of the success of the Beatles would have been possible without their being masters of their craft. I have always wondered about their time in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 1960s, where they played, eight hours a night, for 250 shows. In “Get Back,” you see them break up the tension or work through the dead ends of creativity by launching into covers of rock ‘n’ roll classics that they undoubtedly played in Hamburg. They clearly have fun doing so. Their mastery of music allows them to take the rough versions of their original ideas and refine them into something fantastic.
Each of these lessons has a takeaway, particularly about challenging group dynamics, for many in our CA community. For music lovers everywhere, this documentary is a chance to reflect and see what it takes to come together as a team, united in vision. For die-hard Beatles fans, this is a chance to get to know your favorite band a bit better, to see their hard work and love of life, and a chance to see them play atop their Apple Studios, giving London, and the world, a final look at the Beatles in concert.