Our culture lionizes independent thinkers and creators, from Beethoven to Einstein to Musk. Eccentric, driven, working alone in their garrets and labs, they are struck by inspiration and change the world – call it the cult of genius.
Get Back, filmmaker Peter Jackson’s new three-part, eight-hour documentary series about the Beatles, reminds us that the process of creation is often a more complicated affair, involving not a single prodigy but a group of individuals labouring together, elevating each other – and, if they are both talented and lucky, producing something great.
The Beatles were on the rocks when they met in a drafty movie studio in Twickenham, West London, in January of 1969 to rehearse material for a new album. John Lennon had met Yoko Ono and was heading off in different artistic and political directions. George Harrison, tired of being in the shadow of Lennon and Paul McCartney, was working on material of his own. An impatient McCartney was trying to keep the fraying enterprise from falling apart.
Lennon, once the band’s leader, shows up late and seems detached, smoking and goofing around as Ono sits by his side. Harrison chafes at the way McCartney tries to coach him on what to play. At one point he announces that he is quitting the Beatles, telling his bandmates, “See you around the clubs.”
The group has come to the studio half-prepared, with only a few songs in hand. They have a deadline: Ringo Starr is about to start shooting a movie with Peter Sellers. They are supposed to be preparing for a possible TV special to go with the album, but aren’t sure where to perform. A park in London? A Roman amphitheater in Libya? The director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, even suggests a children’s hospital, but “not one where they’re really sick.” The whole thing starts looking like a train wreck.
And yet, in spite of themselves, the lads make music. In one of the film’s best moments, McCartney starts playing something on his guitar, singing nonsense words in place of the lyrics he doesn’t yet have. Watching half a century later, we recognize the chords of what is to become one of the Beatles’ big late-career hits: The film’s title track, Get Back.
The group gains steam after moving to the Apple studio in London. They bring in keyboard player Billy Preston, whose delight in the music-making lifts the mood. Harrison, often so dour, flashes a big smile as they hit a groove. McCartney, clearly taking pains to be less bossy, assists him with one of his songs. Harrison helps Starr with his novelty number Octopus’s Garden. Lennon and McCartney exchange ideas and trade quips like the two wisecracking teenagers they were when they first met back in Liverpool.
At the 11th hour, the group finds an answer to the question of where to perform: they will simply climb to the roof of the Apple building and set up there. It’s a triumphant, joyful moment – shown first in Lindsay-Hogg’s own film Let It Be, but displayed here in all its glory. Grinning, the wind blowing through their hair, the Fab Four rock their way through their set as people clamber onto surrounding rooftops to watch and a crowd gathers on the street below.
Of course, we all know what happened next. Though they went back to recording and managed to make another album, Abbey Road, the Beatles broke up in 1970. The rooftop concert was their last.
McCartney, deeply wounded by the breakup, retreated to a farm in Scotland, then formed a new band, Wings. Harrison put out that solo album he’d been working on, All Things Must Pass. Starr followed suit. Lennon formed the Plastic Ono Band and held “bed-ins” for peace with Yoko. All kept producing music long after the fall – in Lennon’s case, some of it transcendent – but apart, they never quite achieved what they had as a group.
Get Back gives us an intimate look at how their famous collaboration succeeded. One by one, the Beatles work through the songs: improvising lyrics, practicing licks, trying one approach then another – failing more than they succeed, but always moving ahead.
Along the way, there is lots of quarrelling and dead time – and just plain fooling around. It’s like mounting a ballet, staging a play or putting out a daily newspaper. It often seems as if it will never come together in time – and then somehow it does. As McCartney puts it: “The best bit of us – always has been and always will be – is when we’re backs-against-the-wall.”
The same could be said about many human endeavours, most recently the fight against COVID-19. The frantic struggle to create a vaccine succeeded not because a single individual had a stroke of genius, but because scientists around the world worked around the clock to find a solution. As Get Back shows yet again, the best of what we do, we do together.
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