Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) has distilled 60 hours of largely suppressed film and 150 hours of audio tracks, from The Beatles’ 1969 “Let It Be” recording session, into eight hours of an astonishingly revealing, and, yes, tedious record of one of the final collaborations of one of the most important bands of all time. The documentary culminates in the last-ever public performance of The Beatles, on the rooftop of their London studio, and should win Jackson more awards.
"The Beatles: Get Back", streaming on Disney+, is first, a film for Beatlemaniacs, and second, a film for writers. If you happen to be a lover of The Beatles and a writer, my fellow Apple scruff, you will feel as if Jackson and the band collaborated to make this film for you.
Because this documentary is of special relevance to writers, here are seven lessons writers can learn from “The Beatles: Get Back.” One warning: Don’t start watching the documentary unless you can clear your calendar. It will consume you.
Lesson One: Writing is hard work.
An enormous amount of tedium through repetition, argument, and blocks are clearly shown while The Beatles write their songs. It should reinforce and reassure writers: If geniuses have this much trouble during the creative process, regular people can expect at least as much.
Lesson Two: Group projects are awful.
Paul McCartney gets a bad rap for being a control freak, but “The Beatles: Get Back” reveals that he spent a fair amount of time herding cats. His fellow bandmates were often late, high, distracted, and seemingly oblivious to the deadline. Despite this, what stands out is Paul’s overwhelming displays of patience, kindness, and the ability to forgive and forget. It’s a good look for him.
Lesson Three: Outsiders can disturb order.
We’ve all heard about Yoko Ono’s prominence, but it’s something else entirely to see her at John’s side for every single hour of production. Paul’s Linda dips in and out with her spunky daughter. Ringo’s Mo makes appearances. Others come and go. It’s a strange reality to witness such traffic in a workplace, no matter how unconventional it is. Seeing human, loving sides of the men, however, does manage to endear them to the viewer.
Lesson Four: Outsiders can restore order.
When American piano player Billy Preston arrives, he brings in the proverbial breath of fresh air. Not enough credit is given to this man, who played the organ for most of the songs, whose presence made The Beatles behave better, and who was never without a smile. Billy was the fairy godmother of this project.
Lesson Five: “Don’t buy drugs.”
It’s a silly line from the movie Love Actually, but nowhere is the soundness of this advice more clearly illustrated than in the erratic behavior, dark undereye circles, and nonsensical behavior of The Beatles when they were using. At one point, in Ringo’s quiet, understated way, he acknowledges he’s abusing his body. But the declaration seemingly does nothing, over the course of production, to inspire him to change his behavior. Though addicts can perform through sheer force of muscle memory, the wear on the mind and body is staggering to behold.
Lesson Six: Rumors don’t always convey the truth.
Because of his largely peaceful reputation, it was shocking to see how toxic George Harrison could be. If one had to pinpoint the epicenter of the discord in this session, George would be a contender in the running. His behavior could be petulant and passive aggressive, like that of an adolescent. However, his frustration at the dynamic collaboration of and exclusivity into which John and Paul often lapsed is understandable.
Lesson Seven: Writers are channels, not creators.
What is most enthralling about “The Beatles: Get Back” is how it reveals that writing is like finding a radio frequency. Watching Paul McCartney strum the first chords of the title song, “Get Back”—head tilted, ear cocked to the ceiling, as if hearing the music in the atmosphere as he was trying to write—is a chill-inducing moment. While we live in a space-time continuum, art might not. There could be a whole universe outside of time from which artists siphon their creations. If one wants to get really trippy, maybe Paul was hearing us—in the present day—calling out to the screen the words of the song that he had not yet written. Writers, keep your ears, your minds, and your hearts open.
If you’ve seen “The Beatles: Get Back” what most struck you? Would you add any lessons to this list?