Unexpected "Bonus Features" from Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back Documentary
Attention: This contains spoilers to The Beatles: Get Back documentary appearing on Disney+
Four hundred sixty eight minutes went by quickly but some reviewers said the run time for Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back was excessive. I wanted more.
This massive three-part "documentary about a documentary," as Jackson put it, envelopes you in the lives and interactions of John, Paul, George, and Ringo during the development of a TV show/film/album/concert in January 1969. It's chaotic, dramatic, eye opening, and inspiring. This crescendo of activity during a tight, self-imposed deadline gives me some fresh insights into the business, personal dynamics, and (unintentional) teachings of the one of the greatest rock and roll bands in the 20th century:
1. Vision, Goals, and Objectives. The initial goal of the project was amorphous. No one really knew what they wanted to accomplish and where they wanted to accomplish it. All they had was a deadline. The lack of direction was exacerbated by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, often referred to as the "fifth Beatle." Paul tried to pick up the mantle of boss and it was clear that his style generated some resentment with the other "lads." But Paul had perceptive and in a brief period was able to evolve from dictatorial boss to engaged leader. It wasn't perfect but it was easy to see less autocracy and more conversation, more give-and-take. Eventually, Paul successfully gained agreement on what would and would not be acceptable project parameters.
2. Process and Time Management. I mentioned the deadline. Real deadlines are supposed to be hard and fast. As disagreements and confusion to what the end product(s) would be, however, timing slipped. Paul made numerous attempts to corral the attention, creativity, and energy of the band. He tried to emphasize the importance of discipline and the need to string all the individual gems they were creating into a coherent story. But with a combination of mixed messaging and confidence, he noted that "The best bit of us, always has been and always will be, is when we're backs-against-the-wall."
3. Humor. I didn't appreciate how much of a goofball John was until I saw this mini-series. To be fair, they all had their bouts of silliness. Their deep knowledge of rock history and musical versatility really came through during those playful scenes. I found it distracting at times but, thinking deeper, it was absolutely essential to their maintaining a bond and creative process. We all need relief valves; we all need some fun; we need moments to break things up in order to remain fresh.
4. Repetition and Drilling. For all the goofing around (see Humor above), these guys were pros. The Beatles knew they had a product to produce, fans to please, money to make, and increasing musical competition. One way to keep their edge was to perform flawlessly and to exteriorize the musical visions swirling around in their heads. While they discussed developing a set of 14 songs, they pursued quality over quantity - partly because they were diverted by some serious disagreements and blew past their deadlines - and ended up performing less than half of the songs they planned. (The good news is that - many of you know - the other material did get more fully developed later on.)
5. Risk Taking. The group hadn't performed for an audience for a few years by the time 1969 rolled around. Their compositions became more complicated, more physically isolating, and more reliant on technology gimmicks. The new project forced them back into close contact and to develop a playlist where it was all on them, live - no fancy effects, no back-up band. They felt exposed; it felt risky. But they agreed to take it on, which meant the need to iterate and test everything multiple times in order to gain assurance it would all work in a real-world scenario.
6. Compassion. One of the most dramatic moments occurred when George, feeling ignored and bullied, decided to call it quits. John and Paul acknowledged they hadn't adequately addressed "the festering wound" inflicted on George and, together with Ringo - I love that they call him Rich - set up two interventions to patch things up. They knew things went too far and had to acknowledge their part in what could be referred to as the Beatles break-up, Take One. Through the ups and downs, the creative differences, the sometimes heavy-handedness, and now the break up, we feel the camaraderie, the compassion. After all, their lives were entwined for years and one senses genuine affection they shared.
7. Giving and Receiving Feedback. Paul changed after that episode. He was much more careful about the way he delivered feedback. And he at least gave lip service to receiving it, too. But everyone joined in; they all gave each other notes and suggestions. Ringo, being the most placid, the most eager to stay out of the fray, was the most receptive. I'm speculating but the rediscovered collegiately, enhanced communication, and mutual respect might have been helped by a decrease or pause in drug use -- a diversion caused by their newfound purpose and increasingly rigid schedule.
8. Seeking and Accepting Help. While they wanted to maintain a fresh, live performance, the group realized they needed some help - a fifth hand to round out some of their new creations. In came fresh-faced Billy Preston, whom The Beatles met during their days performing in Hamburg. (Preston was backing up Little Richard at that time.) Starting with some friendly jamming, John pushed to give him a seat at the table for the rest of the project. Paul worried initially that working with four was hard enough. Now, you can't imagine the song Get Back (or others) without his keyboard riffs.
9. Outside Life. Some of the most touching and humanizing moments came when family members and loved ones spent time in the studio. Yoko was a constant presence, practically joined at John's hip. (When a complaint surfaced about her, Paul voiced an immediate defense saying, essentially, that they were in love and it wasn't their place to judge.) But the biggest surprise was seven year-old Heather, Linda Eastman's daughter. One could see the stabilizing influence they both had on Paul. He was joyous, attentive and, as you probably know, ended up adopting Heather when he married Linda. It can't be work all the time. We need outside interests and outside support to make us whole.
10. Teamwork. While there is a clear need for individual thought, creativity is no one's personal domain. Yes, The Beatles had different strengths and this docuseries put that into plain relief. You need reality checks, pressure tests, and a group capable of refining and sharpening concepts. Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel had it right when he said, "Getting good players is one thing. The harder part is getting them to play together." The Beatles saw the consequence of that - the risk of wasting efforts, raising conflicts, and alienating and demoralizing your most precious resources.
Go ahead and name a great leader or a great teacher and you'll always find flaws. The Beatles, one of the greatest, most creative musical groups in modern history are no different. "There's no goodies in it, there's no baddies," Jackson said. "There's no villains, there's no heroes. It's just a human story." Not just, Mr. Jackson. The resonance with the listening public, the impact of the lads from Liverpool will live on for a long time.
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