Seven and a half hours is a long slog through any documentary, and my family gave up on Get Back (about The Beatles) but I kept with it because I was fascinated by the songwriting process of the band, in the studio, under pressure to produce new songs, quickly.
There’s a now famous scene — the one that sticks in my head, too — where Paul McCartney starts pounding on his bass by himself, almost in frustration of the tension of the moment but also, he seems just lost in the rhythm of what he’s doing, and then, from that nothingness, there begins to emerge the first melody and first words of the song, Get Back, and as we watch, you can see McCartney working out what will become the iconic song (and title of the documentary we are watching.)
Over the course of the documentary, in fact, we watch as the band takes those initial inklings and transform the ideas into the song that will define the roof-top concert that is the finale at the end of the movie. George and John slowly work in guitar parts over the days, and Ringo keeps the beat, and Paul, at times with help from John, works and revamps the lyrics into stories of the characters in the verses, changing words and phrases as they practice the song. They debate single words, and phrase flow.
I love all that — the way the movie peels back the songwriting process, and as a songwriter myself (although nowhere near their level), I saw a glimpse in the movie of how I often start a new song, too — sometimes with no ideas at all, but just a faint rhythm on the guitar or a loose melody line or maybe a phrase or two that emerges out of nearly nothingness.
Here’s a lyric sheet of mine for a music collaboration I had done (for Whale’s Lantern global collaborations) that shows what I’m talking about:
While McCartney is clearly in his songwriting prime here (or so I might argue), it’s also interesting to see Harrison bringing in his new songs, and trying to get the attention of John and Paul to see the value of his creative songwriting, and of his voice as an artist. (Not all that successfully getting their attention, it is clear). I enjoyed those moments of George and Ringo before the others arrived, as they jammed out on George’s songs, ones that would emerge later on his own albums after failing to make the cut with The Beatles.
Even Ringo sits down at the piano at one point, and plays the opening to Octopus Garden for George, who then gives a master class on how to take a snippet and move an idea into a song, as he helps Ringo explore transitions, bridges and development of the chorus over chords. It’s a wonderful moment of building a piece of music from the two members who are not Paul or John.
John’s songwriting process is less visible, though, as he had probably entered a time when he was writing less with the others, and more on his own, bringing in fairly finished songs to be learned by the band, not to be developed by the band, if that makes sense. He seems less in the vein at this point to share the vulnerability of the songwriting process with the others. (or maybe my observation is limited by what we see on film).
Peace (singing it),
PS — years ago, I tried to capture the writing of a song in a video on an old flip camera. I found it in my archives. It’s difficult for me (now) to hear myself (then) thinking out loud like this but …