Eleven Lessons In Creative Collaboration: Learnings From The Beatles Get Back Documentary
As a lifelong Beatle's fan, I was very much looking forward to watching the recently released documentary The Beatles - Get Back on Disney+, directed and produced by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings). I was excited to see the fab four in their final days and to watch their famous, crowning performance on the roof of Apple studios unfold. What I wasn’t expecting was a fascinating and riveting masterclass in the creative process.
The close to eight hours, three-part doc is long, and I’m sure for some at times a bit tedious, but it is worth every minute. The footage is what was left on the cutting room floor from the original, gloomy, 1970 film - Let It Be. Jackson and his team restored and graded the 16mm stock as if it was shot yesterday - an exquisite technical achievement deserving of its own analysis. The film feels as if we’re watching something contemporary, not from fifty-two years ago.
Get Back is everything you may have heard and more. It is magical, beautiful, vivid, immersive, intimate, riveting, heady, revealing, funny, hypnotic, spellbinding, enchanting, joyous, enlightening, and surreal. It is also, in my opinion, the best rock documentary ever produced.
The footage shows The Beatles at the zenith of their popularity, fame, and cultural significance working together in the studio, mostly joyfully, under intense pressure and turmoil, as they birth before our eyes and ears some of the most iconic music of the 20th century. It also exposes the tension that so often exists between strong-willed creative individuals, working as a team, and how that tension can get corralled, redirected, and diffused.
As I watched each episode, riveted, lessons in artistic collaboration began to appear. The strategies that The Beatles were employing provide a valuable framework for any creative team that struggles under immense pressure to hit a deadline and produce groundbreaking work.
Here are my eleven key takeaways as they relate to the collaborative creative process:
Leadership: Paul is clearly the leader (and creative director) during these sessions. He has a vision, he has the motivation and the discipline; he gives direction, and keeps the process on track. He continually reminds everyone of the deadlines ahead and insists that aimless wandering will not get them there. He also tries to inject structure with daily goals and milestones for composition and rehearsal. At one point he directly confronts John about his lack of new songs and if he’s able to meet the challenge. John assures him that he’ll deliver. Yes, Paul is the taskmaster, but he also provides a necessary compass to which the band will orient.
Lesson: Strong leadership is crucial in helping keep everyone’s eye on the prize, establish clear objectives and not drift, dither, dawdle and procrastinate.
Purpose: Paul, as leader, also tries to understand and make clear the “why” of what they’re doing. Asking: what is it that they’re trying to achieve? Why be involved if not energized by the end goal? He rejects the idea of a concert in Tripoli and suggests perhaps what they should do is trespass someplace, such as the House of Commons, and have the police forcibly remove them, live on camera while in the middle of playing (this, of course, is sort of what happens on the roof).
Lesson: It’s critical to be passionate and purpose-driven, understanding clearly the “why”, without which what is the point?
Mutual Respect - Much of the myth surrounding the Let It Be sessions was based on the rumor that there was continuous fighting and seething animosity amongst the group, making for a toxic environment. What the new film shows is quite the opposite. Each band member has high regard and love for one another and deep mutual respect, which shatters any notion of a band of rivals at each other’s throats. Not a harsh or mean word is exchanged, everyone is highly respectful, generous, and supportive of one another.
Lesson: Respect, empathy, support, and encouragement are so important in creative teams, where egos can be quite fragile and where an entire project can collapse from a bruised spirit.
Trust - With mutual respect comes trust. There is a lot of trust amongst the group. George presents several incomplete song ideas and fully trusts the inputs of both John and Paul. Ringo trusts Paul’s instructions on drum parts, Paul trusts John’s feedback at several key moments and you can see how trusting John is of Paul’s vision and genius for lyric and melody.
Lesson: Trust is such a crucial element in creative collaboration and is the deeper, more vulnerable brother of respect. Trust is the magic elixir within creative teams.
Improvisation - It was surprising to me to see how much improvisation and giddy playfulness were part of their creative development process. They would twist and turn upside down all musical ideas being considered and explore with utter delight and exaltation all manner of playful improv. Vocal, rhythmic, lyric, etc…. Like jazz musicians, they would let the creative flood gates wide open to see where their playing would lead them, you could see clearly how much fun they were having as they deconstructed and reconstructed ideas on the fly.
Lesson: Playful improv is imperative in the creative process, it opens up channels and pares back the filters allowing for new ideas to be born. Creative teams need to play, explore and improvise as they experiment with the recipe.
Return To Your Roots - Another surprising part of their process was how often they would return to their roots, spontaneously breaking into classic rock & roll standards from Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and the Everly Brothers, to name a few. You can see the reverence they had for early American rock & roll; its pure, unadulterated, raw passion and how it undeniably forged them as musicians and as a band. By regularly returning to the sources that first inspired them, they were continually recharging their creative tanks.
Lesson: Make it a habit to cycle back to the masters who first inspired you, their wisdom and guidance are bottomless.
Switch Roles - As part of their creative exploration they would regularly switch instruments and play each other’s parts. Paul on drums, George on bass, Ringo on Piano, John on drums, etc… This also showcased the versatility and musicianship of the group and allowed each to gain new perspectives on the songs they were constructing.
Lesson: Switching roles in teams, even just for fun, often brings new perspectives that can help spark new ideas as well as better understand the parts within the whole.
Keep It Simple - Throughout the songwriting and rehearsing process, both Paul and John keep reminding everyone to “keep it simple”. They both saw the magic in the core concepts and were wary of needless parts mucking up the soul of the song. Paul says at one point that “complications” can come later after they build and refine the basic, pure idea first and foremost.
Lesson: Less is more. Adding for the sake of adding just weighs things down and obscures the core idea. Be sure the pure essence of the idea remains crystal clear throughout and unobstructed by unnecessary add-ons and features.
Plans Change - The original concept for the project was to perform a concert in some exotic locale with all-new material for a TV special in three weeks. The session footage was to be used as the documentary part of the special. The initial film director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, was determined to make that happen, but the band had other ideas - even if they weren’t quite yet formed. Each day, as the clock ticked forward, plans shifted. After several days, they moved from the film stage back to Apple studios. The TV special was eventually scrapped as was the exotic location and the film footage would now become a feature film instead and the concert would end up on the roof.
Lesson: Planning is essential, but expect to change course multiple times on the journey. If you’re married to a plan set in stone, you’ll likely be miserable and take others down with you.
New Blood - About halfway through part two, the brilliant, soulful R&B keyboardist Billy Preston drops by to say hello. He sits down at a Fender Rhodes electric piano and immediately breathes new life into the sessions. His addition invigorates the band, giving it a much-needed second wind. He ends up staying for the duration of the project and becomes a key element for both the album and the concert.
Lesson: Never underestimate the power of fresh talent to breathe new life into a project by shifting team dynamics and introducing novel elements and energy.
Do The Work - The creative process is highly iterative and requires lots of repetition and experimenting to shape and sculpt an idea from your mind’s eye and ear. Some songs in the film were rehearsed dozens of times, each time building upon the last. The amount of work that was expended to perfect their ideas is staggering and proves that nothing truly great is ever easy, even if you are one of the greatest and most prolific songwriting teams of all time.
Lesson: There’s no substitute for sheer hard work. You can talk, theorize, ruminate and dawdle, but the only true measure of creative accomplishment is the physical, challenging, thrilling end product of hard work.
Overall, The Beatles - Get Back is a stunning achievement and a priceless case study in how creative collaboration succeeds - from leadership, purpose, and mutual trust, to boundless improvisation, experimentation, continual change, and nose to the grindstone teamwork. These are the basic elements of productive collaboration and this documentary provides an invaluable framework for any team, working under immense pressure and against impossible odds, to reach the promised land.