Now that my household has Disney+, I was able to watch the 2021 documentary The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson. I watched over the course of several days and really enjoyed it, although it is a bit of a slog at certain points (more on that later). I found the representation of the group dynamics fascinating, especially as someone coming to the band with only a rudimentary knowledge of their history and discography. So I’d like discuss what I observed about the Beatles as an organization after watching Get Back, with the caveat that this discussion will focus almost exclusively on what can be seen in the film. The documentary covers the period early in 1969 when The Beatles were recording songs for what would eventually be the album Let it Be.
Let me start by saying I was never a Beatles fan; when I was younger I thought they were probably pretty lame because my Mom had been a huge fan when she was young. I recall the massive cultural moment that was the release of the Anthology albums in the mid-90s, but maintained my opinion that The Beatles weren’t interesting. Later, when the 1 album came out in 2000, I realized how many Beatles songs I actually knew pretty well, strictly through cultural osmosis. This realization changed my mind about the significance of the band (obviously!), but didn’t motivate me to learn any more about their music.
For whatever reason, in 2022, I decided to listen to the Beatles Essentials playlist on Apple Music, and found that I really enjoyed most of it. I personally found the very early stuff nearly unlistenable, but the later songs were great. Because the playlist is limited and I found it irritating to skip over the early hits like “Twist and Shout” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” I asked my Beatles-fan husband for one album recommendation – which is the best one? (My Internet research for “best Beatles album” did not, as you might guess, yield a consensus.) He recommended either The Beatles, aka the White album, considered by some to be their best, or his personal favorite, Rubber Soul, which he thinks has some of their best songwriting. With the exception of the constant refrain of domestic violence that runs through a lot of Beatles songs, I liked Rubber Soul and could hear how influential it has been.
I am a student of organizational and group dynamics and the Get Back documentary offers a remarkable chance to see an organization fight against its own dissolution while maintaining the conditions that caused the tension in the first place – and which will ultimately lead to the most famous band breakup of all time.
One of the first things I noticed was how powerful the Lennon-McCartney musical relationship seemed to be. The two men appeared to have a near-telepathic ability to remember old songs, improvise, and generally commune, at least musically, with one another. You can see glimpses of their old partnership and their old friendship, even as Lennon is constantly complaining about being too tired or focusing on his relationship with Yoko Ono. The introduction of wives/girlfriends to the recording process is supposedly a major factor in the band’s breakup. The generally accepted narrative is that the Beatles had a “no wags” policy in the recording studio, until John kept inserting Ono into the band’s work, and that it was she who really splintered the band. However, Ono was not the only “guest” present at any point during the recording of this album; George Harrison had some Hare Krishna compatriots there early on, and both Ringo and Paul bring their respective partners at various times. Paul even allows his future wife Linda Eastman’s daughter to join them in the studio. So, the presence of partners, at least for the recording of Let it Be, doesn’t seem to be a singularly Lennon phenomenon. And honestly, Yoko seemed bored a lot of the time. But bringing in “outside” support into this tense environment does suggest a certain defensive posture on the part of various Beatles, each of whom (with the possible exception of Ringo) was feeling outnumbered or outcast at various points in the documentary. Each individual was bolstering their own presence by adding to their own team, rather than dealing with the stressful band dynamics head on, and as individuals.
And those dynamics, at least as illustrated in this particular film, start and end with Paul McCartney as a type of musical bully. Undoubtedly talented and still one of the world’s most significant musical figures, McCartney wants what McCartney wants, every other Beatle be damned. He especially alienates George, who legitimately quits the band early in the film, only to be extensively wooed back in by the rest of the band over several days. The film shows Paul and George’s different approaches to working out songs and rehearsing, with Paul insisting on knowing what the song is and where it’s going, then practicing it over and over perfectly, while George prefers to jam a bit and just see where it leads. George also tries to communicate his position several times, adding that he only felt like he really began to contribute meaningfully to the band on “the last album,” presumably meaning The White Album, and that he thinks he can offer a lot more in terms of both songwriting and guitar playing. All of this just whistles right by Paul, directly leading to George’s walkout. I have a theory that Paul and George were often at odds because Paul was an oldest child while George was a youngest (and the youngest member of the band), and so their relationship fell into that familiar dynamic, but more likely it’s due to a failure to deal with problems when they originally came up. Not unlike organizational failures that I’ve written about before, it seems the Beatles ignored that they were doing something extraordinary, and assumed that if their ability to create music had never been hampered by these negative dynamics before, then they were well within their experience base and could continue just the same as they always had.
Writing in Variety, Owen Gleiberman picks up on a few threads I noticed as well, particularly the band’s humor and the way that both Paul and John have a way of freezing George out “with a kind of invisible communion.” This is shown, or heard, anyway, in the conversation between Paul and John captured by a hidden microphone at a lunch table. Despite acting and talking completely otherwise, he assures John that he is the real “boss” of the band; “I’m only secondary boss,” he claims. While Paul is more direct in his dismissal of George’s abilities/desire to contribute, John is much more passive, sometimes only interacting with Paul, if interacting at all.
There are glimmers of more creative teamwork that are small, but significant enough to be included in the film. For instance, George helps Ringo (who is at the piano) work out the melody of “Octopus’s Garden,” which would later appear on Abbey Road. This is a particularly nice moment, at least from what we are shown; George is encouraging in a way that John and Paul were pointedly not, and so we see him appearing to model the kind of collaboration he wanted from the Beatles but could not have. Rather than taking over, George works with what Ringo has already done (which isn’t much, according to Ringo’s own estimation), and the two play a little bit together in what is a very sweet scene. ETA: My husband noted that by this time, George had also collaborated with The Band. In 1969, he had visited Bob Dylan and The Band in Woodstock and was impressed with their collaborative approach to music, providing a wholly different model from The Beatles’ process.
The upshot is that The Beatles were intensely talented, rode extremely high for a relatively short time, gave the world very good music, and were each a real jerk in their own way. They may never have been able to stay together any longer than the approximately 9 years they were active as a band, so their musical output during that time is probably all the more remarkable.
- Too much: smoking, fur coats.
- Not enough: conversations about John’s heroin use (when John mentions it, Paul says “do we have to talk about this in public, Mr. Lennon?”), discussion of Paul’s refusal to agree to the new management team the other 3 Beatles wanted to put in place.
- Even if you’re not a big Beatles person, getting to see the fashion and cultural aspects of London in the late 60s is really worthwhile.
- Despite everything going on, the band always is sure to have lots of toast/butter and tea around. Like, a LOT of toast gets eaten in this documentary.
- By the time you finally arrive at the famed rooftop performance, it is nothing short of exhilarating, because you’ve been slogging through hour after hour, week after week with these people. They play songs endlessly, over and over again, have the same arguments, and generally appear miserable, until they are able to play together on that rooftop. The band members seem reinvigorated – and like they might be having fun? And it’s a great payoff for watching the entire film.