As digital age consumers of media, specifically music, people often take a finished product at face value. People are aware of some vague and ethereal “creative process” that produces the work, but trying to define or even imagine it will leave most clueless about what goes on behind the scenes. In the documentary miniseries Get Back, this process is made fully transparent. The documentary follows two weeks of live footage and audio recordings of the Beatles leading up to their famous rooftop performance – the last live performance they would ever have.
Throughout the documentary, filmmaker Peter Jackson presents footage of the band practicing and writing the songs for the performance. Anyone familiar with the songs they’re writing can hear bits of the version they know take shape as Paul and John flip back and forth between melodies, calls and responses, guitar riffs, and other songwriting styles. The documentary begins with them simply revisiting old songs and occasionally presenting a new idea, but mostly just sitting and thinking. In these moments, however, more than any other, the truth of songwriting is exposed.
As a songwriter myself, I have experienced many of these moments. Songwriting is not just sitting down and coming up with a chord progression, then lyrics, and finally a drum part. Songwriting is sitting idly, rolling over a word or two, maybe a short few notes, seeing how it feels on the tongue until finally, the seed is interred into the mind and it can begin to grow. A song is not built note by note over a long time, but in vacillating musical bricks that collectively form the structure.
About halfway through the first episode, The Beatles, sans John (who is habitually late), arrive at the practice studio early in the morning. Everyone is sitting around, talking, and noodling on their instruments. In the background, Paul can be heard chucking a chord out on his guitar. Over the next few minutes, Paul develops that slow chucking riff into almost the full version of the song he will end up playing live. For avid Beatles listeners, the chord and strum pattern may be familiar. It only takes Paul one word to begin the song that would set the stage for the entire performance. “Jojo hmmahumma shopeedapanona bunnedunna dunna man.” And thus, the titular song, Get Back, is born.
Every songwriter has a different way of writing. Personally, I write down a word or phrase that I like, then return to it a few days later and try to recontextualize it into a whole song. Bob Dylan will write an entire song on a piece of paper, then cut each line into a strip and rearrange it to his liking. Paul McCartney, however, picks a word or two and scats over it until he finds a line or rhyme he likes. In Get Back, the audience is shown this technique first-hand in real-time. It’s not a perfect analog, and everybody writes songs differently. Regardless, to see a song become realized on screen, even as a microcosm of the rest of the songs the Beatles play, is a gratifying experience. One can begin to understand that the process of songwriting is not a consistent science, but a byproduct of random inspiration, luck, and a knack for growing a seed into lyrics, structure, and a catchy tune.
Get Back means a lot to me for a lot of reasons. Like many, I have always loved the Beatles. Beatles’ Rock Band was my introduction to the world of drums, which later led me to join my first band. The part of the documentary that I love more than any other, though, is how down-to-earth it feels. Watching Paul write music as I do, and more than that, show it to the world, reminds me that songwriting is a process that can never be perfected. It presents the difficulty of creating and fine-tuning to a world outside singer-songwriter circles. We hear the basic structure of the piece essentially flow out of Paul’s guitar the first time he strums it. The song, however, isn’t finalized even as the band performs it. The devil is in the details, and that notion is more apparent in Get Back than any other film.
The process of writing a song and listening to one are two wholly different beasts. Just as in any form of media, a three-minute piece could take weeks, months, or even years to produce. Nowhere is that endeavor better elaborated than in Get Back, which depicts an era when the Beatles were tasked with writing and learning enough songs for an album in just two weeks. The creation process is not a consistent one – far from it – and only through the combined efforts of John, Paul, George, and Ringo is the goal achieved. In the same way that Paul writes Get Back, every song is gradually crafted out of a random spark, hammered out over days (sometimes literally in the case of Maxwell’s), and finally pushed to completion through sheer force of will. The process is never easy, but through this struggle, every piece of media that ever was has come to be known.