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The Beatles: Get Back is required viewing for designers. It includes many lessons for creative people who must work with peers. In this post, I’ll list some that stood out to me.
In case you know nothing about Get Back, it’s a new eight-hour documentary that captures a few weeks in the life of the Beatles. And not just any few weeks, but an incredibly intense and fertile period near the end of the band’s time together as a cohesive unit.
The film was shot in early 1969 for a documentary. Director Peter Jackson edited over 150 hours of footage to create the new movie. Get Back is divided into three parts of roughly equal length and is streaming (at least in the U.S.) on Disney+.
Before we get into it, a couple of disclaimers. First, there are spoilers peppered throughout this post. If you want to be surprised, watch the film first, then come back here. Second, knowing the band’s work is essential to appreciating the film. I expect it won’t be as interesting to people unfamiliar with their music.
But even so, Get Back is worth checking out as a document of the creative process in a group context. The film contains important lessons for anybody creating within a team. Let’s unpack a few of them.
Keep your eye on the prize — but be flexible
At the start of the documentary, the band sets out on an ambitious goal: to write new songs, record them, and put on a live show (something they hadn’t done in several years) in less than a month. Expectations were high: at this point, the Beatles were the biggest band in the world.
To make things more complicated, relationships between band members were somewhat frayed. Also, they’d attempt the project in new recording environments and within the context of their new company, Apple Corps. In other words, the band had set a challenging goal within unfamiliar circumstances.
It’s interesting to see how they adjust their goals when facing real-world obstacles. For example, the idea for the finale evolved from an elaborate production in a movie studio, to a live show in an ancient theater, to a concert on the roof of the band’s Savile Row headquarters — a much more pragmatic choice. So, they retained the goal of a live finale while being flexible about what that meant.
The lesson here is to keep the big picture in focus and not become fixated on specifics. The band’s goal was to put on a live performance, not to put on a live performance in a movie studio. As conditions evolved, the band adapted, eventually leading to their famous rooftop concert. They achieved their goal, even if it wasn’t what they initially envisioned.
Iterate, iterate, iterate
You’ve likely heard Get Back; it’s one of the Beatles’s most famous songs. The documentary shows its birth and evolution towards the final form we’ve heard.
This is how it happened: The band needed to write new songs quickly, so Paul started cycling through chords on the bass guitar. He latched onto a particular riff and started working on it. Over time, the riff became more elaborate. Lyrics appeared — at first, gibberish, then more recognizable phrasings. The band worked on it over and over and over, trying new things, perfecting their timing, etc.
Some Beatles songs sound effortless and fresh. But much of what we hear is quite intentional — and required a lot of work. The band wasn’t satisfied with “good enough”; they refined rough ideas until they had something extraordinary. This took effort, persistence, confidence, and a supportive environment.
It’s an important lesson for teams working on creative projects: respect the fragility of early ideas and give them space, time, and effort to evolve towards more perfect forms.
Keep egos in check
Much of what makes Get Back (the film) engaging is watching the interpersonal tensions between four extraordinarily talented individuals. At this point in their careers, they were acknowledged as such, and all (well, perhaps except Ringo) had strong egos. Each had slightly different visions for particular songs and the band’s direction.
In part one of the film, these tensions boil over, leading George to quit the band. It’s fascinating to see how they recover from this calamity. A hidden microphone captures an intimate conversation between John and Paul as they discuss how to bring George back into the fold.
This required acknowledging his worth and the value of his contributions and thinking about how to talk with him about the situation. It’s a conversation one can imagine having in any creative team.
Teams need leadership
While the Beatles’s magic comes from combining the four members’ unique talents, they needed leadership. They’d lost their manager, Brian Epstein, a few years before the Get Back sessions. With shifting interests, relationships, and personal issues, the band risked drifting in unproductive directions — unless someone kept them in check.
For me, one of the biggest realizations from the film is the degree to which Paul stepped into the leadership role. His work ethic and passion for music are inspiring. At some points, he seemed more invested than his colleagues in creating an excellent product. Sometimes this rubbed them wrong; much of the film’s tension comes from watching him trying to lead his peers into perfecting the work while not overplaying his hand.
Watching Paul fill the leadership void while remaining a peer contributor is one of the most valuable aspects of Get Back. It’s a common situation that can easily go off the rails. In these sessions, it seemed to work.
Make time for play
The creative and interpersonal tensions could spin out of control and derail the project — but for the fact that these guys clearly enjoyed playing with each other. And here, I don’t mean “playing” only in the sense of “playing music,” but playing in the more general use of the word.
The Beatles goofed around a lot in the studio. They often broke into covers of old tunes. At one point, John and Paul sing an entire take of Two of Us through clenched teeth, as though they were ventriloquists. At another, Linda Eastman’s six-year-old daughter joined them in the studio, and the musicians played with her while working.
I sense that goofing around, covering old songs, telling jokes, etc., alleviated some of the tension inherent in working towards the deadline and instilled an air of camaraderie and lightheartedness in the proceedings. There was a lot at stake, so the work was serious — but it was also seriously fun.
Be open to serendipity
At the beginning of the sessions, the band made slow progress with the new music. They recognized that something was missing. Eventually, someone suggested they might need a keyboard player. By coincidence, Billy Preston — a fantastic keyboard player and an old friend of the band —dropped in for a visit at the studio.
On the spot, the band invited him to play on a track. The addition unlocked the music and changed the tenor of the sessions. They asked him to remain for the rest of the sessions, even though they hadn’t yet figured out the logistics. (E.g., drawing up a contract.)
This seemed like a fantastic coincidence: just as the band discussed the need for a keyboard player, an excellent one showed up. But the key here is that the band was open to this happy accident. It made an important difference to the quality of the final product.
Structure for clarity and narrative coherence
So far, all these observations have been about the film’s content. But I can’t end this list without mentioning a lesson from the film’s structure.
Jackson uses a clever device that helps us understand what’s going on: each day’s footage is preceded with an animation of a calendar of January 1969. As each day comes to a close, the film shrinks into that date’s box in the calendar, where it’s marked off with an “X.” The frame then moves to the next day.
This structural device serves three purposes:
- it reminds us of where we are (e.g., near the beginning of the project, in the middle, near the end),
- it orients us around significant milestones (e.g., the date of the upcoming live concert), and
- it helps build and sustain narrative tension by reminding us that time is running out.
The animated calendar in Get Back is a brilliant piece of information architecture that makes the footage of the project more understandable and engaging.
And then, in the end
When Steve Jobs died, Jonathan Ive delivered a brief, touching eulogy. His speech included the following lines:
Steve used to say to me — and he used to say this a lot — “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.”
And sometimes they were. Really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet simple ones, which in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound.
And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.
I was reminded of these lines while watching Get Back. In the film, we get to see ideas emerge as “barely formed thoughts” and then evolve towards classic songs we know and love.
None of the Beatles had yet reached thirty when the film was shot, but they were already masters. The tensions manifest in Get Back got worse, and the band broke up the following year. Afterward, they made wonderful music as solo artists and with other collaborators. But they never achieved the same level of success they had with the Beatles.
But for the brief period captured in Get Back, they were arguably at the height of their powers as a unit. It’s rare to get such a detailed and intimate portrait of creation at the hand of masters, especially in a group setting. We owe the Beatles (and the filmmakers) thanks for allowing us this wonderful peek into their process.