Watching Get Back

I enjoyed watching Get Back, the new documentary about making a Beatles album. Sometimes I skipped over rehearsal scenes. The streaming format allows you to treat Get Back like a coffee table book, if you choose, as opposed to a feature film that you watch all the way through in one sitting.

I know very little about The Beatles, aside from recognizing their hit songs. Here are my impressions after watching most of Get Back.

Paul McCartney is a rock star. His hair could have its own line in the closing credits. When Paul goofs off, he appears to be entertaining his bandmates because he loves playing for any audience. Conversely, John Lennon seems to joke around because he does not take their music seriously. Paul is motivated to make the Beatles excellent. Ringo’s ability to show up and be quiet is almost as important as Paul’s ability to lead.

I’ll put up my tribute. Then I’ll add more casual observations.

Let It Be. I’m kind of out of breath because it was filmed at home with kids running amok.

Get Back is dramatic, even though the premise could sound boring. Since I know the song Let It Be, it was a powerful moment for me when it just popped up at the end of the first episode. Sometimes I’m surprised at how nostalgic The Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel feel to me. I was not alive for their moment of peak relevance, but they still feel like an indelible force. We ‘90’s kids have our music. You’ll never hear us claim that no good songs were made after 2005. Even though I don’t agree that no good music was made after 1985, I understand why some people feel that way.

Get Back was filmed before cell phones. People walk into the studio in the morning, and you just wait to see when and if the group will all show up. The bandmates cannot reach each other (although sometimes a landline call gets through).

Ringo Starr appears so bored throughout the monotonous rehearsals. Constantly cutting to his facial expressions is funny. He seems like he might benefit from a few respites to look at Twitter. On the other hand, the band is not distracted by smartphones when they are working together. They are mentally present, when they are in the room together.

Their creative process resembles co-authoring a research paper. When Paul is working out a song and humming through places he hasn’t worked the lyrics out yet, that reminds me of the early drafts of a paper. You don’t have to have the whole Introduction written. The hook of a song is a bit like the main result of a research paper. Persuading yourself and your coauthor that you have a project worth finishing is the first step. Coauthors have unspoken agreements on how the project is going to proceed. The tacit knowledge of the collaborative process is one of the most important things you can learn in graduate school. Their jokes also reminded me of the way academics joke around. It’s all out on #EconTwitter these days.    

A current economist who I would compare to Paul McCartney is PJ Healy. I bet there are some other good comparisons that can be made. Charisma matters in academia, although perhaps not as much as it does for fronting a rock band.

Watching people chain smoke indoors is horrifying. I googled and found that Paul did not cut back on cigarettes until he had a medical emergency in the ‘80’s. Unbelievable. Generally, these rock stars are not up to the physical fitness standards of current celebrities. I think health science and exercise science have come a long way. I suppose rich people did not have personal trainers back then. Justin Bieber, for example, has made being ripped part of his personal brand. Check out this video of Bieber around age 13. He is a born rock star, too.

Seeing The Beatles use material they wrote in their teens is a good reminder to keep a diary. Your older self might be able to build on inspirations you had when you were younger.

The contrast between Paul and George is interesting. My favorite part of the first episode is when George is complaining, and Paul is NOT saying anything back even though it’s so clear what he really thinks.

The Paul-George contrast is most clear in their attitudes about a final live performance. George likes to sit in their private climate-controlled studio. Paul is pushing to do something dramatic. Playing on the roof is the best feasible idea. George says something like, “you’re not going to make me go up with the chimneys”. The chimneys? That’s what he’s thinking of? Paul is thinking of the people – the people in the street and the people who will see it all on film.

Then on the day of the outdoor performance, George shuffles out on the roof in a big coat like his mom just forced him to go outside. Paul has a suit on and leads through charisma. George appears like he starts having fun after it’s clear that the stunt is working. But it’s only working because Paul went up there believing and emanating good vibes. Every classroom teacher should watch the last half of the third episode of this show. The stuff with the cops is just funny fluff, but watch how Paul makes this moment happen for everyone.

The ending is fun. I love the British reaction. The police seem reasonable as they are trying to manage the first ever flash mob. Flash mob performances are common now. Here’s one with 55 million Youtube views. Under the short legality section in Wikipedia, we find that, “The city of Brunswick, Germany has stopped flash mobs by strictly enforcing the already existing law of requiring a permit to use any public space for an event.” Was Brunswick experiencing a high volume of flash mob performances?  Flash mobs have the potential to get annoying or dangerous. I think one reason the problem hasn’t gotten worse is because of the cost to entry. You have to work hard to prepare. If the performance is not good, then you won’t get the desired reaction from the crowd.

Paul jokes about how they are not elite and “uncouth”. To me, the guys seem intelligent and well-spoken. They actually read newspapers. They talk about sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll, but they hardly even curse. Paul uses the F-word a few times, as part of his wide vocabulary, but not as a crutch. If he wants to convey how strongly he feels, he has words for that. I can’t think of the Beatles as edgy. The closest my generation has come to being shocked was when Miley Cyrus killed off her cute childhood persona. That made headlines for a day, but it did not affect culture. The floor has already fallen so low that she will never innovate on that margin.

If you want to fall down the Beatles internet rabbit hole, this is a fun recent video of Paul McCartney answering questions. He points out that most people used to have pianos at home because there was nothing else to to for entertainment. Now that we can stream all this amazing entertainment, far fewer people are ever going to pick up piano. In the past decade I have seen countless internet posts advertising: “this upright piano is free to anyone who can come pick it up.”

4 thoughts on “Watching Get Back

  1. Scott Buchanan December 13, 2021 / 11:24 am

    Great commentary. I was more or less conscious when the Beatles surged into popularity – – they really did change the music scene. A lot of intelligent innovation, that set the bar higher for future bands.


    • Joy December 13, 2021 / 11:27 am

      I think I take their innovations for granted, and therefore probably under-appreciate them. Maybe if they had stayed together longer, it would be easier for me to think of them as founders.


  2. Zachary Bartsch December 13, 2021 / 11:53 am

    Indeed! I got a free upright piano about 12 months ago. Neither of my parents played an instrument and nor did us kids. But, I think of all the opportunities to sing and make music together with family and friends and it’s a beautiful thing. Also, I am a very big Beatles fan. I’ll be sure to watch this!


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