I’m not exaggerating when I say that since watching the Disney Plus documentary Get Back I’ve completely changed my approach to work and life. How can that be?
There are several key moments in the documentary that are as gripping as anything I’ve ever seen at the movies. John, spaced out on heroin for much of the first half of this eight-hour epic, rehearsing Don’t Let Me Down with the band over and over. Is it the drugs hampering his ability to come up with new ideas? The sense that he’s already left the band in his head? Or the awareness that without the constant daily attention of Yoko he will fall apart? Whatever, John is not interested. Right up to the point when Billy Preston turns up to augment the band’s currently tired sound.
The band play the song one more time, they’re fed up but this is the first time Billy’s heard it. He listens. They play it again, he joins in, and one by one the lads look at each other. Oh. My. God. Billy Preston has brought The Beatles back to life!
We can spend hours and years going over the same old mistakes. Not letting go of our babies. Refusing to allow anyone else’s advice to have any impact. Unfortunately in my case and yours this can’t be solved by a Billy Preston organ solo. Yet we often remain too attached to our favourite ideas. Sometimes it’s good to let someone else take over.
Even if your script is brilliant and people love it and the show gets made, as a writer once you’ve put it out there you cease to own the sole right to define what it’s about. You may think it’s a sitcom about four people working in a supermarket, the alienation of the workplace and the disjunct between people and their environment. But if millions come to watch it because there’s a funny actor who makes them laugh every time he slips on the frozen yogurt in the dairy aisle, then that’s what it is.
As Paul sings several times towards the end of the documentary, let it be.
The Long And Winding Article
And it’s Paul who provides the most compelling narratives in the show. I know it’s a documentary, that’s been compiled by a movie director, touched up and coloured in, an approximation of real life rather than the thing itself, and no doubt the subject of hours and years of legal wrangling between the McCartney and Lennon estates. But nothing I’ve read about the history of the Beatles, and believe me I’ve read plenty, comes close to telling the utterly believable story of the band that’s in this documentary.
There are so many ways in which my prejudices and long-held accepted beliefs about the Beatles have been challenged, and along the way they’ve challenged my entire approach to work (and life).
The American sitcom writer Rob Long defined comedy writers as all wanting to write jokes for the smart-ass, wise-cracking Bugs Bunny, but not nice-as-pie boring old Mickey Mouse. I’ve written before about how in Britain, every comedian thinks of themselves as Lennon (Bugs) but never McCartney (Mickey).
My argument was that everyone wanted to be John Lennon – the bad boy, the sharp-witted working-class hero turned social justice warrior. Terry Collier of The Likely Lads. But there’s always room for the McCartney character, good as gold, pleasant, the one you can take home to your mum, Terry’s old mate Bob Ferris. Colliers dig deep, they’re the salt of the earth, Ferris wheels go round and round like hamsters on a treadmill.
The first section of Get Back features the band coming back together to create something new. They don’t yet know what. A TV special? A one-off concert in the Sahara desert? (seriously). George is fed up, no one respects him and he’s got enough material of his own to quit the band and go solo. (He even quits in the first episode but is persuaded back for this final hurrah). John is already semi-detached, barely functioning after years of bearing the brunt of media attacks for his single off-the-cuff comment that was absolutely true when he made it, that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.
He’d been pointing out the absurdity of the situation, but the comment was portrayed in America as a battle between Satan and God, with Satan the Scouser declaring himself the winner. A great example of how something takes on an entirely new meaning once you put it out there.
Ringo is Ringo, good old Ringo, the great unsung hero of this story. The anchor. The calm stoicism that brought him into the band shortly before they rocketed to success helps keep them grounded while everything else falls apart.
And then there’s Paul, the leader. He’s not happy being leader, indeed quite early on he tells the band that he hates the management side, but ever since Mr Epstein died (It’s always “Mr Epstein”) he feels he’s been left no choice.
Just Another Day
We see Paul’s torment, he’s trying to work with John and George, who have already left the band in all but physical presence. What would you do in that situation? You’d be forgiven for getting overwhelmed, neglecting your core work, packing it all in, maybe taking a six month break from it all.
Not Paul, oh no sir. The band have three weeks to get this show together, whatever it’s going to be. And Paul turns up for work, every morning, an hour before the rest, he goes and sits at the piano, and puts in the work at what he does best.
If you want to succeed at what you do you need to have the Paul McCartney work ethic. You turn up every day, however much time you have, and work. Paul’s 9 to 5 was The Beatles, but when they were working towards that final live show he arrived an hour early so he could keep developing Paul. The result of that was a string of phenomenal solo albums in the 70s.
There are some things over which you have no control. There’s a moment in the second section where it sinks in, clearly for the first time in Paul’s case, that the band is finished. He’s crying. All that time, effort and energy wasted in trying to keep the band together, it was for nothing. Again, he could have walked away. But no, he was back next morning, creating new songs.
And what a body of work! I’ve never been a fan of McCartney’s lyrics, but the great thing that shines out from his work ethic is that he’s searching for a truth so deep and personal it’s not always clear he’s aware that he’s doing it. Many of the songs featured in the documentary – The Long And Winding Road, Golden Slumbers, Two Of Us, Let It Be, and of course Get Back, express a yearning for the time when Paul and John were kings of the world, when they were in absolute harmony.
It’s almost like he’s begging with John to come back, the only way he knows – don’t leave me standing here, lead me to your door… two of us going nowhere… you and I have memories longer than the road that stretches ahead… once there was a way to get back home… we’re going home… get back to where you once belonged.
I’d always thought of myself, like most British stand-up comics, as Lennon. The cool one, the bad guy, speaks truth to power. Occasionally, maybe three or four times in my 40-year career, I’ve achieved that. Get Back has changed everything. Now I want to be McCartney. To write and write not just because I want to continue to make a living at it, or because I want to change the world, but simply because I want to get better at it. Turn up every morning, regardless of everything going wrong around me over which I have no control; and work at one of the few things I do have control over, which is improving my craft. And find out more about who I really am.
But it isn’t just work. The great thing that shines out from Paul is his incredible curiosity about the world. He’s engaged in discovering everything he can, about music of course but he’s also interested in art, politics, photography. He’s got a hinterland.
There’s never enough time to do everything. We all have bad stuff to deal with. And we’re always looking enviably and resentfully at others succeeding more than we are. That feeling may never go away, but if you can I urge you to spend as much time as possible trying to improve. Your craft, and who you are.
All you can do is look at your own skills, work hard at improving them, be curious about the world outside. There’s no guarantee of a successful climax – we already knew from the Let It Be movie that that concert on the roof was a bit of a shambles – so you might as well enjoy the journey.