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‘I spontaneously burst into tears’: How 13 songwriters felt watching the new Beatles documentary

Director Peter Jackson edited 60 hours of footage into a documentary series that shows the making of the 1970 album "Let It Be." (Video: Reuters)
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Get Back,” Peter Jackson’s three-part, nearly eight-hour documentary series chronicling the few weeks in which the Beatles wrote and created “Let It Be,” has enthralled fans of the Fab Four since it was released on Thanksgiving Day.

The documentary finds the band facing a looming deadline while simultaneously feeling the pull of their individual creative endeavors. Its hours of previously unseen footage find John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in turn collaborating, bickering and laughing; bored, anxious, angry and gleeful. Throughout it all, classic songs like “The Long and Winding Road,” “I Me Mine” and “Don’t Let Me Down” emerge.

The Washington Post spoke to more than a dozen songwriters about their reactions to the series about the iconic quartet, the viral moment when McCartney writes the backbone of “Get Back” in minutes, and the sometimes smooth, sometimes arduous process of how to craft a song in the first place. Here’s what they had to say.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Tweedy, solo musician and frontman of Wilco: I don’t think of it like any other viewing experience I’ve had in my life. It’s really kind of intense and bizarre. … I spontaneously burst into tears a few times just being able to see the exact moment a take I’ve listened to a thousand times was put down.

Adam Weiner, frontman of Low Cut Connie: I loved watching how a true band processes anxiety and irritation and boredom into great art. … Most [bands] are one person with a vision and the people they play with, or maybe a partnership and the people cast roles around them. There are very few true bands where each player, singer, creative person is actually part of the process. The Beatles were one of them.

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Tweedy: The typical narrative around [“Let It Be”] is one of contentiousness and strife. And, speaking as someone who’s had an album that’s had that same type of mystery or narrative surrounding it, I always try to tell people, “The bad times are just bad enough for something to happen.” But the overall making of any record I’ve been part of has been like this: mostly positive and fun. It’s a bunch of overgrown adolescents sharing an intimate process.

Kevin Morby, rock and folk musician: One of my big takeaways is the underlying tension and the poetry that goes into a band, and how complicated that is. … I feel like John Lennon is completely checked out but also simultaneously plugged in. He’s like, “I don’t care what happens to me, and I don’t care what happens to this band, but I can’t help being amazing.” And Paul is like, “I get that, John, but I have to steer the ship. Someone has to steer it.” Ringo is kind of relaxed, sitting back and knows when to plug into the conversation at exactly the right moment. And then George, I kind of feel for him.

Don McLean, rock musician: What I thought was interesting is I saw another clip where George told them he had a new song called “Something” and he seemed a little scared to play a song for [Lennon and McCartney].

Andy Shauf, rock musician: The things they did with songwriting and pop songwriting — those things didn’t exist yet. Watching the documentary was like being able to put yourself in the mind-set of, “This is fresh.” You’re in the room with them, but you’re also in that current moment with them when the right way to sing this song or that song doesn’t exist — yet.

Katie Crutchfield, rock musician who performs as Waxahatchee: They’re like, “Okay, we’re just going to show up and then we’re going to write a record in a few weeks. … I love that framework of the documentary, that element of the ticking clock.

Walter Martin, solo artist and member of the Walkmen and Jonathan Fire*Eater: It really felt just like band practice. There’s a lot of sitting around, a lot of total screwing around and a lot of playing nonsense music. … Then there’s also of course a lot of plugging away, trying to get what you’re actually working on to be great.

Brian Fallon, solo artist and frontman of the Gaslight Anthem: You watch them do this, and it’s just spitballing. But the truth is you’re literally making something out of nothing.

Crutchfield: The fact that they were the most famous band on Earth didn’t seem to matter much in the room when they were just working.

Tim Heidecker, comedian and rock musician: It isn’t all there at first. It requires work and wanting it to be great. In the first episode, they don’t sound good. They’re sloppy as hell, but that’s where you have to start. Nothing comes out of the oven fully baked without it cooking.

Nestled in Jackson’s documentary is a clip that has now been blasted across the Internet, in which McCartney, feeling pressure to come up with songs, sits down with his bass guitar and starts strumming while Harrison yawns and a bored Starr watches. As McCartney strums and murmurs gibberish, a melody begins to form. Within minutes, we hear the emergence of “Get Back,” one of the Beatles’ most enduring singles.

Crutchfield: The part when Paul starting writing “Get Back” is the moment where [Morby’s and my] jaws were on the floor, and we’re like, “This is actually incredible.”

McLean: Paul was in the middle of a very intense creative time period in the 1960s with all of the big groups and the big writers doing their very best work, so there was a lot of pressure to go deep and top yourself, to dig deeper.

Weiner: It’s another day at the office for Paul McCartney.

Heidecker: At that point, Paul has got diarrhea of the song. He can’t help himself. He’s sitting at the piano and he’s coming up with “Back Seat of My Car” and “Another Day” and “The Long and Winding Road” — and other stuff that never goes anywhere. He can’t help it.

Weiner: He’s got this little mini thing on the [bass]. He starts singing to it, then he likes what he’s singing more than what he’s playing. So then he switches his chord patterns on the guitar and actually simplifies it. What I see is a process of elimination in his songwriting.

Morby: He’s playing the bass like it’s a guitar, which I’ve never seen done. He’s not even playing basslines. He’s playing chords, as if it’s a guitar.

Ben Bridwell, frontman of Band of Horses: He can write a song with four strings.

Morby: There is a sense of fishing, where you have something on the line and then you have to reel it in. And to reel it in, you have to be very concentrated for the next little while.

Fallon: He got that melody, and the words fell out of his mouth.

Crutchfield: What struck me is that the song is so powerful, and that’s its earliest form.

Brittney Spencer, country singer: I think my favorite part is when George starts yawning, but he’s yawning in key, while Paul is playing guitar and mumbling out these melodies.

Heidecker: Every idea starts somewhere and somehow. There’s going to be a genesis moment for every piece of media we’ve ever seen. The gift we have is that they were filming it. They were rolling.

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Many musicians felt validated — if not a bit envious — of McCartney’s process.

Martin: You never get to see someone in that moment of making something up, especially a song that you know so well. That was totally incredible. … You hear a lot of people say they’re like a conduit through which God sends rock-and-roll songs. And maybe some people do believe that, but watching Paul do it that way, where he’s just plugging and plugging and plugging until you get it, is how it really actually happens.

Gregg Gillis, a producer who performs as Girl Talk: This kind of goes back to my background as an engineer, which was a long time ago, but in general how I approach things is to try out all these different combinations of material over the course of hours or days or weeks. … Seeing him compose that song on the spot is kind of like the magic I wish I had.

Fallon: The weird thing is once you see that happen, you realize, “Oh, that’s the way that I do it.” I just sit there, pick up an instrument and start strumming something and singing nonsense. I don’t go on, like, some trip to Spain or whatever and have some mystical thing happen on a cliff where I wait for inspiration.

Lucy Dacus, rock musician: I like this clip because it shows how mundane creativity can be. I bet most songs begin as a bit of mumbling to oneself like Paul does. I usually write while I’m alone on a walk, singing nonsense until it crystallizes into something meaningful and worth repeating. The fact that Paul can do this in the room with his bandmates and surrounded by cameras and on deadline and under significant pressure makes me think that his greatest songwriting skill is trust, in himself and in those around him.

Bridwell: There’s a vulnerability in writing in front of other people, much less an engineer or a producer. There’s an extreme vulnerability when you’re showing your soul like that. The fact that they can do it among one another in real time — there must just be so much love between them.

Spencer: The subtitle on that part of the documentary said that Paul was feeling the pressure of deadlines, so he was searching for songs. And that is very real. … As a new artist, that’s really gratifying to see. They still mumbled and they still felt pressures, and they still had deadlines.

Dacus: If people are seeing this and thinking it's a bit of magic, I hope they also realize magic is within anyone's reach.

Morby: I’m so grateful for this clip [because] I feel like it’s just going to become shorthand for songwriters to point to this clip and say, “That’s how songwriting works. It’s exactly how it works. You’re just pulling things about of thin air.”

The documentary series focuses not only on the successful songwriting of the Beatles but also on some of the more challenging moments in the weeks leading to “Let It Be”: songs that led nowhere and tunes that required more editing than we might expect, which underscored the relentless creativity powering the band and led some musicians to reflect on their own process.

Crutchfield: Sometimes, you have to do what the Beatles are doing in this documentary. It’s a little bit like a “Field of Dreams” thing: If you put a bunch of gear in the room and set an intention, a melody will come. And sometimes you’re just walking down the street, and there’s a melody in your head, and you have to stop everything and record that.

Heidecker: One of the most instructive moments is how many bad ideas there are that get abandoned. The ability to self-edit and criticize themselves and keep working on something until it’s the thing we all know.

McLean: This whole endeavor — writing songs — is filled with failure. Most people think, “Oh the Beatles, everything they did turned to gold.” Wrong. You’re always trying and discarding things and searching for the right thing.

Tweedy: Your ego stands in the way and wants everything to automatically feel great and cool. And the reality is it has to sound bad before it sounds good. … These eight hours reaffirm that.

Morby: There’s something kind of amazing to see that the Beatles, they’re just humans like the rest of us.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Gregg Gillis’s name as Greg. It has been corrected.

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