The Beatles Documentary ‘Get Back’ Reveals Creativity Doesn’t Happen By itself

Is music legend and ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney a creative genius?

Not according to Edward P. Clapp, principal investigator at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. The project aims to understand and foster “learning, thinking, ethics, intelligence and creativity”.

In a recent video interview with me, Clapp said he rather sees McCartney, or any other artistic figure who might be considered a creative genius, as playing the role of a creative producer – one who synthesizes influences and information .

“I dispute the genius idea, wholeheartedly…I don’t believe in it,” he said. “I think people, all people, have the ability to participate in creativity.”

Clapp’s theory of “participatory creativity” replaces the notion that creative output emerges only because of a creative individual working alone in a studio or high up in a candle-lit attic.

While the individual participates in their unique and important way, what also matters is the matrix of people, objects and events within which ideas develop.

Creative process in action

I called Clapp after teaching his book Participatory Creativity: Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Class. I wanted his opinion Come backdirector Peter Jackson’s three-part, eight-hour Beatles documentary based on 56 hours of meticulously restored film and 150 hours of audio from the making of the 1970 album So be it.

In particular, I wanted to talk about a scene in which McCartney creates the song “Get Back,” one of the Beatles’ most enduring hits, in about two minutes flat, like out of nowhere. It is a remarkable and direct view of the creative process in action.

Official trailer of the documentary “Get Back”.

I had shared this stage with a cohort of students from the Imagination, Creativity and Innovation program of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. The program supports teaching and learning as creative and aesthetic experiences.

The notion of participatory creativity has major implications for any person or organization concerned with the creation of innovative ideas or artistic expression. It is recognizing and implementing the means to foster creativity as a collaborative process.

Participatory creativity also promotes equity by turning away from the more traditional ideal of the individual “genius” celebrated in Western culture—figures like Picasso or Steve Jobs—who are most often male and white.

Breaking down the “Get Back” scene

In the scene showing McCartney working on “Get Back”, for a moment McCartney scratches and hums without a word. The sequence, the sound, the rhythm and even the lyrics are largely laid down.

How does this fit with participatory creativity?, I asked Clapp. Doesn’t this prove that “the cute Beatle” was a creative genius?

Clapp said no and came up with elements that came together at that time like alchemy.

Pressures and timing: “The band is having a hard time shutting down, they walked into the studio with no gear, came out of the studio some time later with some of their best hits,” Clapp said.

The other Beatles, atmosphere in the room: “Paul is here. George and Ringo are there. John is late again. And they’re like, ‘Oh, John is late again.’ They are a bit dismissive of that. So there’s attitude, there’s tone, there’s mood. It’s present in the room,” he noted.

“Let it Be” is the last album released by the Beatles.

Driving forces in creativity: It’s not just people who influence outcomes, Clapp explained. “Sometimes actors are non-sentient beings,” he said. “They are forces, objects and things. All that stuff, that non-human stuff [is] play a role. This includes instruments:

“There’s a guitar playing a role…Paul brings an emotional aspect to it – he doesn’t have a plan. He’s working on something.… So, [we see] him and the guitar, and the emotion in the room which is rather pessimistic and cynical and dismissive, maybe even hostile. In this little triad – Paul, guitar, mood and tone – we have three different actors.

My own analysis revealed other ways in which the creation of the song was collaborative:

Societal tensions: The film highlights that there were tensions in England in 1969 around immigration, with racist politicians like Enoch Powell arguing that black immigrants from England’s former colonies should be sent “home” – so to speak, there. where they once belonged. Clapp agreed that was another factor in the creation of the song.

The class system: McCartney mimics the upper-class accent of Michael Lindsay-Hogg, director of the 1970 documentary So be it during the Come back clip. Along with his bandmates, Liverpudlian McCartney was an intruder on the London art scene. “Get Back” reflects the permanent dilemma of the stranger and whether and where he should return.

Additional people: Billy Preston, who plays keyboards on the song, is a friend from when the band was playing in Hamburg, Germany. His optimistic presence affects the atmosphere.

Fans glimpsed through the windows of the recording studio: At the last rooftop concert on the streets of London, crowds gather in the streets. McCartney’s desire to “return” to performing live is often hinted at in the film.

Musical knowledge and skills: During the film, the band plays or ad-libs over 400 songs, their own compositions as well as rock ‘n’ roll standards, contemporary hits, jazz standards from their parents’ era, and improvised songs. “Get Back” emerges and dialogues with this remarkably diversified repertoire.

“Paul kind of comes up with the two most obvious words you can think of, which is just ‘come back,'” Clapp said.

But then there’s the ambiguity of the phrase “to where you once belonged” – as if going back was impossible, leaving the song in a bittersweet position between longing and regret.

Ignore the individual?

A man in an unbuttoned white shirt with a high collar smiling.
Paul McCartney seen in 1969, the year before he composed “Get Back”.
(AP Photo/File)

I asked Clapp if participatory creativity ignores the agency of the individual. After all, McCartney is providing the music and lyrics.

“It’s a huge misconception,” he said. “A participatory approach to creativity highlights the contribution of the individual because the individual uniquely participates in the development of creative ideas in their own way.”

In Clapp’s scientific writings, he notes that “many supposedly creative individuals may spend much of their lives alone” with their work.

But he also insists on principles highlighted by researchers who have studied the phenomena of creativity: in this solitary time, they rely on past collaborations. They also engage with the technologies or tools of predecessors and they “work in relation to an often complex polyphony of current and historical audiences”.

The world needs creative answers to a myriad of problems; the message of participatory creativity has never been more urgent.

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