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‘McCartney 3, 2, 1’ Is Revelatory—Just Not in the Ways You’d Expected

The six-part Hulu doc is a journey through the former Beatle’s memory, but shines most when his songs take center stage

Hulu/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Memories are malleable. The more we retrieve and recount them, the more they may change. Each time we exhume a memory for our own inspection, or tweak a retelling to get a laugh or coax a cry, we run the risk of unwittingly altering the original recollection. And the older we get, the less likely we are to relive events via vivid, specific details (“verbatim memories”) as opposed to fuzzy, general representations of past events (“gist memories”).

All of which makes me wonder what happens in the hippocampus of Paul McCartney when the 79-year-old former Beatle is asked about his 20-something self. Does he remember being in the Beatles, or is he remembering remembering being in the Beatles? And how can he separate how it happened then from what he knows now? As McCartney says in Hulu’s new six-part docuseries about Beatle Paul, McCartney 3, 2, 1, “I say I look back, and at the time, I was just working with this bloke called John. Now I look back and I was working with John Lennon.” That telltale “I say” at the start of the statement suggests that even this is a remark he’s made before.

Therein lay the challenge for the makers of McCartney 3, 2, 1: how to induce one of the most-interviewed men in the world (and, perhaps, in history) to say something he hasn’t said (or even thought) in more than half a century of talking about a band that last recorded before he turned 28. Eliciting something fresh seems to have been one of the producers’ primary concerns. When I talk to EP Jeff Pollack, a longtime movie music supervisor, he cuts in to question me about McCartney 3, 2, 1 first: “What was new for you? Were there any new stories?”

McCartney connoisseurs will recognize plenty of repeated tales in Hulu’s long and winding ode to McCartney’s musical genius, which was released on Friday: how he and John Lennon met and made the perfect partners; how he heard “Yesterday” in his dreams; how Jimi Hendrix covered “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” two days after its release (an anecdote that often graces McCartney’s concerts and talk-show appearances); how he helped Lennon make “Come Together” sound swampy; how a depressed Paul retreated to Scotland and went back to basics after the Beatles broke up; how he and first wife, Linda, were robbed in Lagos and lost their demos for Band on the Run. But what the series lacks in previously unheard information about the Beatles’ lives, it more than makes up for in celebrating and documenting the minor miracles that occurred when they came together inside the studio. By centering the songs, McCartney 3, 2, 1 captures its subject’s wonder at the way in which he and his friends made music—which, unlike memory, doesn’t degrade or sound stale, even after 50-plus years.

Unlike previous Pollack-produced looks at Laurel Canyon, Johnny Cash, and Frank Sinatra, McCartney 3, 2, 1 isn’t a standard documentary. It is, as Pollack puts it, “a very intimate discussion between two music greats.” The only talking heads here are McCartney and super-producer Rick Rubin, who leads McCartney on a mystery tour of his musical accomplishments, prompting Paul to chime in about how he or his Beatle bandmates wrote this or played that. Each episode consists of excerpts from an extended conversation between McCartney and Rubin, who filmed for two days at a hastily assembled soundstage near McCartney’s Hamptons home last August. In the course of the three-hour series (which was whittled down from 15 hours of footage), McCartney and Rubin revisit roughly three dozen songs from the first quarter century of the McCartney catalog, ranging from his earliest experiments to Beatles classics to a couple of cuts from McCartney II.

“We didn’t need to do another Beatles doc,” Pollack says. “We didn’t want to do a touring Beatlemania doc. We didn’t want to really explore the stories … that people knew so well.” Instead, he says, “We wanted to talk to the musician who happened to be a Beatle.” The pitch to Paul, who had some downtime during the pandemic (though he continued to record), was less about McCartney as a cultural icon than about his bona fides as a bloke who plays bass (and piano, guitar, and drums, among many other instruments). Pollack continues, “We felt that what might appeal to Paul was to really focus on his extraordinary musical chops. … He really hadn’t been approached about that sort of focus before. And I think it felt fresh to him.”

In the fifth episode, Rubin reads McCartney a quote from his phone that sums up the series’ thesis: “Paul is one of the most innovative bass players that ever played bass, and half of the stuff that’s going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatle period. He’s always been a bit coy about his bass playing, but he’s a great, great musician.” When Rubin reveals the quote came from Lennon, McCartney seems surprised and touched. “That’s John?” he asks. “All right! Come on, Johnny! That’s beautiful. I hadn’t heard that before.”

That could be because the ever-acerbic Lennon didn’t say it quite that way. The actual 1980 quote, as it appeared in Playboy, was, “Paul was one of the most innovative bass players ever. And half the stuff that is going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatles period. He is an egomaniac about everything else about himself, but his bass playing he was always a bit coy about.” (Playboy interviewer David Sheff’s book, All We Are Saying, restores an additional line: “He is a great musician who plays the bass like few other people could play it.”) Whether on purpose or unintentionally, Rubin omitted the part about Paul being an egomaniac, which would have sapped some of the sweetness from the scene.

If Lennon were alive, he might feel vindicated by McCartney’s decision to participate in a series designed to highlight his skills, though if anyone is entitled to have an ego, it’s the man who may be the most successful composer and performer of all time. (If “egomaniac” is the worst one can say about someone who’s spent so long in the public eye, then he’s probably led a virtuous life by rock-star standards; as one character says to a gaggle of soon-to-be-appalled people in the first season of Rutherford Falls, “Google John Lennon.”) McCartney, who picked up the bass by default after Stuart Sutcliffe left the band, became a melodic, inventive player whose bass lines helped form the foundation of the Beatles’ sound while also sometimes seeming to be part of separate songs.

As much as McCartney and Rubin, the stars of McCartney 3, 2, 1 are the master tapes that Pollack says were sent over from England. “It’s obviously quite a task to get that stuff out of Abbey Road,” Pollack says, “but I don’t know how else you can do something fresh, unless you are actually listening to the masters and [can] play it back and hear things and cherry-pick moments and harmonies.” Anyone who’s played The Beatles: Rock Band or listened to isolated tracks from Beatles tunes on YouTube knows how illuminating it can be to break beloved songs into their constituent parts. As Rubin observes in the series, “The songs are so ubiquitous in our culture that we don’t really think of them in pieces. We just think of them as that song.”

For much of the series, Rubin (clad in T-shirt and shorts) stands at a soundboard and moves faders up and down to ease some instruments out of the mix and call attention to others, laying bare the bones of each recording in a way that even McCartney may not have heard since the ’60s. Those tracks make clear how much McCartney’s adventurous and often-busy bass lines added to songs such as “Something,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Lovely Rita.”

For fans whose appetite for the Beatles begins and ends with 1, the docuseries’ Song Exploder–style breakdowns of deep cuts may be a bit much (even though there are 40 more years of McCartney music that don’t appear here). The series, Pollack says, is “for someone who really loves music and wants to understand it more. And so many people are interested today in the process and peeking behind the curtain. How do you make things? What goes through your head? How much of it is an accident? And how much of it is deliberate?”

McCartney doesn’t seem to know how he writes songs; for decades, he’s fostered the great gift he was given, but it remains mostly ineffable. “As you get older, you think, ‘Well, how did I know that?’”, he says, contemplating the counterpoint in one of his earliest creations, “I Lost My Little Girl.” “And I haven’t got an answer.” All he’s trying to do, he says, is “discover a little thing that sounds nice”—or, as Mozart supposedly said, to find the “notes that like each other.” He’s much more expansive in explaining how he transposes songs from his head to a record. As he reveals how George Harrison achieved a certain guitar tone or why George Martin contributed a piano part, Paul likens the Beatles and their longtime producer to professors in a laboratory. “The band was a very free band,” he says. “We would allow each other pretty much anything.” (Most of the time, at least; in a rare allusion to the band’s strained relations and his own reputation for micromanaging, McCartney notes that at times, “I’d butt in, and they’d hate me for it.”)

Although Rubin knew which songs he planned to present to McCartney, they don’t appear in any discernible order. “Nobody wanted a chronological history,” Pollack says. “I think that was expected. And I think what we were trying to do is make something unexpected.” The series flits from early obscurities including “Thinking of Linking” to seminal ’60s songs such as “Here, There and Everywhere” to post-Beatles B-sides like “Check My Machine,” liberally fast-forwarding and rewinding through multiple musical eras. It’s like listening to McCartney on shuffle. The unstructured set list makes it more difficult to follow the progression and increasing sophistication of McCartney’s compositions, but it also keeps the audience in suspense. “If you mix it up, you get a chance to expand people’s knowledge about something and make them work a little bit more,” Pollack says.

Rubin’s early calling card as a producer was a simplified sound stripped of the studio ornamentation that the Beatles helped pioneer. Here he marvels at the string sections, layered vocals, and Moog synthesizers. (“Because Mr. Moog is upstairs, you grab his Moog,” McCartney remarks, remembering the sessions for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”—as internally divisive a song as the Beatles ever recorded, though that doesn’t come up in McCartney 3, 2, 1.) But both by design and by necessity, the series itself features a simple setup and visual palette. Aside from a few archival clips of the Beatles or other artists who influenced McCartney (including Fela Kuti, James Jamerson, and John Cage), there’s just McCartney, Rubin, and a room, shot in black and white for a vintage, timeless look. Pandemic protocols limited the producers to a tiny crew, and only occasional cameos from camera operators in the shadows spoil the illusion that McCartney and Rubin have the small space to themselves. “You’re almost like a voyeur, sitting 10 feet away, watching this happen,” Pollack says.

The set, which was constructed for the series near Paul’s pandemic pad, was designed to resemble a studio, with a bass, a piano, and acoustic guitar arrayed around the soundboard for Paul to pick up and play. Rubin is a rapt audience, asking questions, spurring free associations, geeking out about the bass tone on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and sometimes simply saying “Wow” like the second coming of Chris Farley. In some segments, he literally learns at Paul’s feet, sitting cross-legged like a kid during show and tell (or a Beatle at Rishikesh) as McCartney strums a song.

Sometimes the two have to raise their voices to make themselves heard over the sound system. Sometimes they silently listen. The three-hour running time—half as long as Peter Jackson’s upcoming Beatles docuseries, Get Back—allows director Zachary Heinzerling the luxury of lingering on the pair as they groove. “It really has a chance to breathe,” Pollack says of the series. “And it has its own pacing. It’s more leisurely, more thoughtful, more musical. That’s what happens in a studio. It doesn’t move quickly.”

Like any oldster, McCartney can’t help ruminating about the way it was, marveling that there was no way to record demos at home. He recalls how he and John joked about being part of the Celtic “bardic tradition” because they couldn’t read music; how the Beatles had to hurry early on to make the most of scant studio time; how they made mistakes and left them in if the producer didn’t notice. But unlike a lot of his peers, he rarely suggests that things were better back then or that the artists who’ve come after him—many of whom he wants to work with—aren’t equally inspired. As charming and at ease as ever, he remains an irrepressible optimist, young in outlook if not in voice.

Often as McCartney is called upon to be a Beatles expert, there’s no apparent resentment about being asked to dwell on a small sliver of his history, no visible boredom because he’s revisiting some songs for the umpteenth time. On the contrary; he can’t stop singing along with his younger self and his long-gone friends as he listens to “Lovely Rita,” “This Boy,” and “Maybe I’m Amazed.” He knows what this music means to people, and it still seems to mean something to him—maybe more now, as a self-described Beatles fan, than it did when he was a Beatle. “There’s obviously the cool guys who [say], ‘Well, I don’t care,’” McCartney says when Rubin asks him what it was like to get famous. “And that’s great. But I think most people want to be accepted.”

It’s been almost 15 years since McCartney made a (great) record called Memory Almost Full, but he hasn’t stopped making new memories. Whether the old ones are pristine or not, he’s happy to share them. And because he’s still here—still touring, still recording, still reminiscing—he’s become a kind of curator of the band’s legacy, the last living conduit to that songwriting magic. (Sorry, Ringo.) It’s a treat to spend some time so close to the source. McCartney is constantly moving forward. But those who love his art are lucky he likes looking backward too.