McCartney 3,2,1:
Sir Paul Recounts
His Singular Oeuvre

Given the size and power of the Baby Boomers demo, it’s a wonder the whole of TV isn’t back to back classic rock documentaries. But there are actually quite a lot of them.

The most annoying of the lot are like PBS’ new Icon: Music Through the Lens, an exhaustive and exhausting six-hour (!) celebration of the rock photographers who brag about the work they’ve done, repeat the same points over and over (“It’s about capturing a moment”) and use the word “iconic” to mean “a picture I did that I remember.” Perhaps because it’s Brit-centric, none of the images held up as iconic actually are. Like me, you may have never even seen many of them before.

For all their celebration of rock stars, they’ve neglected to license much of their music, so generic music plays underneath the boasts and florid remembrances. One guy who has stayed remarkably humble despite making music that actually is iconic is Paul McCartney, whose television appearances can be wanting. Even so, it looked like his 2018 Carpool Karaoke with James Corden would ever be topped.

But now comes the unexpected delight of Hulu’s new McCartney 3,2,1, a black and white document of the meeting of the former Beatle with famed and supremely bearded producer Rick Rubin to dissect the old songs. Mulling over the Beatles oeuvre on a mixing board so that individual tracks can be isolated is something their producer George Martin did on a public TV series a decade or so back.

But here it’s McCartney himself who takes the sliders in his hands to hear previously unnoticed aspects of songs we all thought we knew front and back. More often it’s Rubin, an admirer of his guest but never fawning, who takes the controls. From the first of six half hour segments, something as seemingly simple as “All My Loving” is shown to have all kinds of complexity beneath, with John Lennon’s frenzied rhythm guitar parts underlying the entire song.

More often it’s McCartney’s inventive bass playing that’s isolated, always an engine of every tune, providing a lovely counter melody or extra percussive bolster. And as they marvel at what that band accomplished in a series of songs, McCartney dispenses with some facts about songs or their process that even after 50 years of listening and fervent analysis had never revealed.

In the beginning, the band had to write memorable songs, McCartney says early on for the astonishingly simple reason that they had to remember them—they didn’t have tape recorders or phones to capture melodies, and they didn’t write music. McCartney is removed enough from the era to appreciate what they all accomplished so quickly and it’s a joy to see these two old men swaying gleefully to the music or nodding their heads to these songs we all know.

And yet Rubin has a way to isolate parts of the songs that make them all new again—the bass underpinnings of “Something” or his generally uncredited work playing drums on “Back in the USSR” or providing the wild solo in “Taxman.” They consider the unusual operatic turns in Wings songs like “Band on the Run” or pause on solo highlights. And there are a couple of very early songs he wrote as a teen that may be getting their first outing.

The influences he cites are interesting, from the big endings of Roy Orbison songs, to the melodic invention of Motown bassist James Jamerson that showed him a bass could be as lively as a lead guitar. He recalls being taken back by the raw power of The Kinks, and crying at a performance of Fela Kuti in Lagos. Later, the work of John Cage would inspire some of their further-out experimentation, sometimes tucked deep into the tracks we thought we knew so well.

The stories—often illustrated by films from the old days—are so good you wonder how they’d never been told in so many earlier television series. Rubin, a thoughtful music man with a crazy beard (whose own documentary series Shangri-La had a similarly serene and wise vibe as well as a lot of his own revelations) is just the right person to nudge these nuggets out of McCartney, often by surprising him with the isolated tracks below.

The music is so spellbinding, we don’t mind that director Zachary Heinzerling mostly stays in this unnamed cavernous studio as the camera swirls around them (and odd light plays out of focus behind them). Rubin admits the series was inspired by “the fascination at how important the bass is in context of these songs” and how even more surprising it is to discover it now, half a century later. “The songs are so ubiquitous, we don’t think of them in pieces.” The youth, ambition and fearlessness of The Beatles drove a lot of their advances—as well as having four very talented people in the band, each of whom get their due as the series goes on.

It’s likely this year will be a big one in terms of Beatles appreciation. Peter Jackson’s own six-hour film on the making of Let It Be is due out on Disney+ this Thanksgiving. And as anticipated as that work is, McCartney 3,2,1 sets the bar awfully high.

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