In almost any other context, starting off a Beatles-related documentary with clips from their legendary 1964 Ed Sullivan Show performance would be a red flag. It’s such an instant, ubiquitous shorthand for the band that setting the stage that way feels like a cheat. Yet, deploying it is one of the first examples that the latest Hulu documentary series “McCartney 3, 2, 1” is having fun with convention and using it for its own purpose.
The show itself is deceptively simple: Two musical legends, Paul McCartney and producer Rick Rubin, have a six-episode conversation about music and creativity. Staged in an empty soundstage, this pair is otherwise surrounded by a skeleton camera crew and the instruments that best show each man’s wizardry. For McCartney, it’s the guitar and the piano, the two simplest ways to convey a handful of the melodies that made him and three other guys from Liverpool the most famous band in history. Rubin’s forte is the mixing board, where with the help of the master tracks of legendary Beatles, Wings, and solo McCartney recordings, he’s able to isolate not only the parts of those songs that stand out to his long-trained ears but those that best illustrate the craft that set his chatting partner ahead of so many of his peers.
That Sullivan footage pops up during a back-and-forth not tied to any song in particular, but more of an opening volley about the practical realities of songwriting six decades ago. Before long, the two are at the board, unpacking songs in non-chronological order of when they were released. There’s a certain playfulness with how director Zachary Heinzerling sets up each individual song. Some are played in with a story about some component part of the tune itself or some setup tied to the location where the song sprung from or a deliciously unprompted bit of the original recording. (To hear how quickly John Lennon goes from cracking jokes about tempo to beginning one of the best songs on “Revolver” is worth watching the entire series.)
One of the show’s greatest magic tricks is being accessible to all levels of Beatles fans. Those with only a passing familiarity with anything beyond “Hey Jude” can latch onto McCartney and Rubin’s more granular talk about musical instincts and song construction. Those fans who haven’t quite dug into some of the deep cuts can nod and mouth along to “Eleanor Rigby.” Those who can rattle off “Anthology” rehearsal tracks won’t glean a lot of new information here — how do you get someone who’s spent 60 years being a global icon to offer up fresh anecdotes? — but the retrospective nature of the show will give eagle-eyed enthusiasts a chance to see where his perspective has changed and what details have slipped his mind altogether. (Full disclosure: I’m firmly in between the second and third camps, so take this whole piece with whatever-sized grain of salt that implies.)
With a project that has such an explicit hook as this one, there isn’t much room to add outside context. Heinzerling does manage to thread in some archival footage — home videos from McCartney’s self-imposed post-breakup exile to Scotland, photos of Paul and John and George playing for small social functions before they broke big — to mark transitions in the conversation. Some of these episodes, having reached a stopping point, toss on a vintage TV performance as an outro to the end credits. These aren’t always particularly illuminating, but they do help to add to the feeling and time and place that these stories are referencing.
In addition to those sparsely used cutaways, Heinzerling deploys a handful of swirling cameras that turn the sliding of faders into a show all its own. There’s an electricity in the music itself, paired with Rubin and McCartney’s parallel reactions to discoveries buried deep in these song mixes, that the show almost doesn’t need that added visual momentum. But Heinzerling has a deft touch for when and where to augment the proceedings with an extra light show or to turn McCartney himself into a dolly track pivot point.
Despite the narrow range of contributors, “McCartney 3, 2, 1” isn’t designed as a hagiography. If anything, it’s Rubin’s fandom that’s doing more to single out McCartney as a virtuoso than McCartney himself. (Though, when the two of them are listening to the isolated bass and drum tracks on “Come Together,” it would be hard for anyone to remain objective.) Even though he’s clearly enamored of McCartney’s music, he’s also someone who’s been on the other side of this dynamic. As such, he’s a savvy interviewer, blending more song-specific questions with the occasional platform to let McCartney connect with the emotions of any given moment, past or present.
McCartney is an executive producer on the series and has his name on the show, so those looking for a comprehensive look back at The Beatles or even Wings should adjust their expectations. (Those hoping for a full “McCartney II” appraisal should also know that there’s only room for quick discussions of two of those songs here.) There are stretches dedicated to each of the other parts of the Beatles foursome, but they’re inherently filtered through McCartney’s memories and point of view. As such, “McCartney 3, 2, 1” is more of a time capsule, a record of one man’s consideration of what he helped bring into the world. Whether you believe it or not, when McCartney says, “I’ve grown to be a fan of The Beatles,” it points to someone who’s been living with these songs for the overwhelming majority of his life, even if he hasn’t taken them apart in quite this way before.
Naturally, much of the Rubin-led parts of this conversation circle back to McCartney’s working and personal relationship with John Lennon. Perhaps it’s respect, maybe it’s reticence, but the series doesn’t explicitly dig quite as deep into that dynamic as the songs themselves. Still, there are plenty of comments, pointed or otherwise, that hint at what McCartney was like as a collaborator. Some are self-revealed (the nickname he knew would get under Lennon’s skin, his repeated joking that he would come in and “ruin” songs after his bandmates had introduced complete ideas of their own), but you can glean others from what he responds to as these tapes play.
“McCartney 3, 2, 1” is certainly packed with displays of its title artist’s musical confidence. There are also plenty of stretches where McCartney is deferential, giving credit to the contemporaries and musical ancestors who shaped his own creations. Of course, there’s talk of Jimi Hendrix’s mythic “Sgt. Pepper’s” performance — with footage to prove it — but there’s also room to praise James Ray and Roy Orbison and Fela Kuti. Perhaps the most illuminating outside reference is to James Jamerson, a mainstay Motown session bassist. Through him, and through Rubin’s repeated fascination with The Beatles and Wings basslines, one subtle “McCartney 3, 2, 1” contribution is giving the audience a greater sonic appreciation for how those low riffs contribute to the greatest songs across any number of genres.
Of course, that’s also coupled with the idea that “McCartney 3, 2, 1” is a two-man listening party at its core. When rocking out to White Album cuts occasionally switches over to McCartney trying a few of these licks that he can still play from memory, it’s a fascinating blend of reminiscing and celebration. It’s only coming from one person over six episodes, but as this series proves, there’s enough there to fill 4,000 more.
“McCartney 3, 2, 1” is now available to stream in full on Hulu.