‘McCartney 3,2,1’: Paul McCartney Sits Down With Rick Rubin to Let the Beatles’ Music Tell the Story

There have been countless documentaries, specials and books produced about the Beatles. They remain the most influential band of all time. What makes Hulu’s docuseries “McCartney 3,2,1” different is how it allows Paul McCartney to tell the story without being a talking head. Instead he sits down with legendary producer Rick Rubin to go over his history and that of the Beatles by really talking about the music. Because Rubin is himself a keen musical craftsman, what we as viewers receive is a combination of testimonial and master class. There’s no gossip to be had. No cliché nostalgia for flower power. Rubin rarely utters more than two sentences at a time. McCartney and the mixing board do the real talking.

The look director Zachary Heinzerling chooses is itself dismissive of pure nostalgia. McCartney and Rubin are filmed in black and white, lounging around a dark space, the other main fixture for light being the mixing board. Rubin wears no shoes and McCartney is constantly chewing gum. It’s a livelier version of the aesthetic Andrew Dominik used for his brilliant Nick Cave documentary “One More Time with Feeling.” That was a film about mourning. This one is a joyful set of chapters where McCartney attempts to explain the very composition of Beatles standards and lesser-known songs. Rubin seems ebullient most of the time, eager to pick at McCartney’s memories. Their conversations tend to be divided by whatever track Rubin selects to play on the board. McCartney does cover some of the basics of the Beatles origins. Any casual fan will recognize his descriptions of life in Liverpool. He describes a rather happy home with a musician father who inspired an early love for piano. McCartney admits that it was startling later in life to realize not everyone had it so loving, including John Lennon, whose childhood was marked by loss and was an eye-opener for McCartney. 

But few times will “McCartney 3,2,1” become so introspective. When McCartney talks about his bandmates, including guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr, nearly each memory is attached to moments the featured tracks convey. Still an energetic presence at 79, McCartney seems to be having real fun sharing how he reluctantly became the band’s bassist because frankly, nobody else wanted to do it. He sprints to his feet when Rubin plays “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” revealing how the title came from an airplane ride where he misheard someone asking for “salt and pepper.” There was also the performance of the song he witnessed by Jimi Hendrix, who learned it in the two days since the groundbreaking album was released in 1967. McCartney still gets hyped-up describing Hendrix’s interpretation. Such stories have been known before, but it’s not tiring to hear McCartney himself share them. He is an artist who defined an epoch. To say you were at a show where Hendrix played your song and then asked Eric Clapton, who was in the audience, to tune his guitar, will always be quite a vignette. Another commentary gives insights into a completely different time. McCartney isn’t joking when he states that those early Beatles hits were so memorable because the band had to compose songs they could actually remember. There were no tape recorders to fall back on. 

For viewers who are more into the technical craft of music, this docuseries will be a treasure trove of moments. With Rubin adjusting levels and isolating certain sections of a song, McCartney then points out details not even Rubin noticed, such as the difficulty of Lennon’s drumming in “All My Loving.” One of the most insightful moments has Rubin discuss the strange heaviness of the bass in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as if Lennon were playing a softer song while McCartney was playing something rougher that nonetheless completes the song. While discussing the details of the Beatles music, or the band’s love for American blues and rock n’ roll, McCartney is at his most entertaining as well in front of the camera. He likes to spontaneously sing out loud, show Rubin specific examples on a piano and act as if they were in the midst of recording some new masterpiece. McCartney looks genuinely proud when Rubin breaks down “Penny Lane” and the Beatle remembers pushing a piccolo trumpet player to reach some tremendous peak. Much of this docuseries is about the joy of creativity in and of itself. 

Never does “McCartney 3,2,1” distract itself with tabloid fodder or too many of the same old stories. While listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” McCartney nonchalantly mentions that the whole period was a reflection of the drugged out times the band was living through, but we don’t get a repeat of the well-known story of how Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to marijuana. When McCartney reminisces about the band going off to India to learn about Transcendental Meditation, Rubin shares how it was from his admiration for the band that he too began to practice meditation, which has done him a lot of good. The docuseries also gives barely a few minutes to McCartney’s own career as a solo artist. Although he does make some intriguing comments on what he has noticed in modern music, admitting surprise at how so many new young bands can’t read or write music. It’s not a slight, because for McCartney that just means the music is naturally inside their brains, in the same way “Yesterday” came to him in a dream which he was lucky enough to remember. 

“McCartney 3,2,1” is a short series of six episodes, each running a little under half an hour. In a sense it points to a new standard for how we can continue exploring and learning from the generation of the ‘60s, when culture and music underwent such a titanic shift. After so many documentaries and other media on the topic, it’s refreshing to just let someone like McCartney talk about the craft through his memories, while listening to the music being broken down by an accomplished producer. Time flies and the boomer generation that gave us The Beatles will soon fade away, so a testimonial like this becomes even more valuable. The juicier details one can get from other sources. What matters is the music because it’s the music that is truly timeless.

McCartney 3,2,1” begins streaming July 16 on Hulu.