Is there anything left to say about The Beatles that hasn’t already been said? At times during McCartney 3, 2, 1, the new six-part docuseries looking at the life and music of Paul McCartney, it doesn’t necessarily seem like it. Even those only somewhat familiar with Beatles lore may nod in recognition when the musician talks about how he and John Lennon complemented one another musically, or reminisces about the group’s brotherly bond, or even discusses how they made Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to try and top the then-recently released Beach Boys masterpiece, Pet Sounds.
But then, the odd revealing moment arises: Toward the end of the first episode, producer and series conversational partner Rick Rubin isolates the bass track on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” turning it up in the mix and pointing out how wildly aggressive it is in comparison to the tone of the song. The pair wryly note that any session player brought in to work on the track would never think to play it like that—almost counterintuitive to the style and sound of the guitar and vocals. “It’s almost like two songs on top of each other,” Rubin says. “Yeah,” McCartney agrees, playing with the mix. “I never really noticed before.” A legendary producer and a legendary musician nerd-ing out about the bass line in an old track; this is the real draw of the series. It could well bore a casual viewer to tears, but for audiophile obsessives and Beatles fanatics, stuff like this is catnip.
That’s the reason for the existence of McCartney 3, 2, 1 in a nutshell: to get beyond the usual talking points and instead focus on a deep dive into the specifics of the creative process, going through the artist’s music—with The Beatles, primarily, but also Wings and his solo material—with a fine-tooth comb, pulling out noteworthy elements here and there and placing them under the metaphorical microscope. The results are usually engaging, sometimes even compelling, as Rubin teases out explanations from his subject on the ways youth, and a spirit of experimentation, contributed to the groundbreaking catalogue of the most famous band of all time. Of course, with such prodigious output in such a short time frame, the answer is often more pragmatic than people might expect. Or, as McCartney puts it early on, “We were writing songs not to be memorable, but because we had to remember them.”
Visually, the show embodies the same spirit of unvarnished authenticity that Rubin brings to the albums he’s produced under the American Recordings banner, specifically the stripped-down minimalism of his famed collaborations with Johnny Cash. Shot entirely in black and white (save for the clips of old performances and montages from the eras under discussion), the entire thing is just Rubin and McCartney alone, sitting in a studio—usually in front of a mixing board, but occasionally shifting to a piano, or a couch with a guitar—and talking process. Sometimes, this is in general terms: in the second episode, McCartney pulls the old trick of showing how musicians take the same few chords and repurpose them in all manner of ways to create different styles—rock, R&B, pop, soul, and so on. But more often than not, the pair get laser-focused on a single element of a song, like when McCartney explains how he changed the rhythm of “Come Together” to prevent it from being the Chuck Berry rip-off it began life as.
Those component parts, and the ways McCartney made them sing in such unexpected ways, are the true raison d’etre of these six episodes. As Rubin explains at one point, many of McCartney’s songs have become so ubiquitous in pop culture that we don’t really think of them in parts at this point. Rubin is a superfan, and his enthusiasm brings out that side of McCartney as well, who clearly enjoys digging into the structure and arrangements of his old material with someone capable of dissecting them intelligently. (“I’ve grown to be a fan of The Beatles,” McCartney says by way of explaining how, though it took years, he can now listen to his group’s iconic songs with fresh ears. “I listen back to it, and I’m like, ‘What was that bassline?!’”) Whether it’s discussing the overdriven guitar solo in “Taxman” or the complicated tape loop drone on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the lifelong musician seems to get a kick out of breaking down the unusual choices so often favored by the band in its songwriting and recording.
That tendency towards the musical road less traveled continues in Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles work, as Rubin also spends some time with him breaking down material from both Wings and the first solo album, McCartney. There’s even a moment when McCartney grabs an old guitar and plays the very first song he ever wrote, as a 14-year-old boy, for Rubin, who sits cross-legged on the ground in front of him like an eager acolyte. It makes a strong case that some people are just born gifted: Rubin notes in wonder that the then-teenager’s first song was already contrapuntal—containing simultaneous ascending and descending melodies—despite the songwriter not even knowing how to read or write music. (McCartney: “You think, ‘How did I know that?’ I haven’t got an answer.”)
There are also plenty of anecdotes and stories from his career, for those curious about life in The Beatles and what it’s like to recover from the breakup of a band that’s arguably the most significant thing you’ll ever do. They briefly touch on how McCartney would linger around Abbey Road studios in order to hear Pink Floyd recording Dark Side Of The Moon, or the way Ringo impressed the others during their first encounters with his suave demeanor, lighting two cigarettes at once to give to girls like he was Humphrey Bogart. But these reflections are secondary to the analysis of the musical compositions, so many of which in hindsight look like simple and or obvious choices, but had never yet been done at the time. Others may have been experimenting in similar ways (McCartney name-checks The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, and others), but none with the signature musicality of The Beatles—a distinction not unlike The Social Network’s “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would’ve invented Facebook” line. It’s not for everyone, but for those with a passion for songcraft, or a love of McCartney’s music, McCartney 3, 2, 1 is a source of wonder, compelling and compassionate.