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All you need is Paul

In ‘McCartney 3, 2, 1,’ a six-part Hulu series, the former Beatle talks with legendary record producer Rick Rubin.

Rick Rubin (left) and Paul McCartney in "McCartney 3,2,1."
Rick Rubin (left) and Paul McCartney in "McCartney 3,2,1."Hulu

McCartney 3,2,1,” Zachary Heinzerling’s illuminating six-part documentary in which former Beatle Paul is interviewed by veteran producer Rick Rubin, seems to take place in some transcendent dimension.

Shot in opalescent black-and-white, the setting looks like a stage set or a recording studio or some cozy basement den poised in the void. A few bright lights shine in the darkness and occasionally a dim passing figure can be glimpsed. Scattered about are a piano, guitars, and a mixing board that Rubin will operate to play songs and isolate elements in the songs that he and McCartney analyze and wax sentimental about.

Rubin’s white-bearded, barefoot resemblance to a hippie version of William Blake’s Ancient of Days adds to the otherworldliness, and one might imagine the specters of John Lennon and George Harrison and the deathless, ageless Ringo Starr joining the show. Archival footage and stills, in period color or in monochrome, of the eternally youthful McCartney and his Beatle cohorts, punctuate the misty ambiance. Not only is the series an in-depth look into the creative process and an account of a unique cultural moment but it also evokes the workings of memory and the passage of time.

The world's most famous left-handed bassist, as seen in "McCartney 3,2,1."
The world's most famous left-handed bassist, as seen in "McCartney 3,2,1."Hulu

As befits such an amorphous, indeterminate setting the topics discussed emerge with the seeming randomness of free association and stream of consciousness — which is also the way, according to McCartney, much of the Beatles’ music came about. In episode one (“These Things Bring You Together”), he muses on disparate topics such as how his optimism and John Lennon’s cynicism meshed in their songwriting, and how his sunnier attitude can be traced to a childhood in which his family gathered to sing show tunes while his father played the piano (“I thought everyone had happy families,” he says); in contrast, Lennon experienced a father’s abandonment and a mother’s premature death.

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McCartney then digresses to his relationship with Harrison, how they met as kids on the school bus and bonded over their shared taste in music. Both played guitar and would learn new chords and teach them to one another.

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McCartney plays one of those chords. He can remember the fingering but not the name — “F something or other” — and explains how he included it in pseudo-chansons he played at parties while pretending to be French to impress girls. Later Lennon would remind him of those ditties which McCartney then resurrected and combined with elements of Edith Piaf’s “Milord” and a few French phrases suggested by a friend and, voila, the result was “Michelle,” from “Rubber Soul” (1965).

Simple, right? That’s how you make a hit that the world will still be humming five decades later.

Rick Rubin (left) with Paul McCartney, in "McCartney 3,2,1."
Rick Rubin (left) with Paul McCartney, in "McCartney 3,2,1."Hulu

Some of the anecdotes McCartney spins are familiar. In episode three (“The People We Loved Were Loving Us!”) he reprises the story about how “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967), did not in fact reference LSD but was inspired by a childhood drawing by John’s son Julian. Less well known is the story he tells about “Dear Prudence,” from the “White Album” (1968), which Lennon wrote at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India where he and the others tried to coax Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, to stop meditating and come out of her chalet.

Some of the numbers explicated are relatively obscure. Much of episode four (“Like Professors in a Laboratory”) is spent dissecting “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” from “Abbey Road” (1969), an analysis unlikely to win many new fans for that oddity. But other curiosities get deserved attention, such as “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from “Revolver” (1966), and the inimitable “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” the B-side of the single “Let it Be” (1970).

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Throughout the series McCartney emphasizes that the Beatles’ success was not the achievement of individual efforts but came from serendipity, teamwork, and a group ethos that encouraged new challenges. Though he doesn’t go much into detail about the working relationship between himself and Lennon, from the way McCartney speaks of it their synergy is evident. So are his feelings of melancholy and regret at how it all came undone.

Though McCarthy refrains from details and recriminations he admits that he was heartbroken when the band dissolved; and maybe for that reason several of the songs from the group’s last album, “Let It Be” (1970), are featured in the series. Indeed these last sessions receive as much attention as McCartney’s own post-Beatles body of work (though he is still a force to be reckoned with; his most recent album, “McCartney III,” was number one in both Britain and the United States in December 2020).

Think of this series as an intimate prelude to Peter Jackson’s mega-documentary about the making of “Let It Be,” which comes out in November. The rooftop performance of “Get Back” takes on even more poignance seen here, and the series itself, perhaps inevitably, concludes with “The End,” from “Abbey Road.”

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“McCartney 3,2,1” premieres July 16 on Hulu. Go to www.hulu.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.