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Hulu's McCartney 3,2,1 Deconstructs a Legend

Rick Rubin is a master at getting an artist to actively deconstruct their work. Tom Petty used his expertise for his landmark, stripped-down album Wildflowers; Andrew Dice Clay created his best work (The Day the Laughter Died) when Rubin placed the raunchy comedian in a sparsely attended NY comedy club, filled with non-fans and let Clay fight his way out. Johnny Cash's last album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, was a massive hit (with a Nine Inch Nails cover) because of how Rubin isolated the spirit of Cash's career, and then brought it back to restrained guitar and piano basics. 

That is to say that “McCartney 3,2,1,” an introspective but slight trip down memory lane, owes its approach more to Rubin than McCartney. It’s just the producer and the Beatle, sitting around a recording console or a piano, as if they were on a stage, in the spotlight. They listen to McCartney's music, and isolate different audio tracks for discussion points. Executive produced by Rubin and McCartney, Zachary Heinzerling's six-part series wants to look like how a Rubin production sounds, but it doesn’t have the same magic. 

The affair is captured in black and white, and the cinematography is sometimes antsy to inject energy into otherwise still moments. (You can even see the camera track, and crew members, in the background.) It’s intimate, but without a great deal more going in the series, it’s too slight of a set-up; the shadows and sometimes big bursts of white light seem to cover up what few good visual ideas there are to the series. Color footage from music’s past—related to McCartney and his influences—is briefly incorporated for fever dream flashbacks. 

McCartney and Rubin are both musical forces who do not know (or care to know, and that's their power) music theory; they both seem kind of amazed how a C major turns into different but fitting chords on other white keys on the piano. Their idea of what sounds good comes from their ears, and instinct. That keeps their discussion here accessible, so to speak, as McCartney talks about feelings, moments, impulses. "McCartney 3,2,1" remains staunchly acoustic in capturing all of this, with the series' focus jumping his career timeline with unflinching abandon. 

As they stand over some knobs, Rubin pulls apart the building blocks to McCartney’s legacy, in his Beatles and solo career. It’s about the string section in “Eleanor Rigby”; the “F-demented” chord that gave birth to “Michelle”; the drums to “Tomorrow Never Knows”; the bassline in “Something”; etc. Sometimes McCartney is talking about a magic that belongs to bandmates like Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, or their famed producer, George Martin. The series will make you appreciate McCartney’s animated bass playing and how his creative impulses were not reserved for just his outrageous chord progressions, or innovative recording technique. As someone fairly versed in these songs and their stories, those isolated audio tracks especially stood out. 

Rubin is a fascinating figure; casting him here as an adoring fan, who sometimes sits on the ground, asking a seated McCartney questions, is questionable. He's mostly here to praise what’s coming through the speakers, lob softballs at McCartney, and let the anecdotes flow. Even the passages that will certainly add to numerous Wikipedia pages hit the same note: “Remember when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome.” 

The general air of “McCartney 3,2,1” is intriguing, especially when its camerawork gets cozier, and certain songs are demystified with tales you did not know. It's worth noting—the songs alone might make this series worthwhile to McCartney fans, because we love to listen to them, and if you like McCartney’s type of music, chances are one likes to think about what makes them so good, too. But from its beginning, the series has an inconsequential energy to it, starting with how it simply introduces Rubin and McCartney talking about different songs as if this chat were just happening and we're lucky someone was recording it. “McCartney 3,2,1” could be six hours longer. It could be 30 minutes total. It would likely be most helpful to musicians as a podcast. 

All six episodes screened for review. "McCartney, 3,2,1" premieres on Hulu on July 16.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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