Books, Arts & Manners

The Amazing Mr. McCartney

British musician Paul McCartney performs during the “One on One” tour concert in Porto Alegre, Brazil, October 13, 2017. (Diego Vara/Reuters)
Paul McCartney continues to present a cheerful face to the world in a fascinating Hulu documentary series, but he has suffered plenty.

There’s a wow moment at the start of the brilliant new Hulu documentary series on Paul McCartney. As he has done for 60 years, McCartney effortlessly plays the role of the man who can never be knocked down by anything and is happy to yet again play up the contrasting disquiet of his old songwriting partner:

It’s funny, I say to people, I always thought everyone had loving families. Of course, later I found that that’s not true. Some people are very unfortunate. John was very unlucky because his dad left his home when he was three and John didn’t see him until he was famous, and also John’s mum got killed. This was an eye-opener to me. I thought everyone lived like we did!

Amazing. John Lennon was indeed unfortunate in his upbringing. You know who else was? Paul McCartney, whose mother died when he was 14, three years younger than Lennon was when his mother died in a car accident. Four decades later, McCartney suffered a devastating reprise when the same disease that took his mother, breast cancer, also killed his wife. Linda was only 56 when she died and endured several tortured years at the end. Yet Paul would have us believe that of the two leading Beatles, John had a monopoly on sorrow. If so, that’s because McCartney simply willed himself through suffering, not because everything was biscuits and jam for him. As far as I can tell, McCartney has never discussed in any detail the pain of losing either woman. When Linda was dying he made a gently beautiful album, Flaming Pie, that considered her illness only in the most oblique way.

McCartney is, at 79, sticking to the role he has chosen for himself in the fascinating Hulu series, McCartney 3, 2, 1. In six 30-minute episodes shot in black-and-white images that feel both lush and bare, McCartney discusses his music, his tricks, his sources, and occasionally his errors with a peer, American music producer Rick Rubin. The series is a rare opportunity to hear McCartney go into detail about his art rather than answer the same, dumb, shallow questions that celebrity talk-show hosts have been asking him since the Sixties. Those who have watched his interviews over the years will note that McCartney has long since perfected the actor’s trick of answering questions he’s heard many times before in exactly the same way, but without betraying the slightest boredom or irritation.

The Hulu series is meant to be a more technical guide to McCartney’s accomplishments than we’ve ever seen before, and it succeeds brilliantly at that. But it also clarifies how McCartney and Lennon stood on either side of the generational disagreement about how entertainers should present themselves to the public. Two years younger, McCartney has spent his entire career sticking to a Silent Generation view that entertainers exist to uplift the people, hence must stay as relentlessly on-message as the most rigorously trained political figure. Sunny charm has been Paul’s brand since Day One.

Lennon, in stark contrast, was among the first to adopt the new Boomer mentality that entertainers are tortured artists to whom honesty and genuineness matter more than anything. Lennon set the example, since widely copied, of building his brand around a Romantic pose of resolute openness, sharing with the public his angst, anger, confusion, and political urges whenever a mood or thought struck. McCartney never lets the mask of optimism slip when anyone is watching; Lennon stripped himself down to the skin (sometimes literally) and asked us to feel his pain. McCartney’s aim has always been to serve; Lennon’s was to be true to himself. He helped build a cult of authenticity that thrives to this day, despite having been indisputably a phony himself. (Lennon was the only Beatle raised in relative wealth, his house on Menlove Avenue in Liverpool was far grander than McCartney’s on Forthlin Road, and yet he referred to himself as a working-class hero.)

Lennon’s example helped diminish McCartney, who to many came to seem shallow and fake by comparison. That is unfair. Composing music came so easily to McCartney that he sometimes forged ahead recording songs whose lyrics he had merely thrown together, but close listeners know he isn’t shallow. As for the fakery — pinpointed by the NME writer who called him “thumbs akimbo Groovy Uncle Paul” — McCartney feels it would be simply wrong (and fake!) for someone in his position to bemoan his trials. As he put it in a 1992 single, “We live in hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.” His job, as he sees it, is to always be entertaining: charming, cute, light, joyous.

And so he is in the Hulu show: Not a glum thought escapes him. Instead, he and Rubin stand at a mixing board, bringing different instruments to the fore as they savor notable Beatles masters. McCartney says Bach was his favorite classical composer, and he tried to capture that mathematical quality in the strings of “Eleanor Rigby.” After listening to The Brandenburg Concertos, he became fascinated with a high-pitched trumpet sound he described to the band’s producer, George Martin. It turned out to be a piccolo trumpet, and McCartney knew just what he wanted to do with it: bring it in for a solo (played by trumpeter David Mason) on “Penny Lane.” Mason wasn’t sure he could play what McCartney asked for: The high notes were “officially outside the range of the piccolo trumpet,” the classical musician told the pop star. The track turned out okay, though. “That feeling doesn’t get old,” Rubin says, marveling at one of the greatest pop songs ever made.

Rubin does a fine job pointing out the songs, such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” on which McCartney’s bass playing is so imaginative and weird that it’s like a completely different tune that somehow joins perfectly with the main number. On “With a Little Help from My Friends,” McCartney is the only musician doing anything interesting: Without his bass, the song would barely even work, much less reach the level of an indelible classic.

Instructive, intimate, endlessly appealing, and grounded in yet another sunny performance by McCartney, the Hulu doc is a must for fans. As its subject heads for his ninth decade, he is still doing interesting work, as witnessed by his most recent album, McCartney III, from last December. Others might offer at least some acknowledgment of the loss and the insults that come with age, but Macca is sticking with his credo: Getting so much better all the time.

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