It’s tempting to say that everything that could possibly be said about The Beatles hass been said — they’re one of the most iconic musical acts in history, primarchs of the pop-music world they both capitalized on and effectively created.
But for Hulu’s new docuseries McCartney 3,2,1 executive producer Jeff Pollack, alongside super-producer Rick Rubin, had a novel notion: don’t make a comprehensive look at The Beatles as a whole, but zero in on Paul McCartney as a singer, songwriter, and all-around musical titan.
And so Rubin and McCartney made time in a recording studio in the Hamptons with nothing but some master tapes and Rubin’s innate curiosity about McCartney’s musical brain, and the series was born.
McCartney 3,2,1 is less a comprehensive look at McCartney the man and rather a chill snapshot of two master musicians who’ve admired each other from afar, picking each other’s brains and rifling through fifty-year-old memories of the 79-year-old’s robust musical career.
It’s the latest and most ambitious project for Pollack, a DJ turned music supervisor turned documentary producer who’s crafted documentaries on subjects ranging from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash to Laurel Canyon.
Together (that is, after he kicked off our interview by grabbing a harmonica and singing a few delightful bars of what he called “The Clint Blues”), we talked about the creation of the docuseries, the value of bringing music theory and curiosity into the documentary/interview form, and what it takes to recognize a musical hit when you see one. The below interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You got started in the business as a DJ. How did you make the transition from producing music to producing documentaries about music?
When you’re passionate about something, you love to share it. Interestingly enough, that form of storytelling always started with me — being able to tell stories about artists in groups that you love.
As I rose in the business and started working in commercial radio, I realized very early on that I had to play things I didn’t love, which was good discipline, actually. I was able to able to move into a really objective place: I grew up with classical music, so I wasn’t overly attached to pop music. Strangely enough, I could always hear a hit, though, and I don’t know how that h happened. If I have one gift at all in my radio days, it was saying, “Okay, that’s a hit. That’s gonna be huge.”
How do you know what makes a hit? Is it a gut thing, or are there elements that you’re conscious of that make a hit?
I think if you’ve developed a sense of discipline and distance from what’s popular — what’s on the radio, what’s trending, etc. — it’s a lot easier to find hits. The more attached you are to it personally, the less objective you are. I was always able to separate myself; I wasn’t a big Elton John fan growing up, but I liked him as an artist, and I liked the songs. It just wasn’t something I was particularly into. But I could always pick out an Elton hit, you know? I could say, “Wow, that’s huge.”
I guess a lot of success in my radio days came from being less selfish: being open to other things, understanding their value, not judging by whether things were good or bad. Whether it personally worked for me didn’t matter. But once in a while, there’s an interesting confluence where something you absolutely love ends up popular, which is nice.
How did your radio days lead you into music docs?
I started working for MTV, CMT, VH1, and I had a really great time working with all those folks. I learned a lot in the reign of music storytelling there. Then about ten years ago, I was lucky enough to meet [Amblin co-founder] Frank Marshall, and we worked on [Movies Rock], a television special about musical artists doing famous songs from musicals. It was a fun one-off special, but we met through that. From there, we started doing music docs together — naturally, we started with Frank Sinatra [All or Nothing at All], whom Frank Marshall’s father played with as a professional musician. That took four years, but that set us off to the races. Now I’ve done ones on Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and others.
McCartney 3,2,1 is a really interesting format for a music doc. What were the circumstances in which you got Rick and Paul McCartney in a recording studio together?
“During COVID,” is what you should ask too. [Laughs.]
Right, and how exponentially harder did that make it?
Rick participated in our Cash documentary, and he was fantastic in it — his musical observations about Johnny’s uniqueness and how he used to inhabit a song, was just fantastic. If you’ve listened to his podcast, you know he’s incredibly articulate about the musical process. We talked again some time later and wondered whether we could do a documentary together. But he’s really busy, understandably. So I asked him one day on the phone, “What would you do?” And he said, “I want to do something about a well-known artist, but tell stories that people don’t know about him.”
We made up a shortlist of who we wanted to talk to, and we eventually decided on McCartney, which, talk about a Hail Mary pass. We knew we didn’t want to do a Beatles doc or a Beatlemania doc; we wanted something on this particular individual, who’s such a brilliant musician over and above his marvelous singing and songwriting ability. I reached out to Paul’s manager, and he said he’d present the idea to Paul. That he doesn’t do a lot, but [he checked].
A few weeks later, we heard back, and the answer was yes. And it turned out that Paul happened to be in New York for a very short window. So three weeks later, we were shooting in a recording studio in the Hamptons, with COVID protocols in place, so I wasn’t there. It was literally Rick and Paul, as you see it. We shot fifteen hours over two days, and we ended up with a wealth of material we had to figure out what to include. It was an incredible experience.
I’m sure finding the right director was really important. How did you find Zachary Heinzerling, and what did he bring to the table?
Zach was great; he was recommended by an executive who works for Rick, who knew him. I will say that the creative vision for this always sat with Rick — everybody contributed, but Rick really had it in his head that we’d do it in black and white, listening to tapes that Paul hadn’t heard in fifty years. We all wanted that intimacy that you feel when you watch the series. It’s not slick or rapidly cut together; we allow it to breathe, to show you what it feels like to be in a studio.
It’s decidedly relaxed, where you’re soaking up the vibes of these two musical masters getting to know one another — especially Rick getting to know Paul and his approach to music. It’s like seeing two kinds in the sandbox.
I’m glad you observed that, because a lot of people assumed that Paul and Rick knew each other, which they didn’t. Had they met before? Did they respect each other? Yes. But the whole process was them getting to know each other in the studio, realizing how much they have in common.
Rick understood what creative notion might have drive Paul to make a particular thing, and would ask, “What were you thinking here? Why this choice?” Usually, musician interviews are like, “Where were you when you wrote ‘Yesterday’?” Sometimes Paul would volunteer that stuff, like when he talks about writing “Here, There, and Everywhere” while waiting for John to wake up at his pool. But those aren’t the same questions Paul usually gets.
It’s less about the history and politics and culture than it is about music theory — Rubin and McCartney, both self-taught, reverse engineering their own styles they didn’t even know they had at the time.
That was certainly our main goal; we wanted to say that yes, happy accidents happen in songwriting, but there’s a lot of thinking and instinct that goes into it as well. Was it a conscious decision for Paul to use a piccolo trumpet? He had it in his head at the time but wasn’t able to say what it was that he wanted to use. That’s what you’re talking about: A genius who is hearing something in his head and not even realizing what it is at first. Here we are in the studio with one of the greatest songwriters of the past hundred years, and he’ll just say things like, “Well, I came up with this bass part for ‘Come Together’ because I thought it would be better.” These are epic, creative moments in the history of music, and he makes it look easy.
I found it very heartening, too, that Paul understood how good they were when he says that he’s a fan of The Beatles. What he’s saying there is that when you’re in it, it’s one thing; when you’re out of it, and you’re trying to do your own thing, that’s another. But he can look back, and say, “Wow, these are some amazing songs! And I was working with John Lennon!”
He gets to go back and rediscover these amazing songs he created when he was a kid, basically. It’s a cool thing to see happen in real time.
It really is. You’re talking about a guy who has had such success and has written so many songs that will be listened to as long as people listen to music. And if Rick had just asked Paul, “What is the intention?” with these interviews, that wouldn’t have been the result we were looking for with this series. Instead, what we got was two musical giants talking intimately to each other, in a way that makes you feel you’re five feet away from them. You can see real reactions from Paul as he listens to sounds he hadn’t heard in over fifty years, or even realizing he’s off-key with his vocals during “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
It’s the kind of quality discussion that makes a listener more thoughtful about the next time they listen to music. Maybe they’ll look at it and listen in a different way. That’s what you always hope to do. That kind of thing just increases people’s appreciation of the magic of music-making.
Who would be your Paul McCartney (or George Gershwin), one artist living or dead who you’d like to hole up in a recording studio with and grill them about how they do what they do?
One person who hasn’t really been the beneficiary of a great doc yet is Stevie Wonder, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. It’s astonishing and intimidating how much talent he has, and his body of work includes some of the most astonishing records ever. If you ask most artists, I think he would always be on their shortlist.
McCartney 3,2,1 is currently streaming on Hulu.