Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Surprise, Surprise

Few popular artists have guarded their public image as rigorously as has Paul McCartney. In the countless interviews he's given over the past fifty-plus years, he's been careful to present a demeanor that is part optimistic, part innocent, and part humble, with the odd winking cockiness for seasoning. Fans have rolled their collective eye at the routine anecdotes McCartney hauls out for each and every interview. To his immense credit, he shares each story as if he's telling it for the first time or the interviewer may be hearing it for the first time, yet the problem with a charming person who's confident in his charm is that it becomes difficult to determine when he's bullshitting you. His charm follows from his sincerity, or it seals off candor.

My favorite moments in director Zachary Heinzerling's engrossing, highly entertaining series McCartney 3,2,1, airing now on Hulu, come when McCartney looks genuinely astonished or startled; unsurprisingly, those reactions occur not during a well-worn story, but during the breakdown of studio tracks, the most compelling and irresistible moments in the series. Rick Rubin and McCartney huddle over the mixing board like kids playing with a cool toy on Christmas morning, and, listening to a Beatles or a solo recording, McCartney's quite literally in the moment; though he's presumably heard these songs countless times, he reacts more candidly and unguardedly than he does during the sit-down interview portions (as amiably "off the cuff" as they appear, given, again, McCartney's legendary charm). These are glimpses into McCartney vulnerability that we don't see that often. He's humbled a bit. I love when, during a playback of "Another Girl" from Help!, McCartney reacts to the fuck-ups in his lead guitar playing—botched notes that I've smiled at since I was a kid—and is forced to acknowledge for a second that a Legend messes up for all to hear. Watch his face during these scenes—the breakdowns of "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "A Day In The Life" are also great passages—and you'll see not only fondness and joy as he listens to his band's superb ensemble playing and inventiveness, but affection for his and his band's mistakes, also. 

A component of McCartney's appeal has long been his self-deprecation, yet that modesty often feels affected ("The Beatles were a good little band, weren't they?"), part guarded deflection, part-Northern self-effacement. A great exchange occurs after Rubin and McCartney have listened to "Another Girl." Rubin—who must've had a difficult time deciding which pose to take with McCartney; ultimately, he vacillates between seasoned pro and gushing, wide-eyed fan—assures McCartney that keeping his guitar mistakes in the final master of the song was a bold move. McCartney shrugs. They really had no choice, he says, given their pressing studio schedule.

Rubin: That's real!

McCartney [chuckling]: That's real alright. 

Rubin: It adds to the energy of the track, it's so cooking, oh he can barely even play it! You know what I mean? Like, it's running away.

McCartney [returning to the board]: OK, I'll go with that explanation. [takes a beat] I wish I had you in school. "No, he didn't make a mistake, he's just enthusiastic." Yeah.

Roger Angell once observed that baseball players, even all-stars and veterans, enjoyed not only talking about their accomplishments, but about when things went wrong on the field, the inevitable mistakes and comic disasters being an equal ingredient of the game they love. The moments in 3,2,1 when McCartney grins at an old-fashioned screw up are among the most pleasing, and, yeah, charming in the series.

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