McCartney Reconsidered: Interview with “Understanding McCartney” Documentarian P.B. Conte
Paul McCartney is one of the most famous humans who’s ever lived, one of our reigning living musical geniuses, one of the most prolific and successful artists by any measure in any medium in the last 100 years. But in this new golden age of documentary film, where is the portrait of Paul McCartney?
Underground filmmaker P.B. Conte didn’t know where it was, either, and decided to make one. In a lovingly assembled documentary series distributed on YouTube, Conte turns the spotlight on the legend in Understanding McCartney, a five-episode, six-hour documentary series focusing on Paul’s life and career from the break-up of the Beatles to today. (An earlier Conte series, Understanding Lennon/McCartney, focuses on the relationship between the ex-Beatles from their earliest meeting to John’s tragic assassination and beyond.) Featuring rarely seen existing footage, including musical performances, home movies, interviews with Paul, Linda, and many of his musical collaborators young and old, news footage, and more, Understanding McCartney provides fresh insight into the artist and the man who has helped define modern music.
This interview is condensed from a long conversation with Conte about McCartney, making films, and telling stories.
Why Paul McCartney? The Beatles are pretty well-trod subject matter, so what did you feel you wanted to explore that you hadn’t already seen?
That’s a good question — first, I don’t think he has been really well explored. I felt like there was a vacuum where my series needed to be. And I wanted to learn more about him.
All of the things that Paul has put out over time are music-focused, and they occasionally have Paul telling his point of view or what he wants you to know about various things, but I’ve never really seen anything about him. I wanted something candid. I wanted to feel a little closer to Paul as an artist by the end of it. I wanted a better understanding of who this person is, which still you don’t always get with things that McCartney Productions Ltd puts out. There’s kind of a distance.
Paul’s first few records, famously, received awful critical assessments at the time. Was a narrative about Paul set into motion in those early post-Beatle days that hasn’t been adequately challenged?
Absolutely. One of the important things I wanted to do in the documentary was to set that up immediately, because it starts immediately. He was handicapped right out of the gate by Jann Wenner and whoever the rock critics were at the time. It was totally out-of-bounds and unnecessary. There was a narrative that Paul’s massive ego destroyed the Beatles, and then [Jann Wenner’s 1971 Lennon interview captured in the book] Lennon Remembers kind of cemented that narrative for a while. The message was, “Don’t take anything he does seriously, and don’t feel bad about raking him over the coals, because he deserves it. And don’t feel bad, because John Lennon doesn’t feel bad.”
Everybody was defined critically by their 1970 albums. Combined with Lennon Remembers and [Lennon’s 1971 song “How Do You Sleep?”, with a pretty vicious lyric aimed at Paul], I just think that set the tone for how everybody talked about Paul — because it’s not even criticism most of the time, it’s just bullying. “Cheery” is always used as a degrading insult. And “he’s melodic” is an insult. That kind of stuff. Nobody would have dared say that to Beatle Paul McCartney, right? But as soon as John Lennon made it okay and set the tone, everybody followed suit, sadly. Nobody steps back and says, “Look, Lennon is the person with whom he is hugely competitive, you know, maybe it’s not fair for him to tell you what to think of Paul’s stuff.” But that’s how it played out. We take to heart the narratives that are set in popular culture about people. Those [criticisms] followed him around, and the more famous you are, the more set in stone your image becomes. The harder it is to get out from under that.
I’m an example of a Beatles fan who did not give Paul’s solo work much due before hearing a lot of it, largely because of the way those critics had panned it. Do you sense that there are many like me?
That’s actually very common. I’ve heard it over and over again from viewers who watch the series. When I started my Beatles obsession as a kid, 12 or 13 or whenever, I had a similar experience, too. I read a bunch of books, and John was my favorite. He seemed much easier to relate to, and his songs have a very strong point of view.
I started to get into Paul later, as a teenager. I have a rebellious streak and detest conventional wisdom, so there’s a natural part of me that pushed back on that negative perception of Paul. I thought, maybe there’s a little image-making here. So I started looking closer at his music and I loved it! But I was told that I wasn’t supposed to like it. Why had I agreed? I was told to hate “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da”. I was told to hate “Hello Goodbye”. And the whole “granny [music]” thing. People use “pop” as code for “lightweight”, a cloying type of radio music you could get out of a vending machine. I get that, but we all know there’s amazing pop music out there. The Beatles were pop! I just started, one-by-one, to reject those notions. As a Gen Xer, our generation is very self-conscious about not liking things that aren’t cool, or you have to like things ironically. That was really part of my teenage experience, and it bothered me. So I was very fierce about liking what I liked and never being ashamed of it. You kind of had to take that on when you got into Paul McCartney in the 90s because somebody would come up and laugh about it.
When you began the project, did you already know that common assessments of him weren’t quite right, or were you trying to answer that question for yourself?
It was actually more the latter because I’d assumed it was true. It’s so consistent throughout all the biographies. Lennon and Harrison bitched about him, so in every book that was written, that became the template. I thought he seemed kind of one-dimensional in a lot of these accounts, and maybe there was more to it. The insight for me was listening to interviews with other bandmates who describe someone much more generous and fun. And experimental. So it’s a different perspective. Maybe the end of the Beatles was more a situation that was going haywire than Paul’s overarching personality. I’m not saying it’s not true. It’s just not a full picture.
What’s your background as a music fan generally? How did music enter and fit into your life?
I have liked music and popular music all my life. I have a lot of older siblings, so the radio was always on, they were always playing records. My older brothers had a lot of classic rock. I got my first album at seven or eight, then by junior high, I got into Motown — that was the first so-called “older” stuff that I got into. Then through that, I got into the Beatles, and then other stuff from that era. My first Beatles album was Sgt. Pepper.
I also play music. I learned guitar at 12 or something like that. I never really did it seriously, and I never had a band, but I’ve played in music projects with people, and I’ve been on stage. In the 90s, I made some terrible homemade DIY four-track albums. So I can play a little bit of most instruments. I’m not a great musician by any stretch of the imagination, but I can write music and mix and record and play enough to make a cohesive record.
Well, I think that puts you in a small minority. And that’s a McCartney skill set! Does that color how you come to an artist like Paul, who plays multiple instruments, records, and mixes? Did you find your appreciation of Paul deepening because you liked to make music similarly?
I think it’s a little bit of both, actually. In some ways, Paul and the Beatles are in our musical DNA. He’s an influence on everybody, so yeah, he definitely was an influence on me. It was also just the idea of being able to do it. I think the idea that you can do it is more important than your particular skills, because again, I’m not a fantastic musician at all, but the idea that I could learn how to do what I needed for whatever I was making was powerful. It came out of a lot of lo-fi stuff in the 90s that I was super into also, but Paul too. I think of him as the granddaddy of lo-fi music. That was sort of his whole ethos.
Have you been doing primarily film / creative work in your main line of work, your career?
No, not really. I worked in production for a few years at the entry-level, then abandoned it for a 9–5 in an unrelated field. I needed stability. Financial reasons and then family obligations took me out of it completely. But I’m always creating something. Usually two or three (or four or five) things at once. If I don’t have a creative outlet I risk depression.
Since you wanted to do this work on Paul McCartney and you weren’t going to get authorization, you really had to arrange existing material to create your film. Do you feel like you found your way into Understanding McCartney’s collage style as a limitation of what was available to you, or was it an aesthetic you preferred anyway?
That’s also a little bit of both. A friend in high school and I decided we were going to be film auteurs. At home, with a little video camera that I bought at a thrift store or something, I would sit with two rickety VHS machines and edit back and forth between the machines. I would make little clip shows and stuff like that. So I’m used to the DIY style — it’s sort of how I started. I like that sort of hodgepodge approach. At college (NYU Film School), I ended up specializing in documentaries, and did a variety of them in a “normal” style, but my favorite type is cinema verite. So fast-forwarding to today, I saw an opportunity to work by myself from home and do whatever I wanted and not have to answer to anyone. That’s not work to me — it’s a pleasure, something creative to do where I could also say some things I wanted to say.
I like to work on my own. I was always happiest doing the simplest filmmaking, where you write it, light it, shoot it and edit it yourself. Once you get past those basics, things get exponentially more complicated and I enjoyed production less and less the bigger it got. When you’re on a tiny film set, it’s intimate and everyone is involved and buzzing with creative energy and it’s easy to control. When you’re in a big studio it’s cold and there are tons of people and even though it can be exciting in a different way, it’s not the same thrill as working intimately with a crew of four or five people. It’s just a whole different animal.
Because that is the most important part of appreciating Paul McCartney. You have to be able to set aside all your preconceptions and just experience the art for the art that it is and not what other people want it to be.
There’s a creative freedom that’s truly pure when it’s all your effort, isn’t there?
I just don’t like to answer to people! I don’t like bosses. When I would direct a movie, I would write it, direct it, edit it. The idea of giving somebody else footage and saying, “Okay, cut this for me” — I can’t do that. I guess people would say that’s a control freak issue. It’s another thing with Paul — people call him a control freak, but that doesn’t sound like a control freak to me. He has a vision and he wants it the way he wants it, so why would he farm it out to somebody else? He said on the McCartney press questionnaire, “I only had me to answer to, and I said it was great.” There are less voices interfering with your work, and you can just do it the way that it comes out. Even if people don’t like it, it’s fine because it’s yours and you did it. In the same way that the praise is not diffused, the blame is also not diffused.
I could have gotten fresh interviews from musicians who worked with Paul and done a more traditional thing, but then there are more opinions, and more voices, and more oversight… I like working guerilla style because I can just get into the zone and think of what I want and put it out.
So what were some of your goals with this series?
The most important thing that I had to do in the first episode was reframe the whole way we look at him without just telling you he’s great. I wanted to simply tell the story without editorializing, because I do want people to come to their own conclusions about what they’re seeing. It’s useless for me to say that McCartney receives unfair criticism — that’s not going to change any hearts and minds. And also, I think his work should speak for itself and does. If it doesn’t, then why do we care? So it was, “I’m going to show you the music, and try to show you a little bit of where it’s coming from.” I feel like his music is telling the story, so in that first episode, I am telling that from Paul’s point of view.
I didn’t want to pass judgment on the terrible reviews; I just wanted to show them. You can see a narrative being developed, and you start second-guessing the way critics talk about Paul. Presenting it all without comment is a way of getting the viewer to do it on their own, instead of passively just being fed expert opinion. So it’s about balance, forming your own opinion, appreciating the music and experiencing it for what it is. Because that is the most important part of appreciating Paul McCartney. You have to be able to set aside your preconceptions and just experience the art for what it is, and not what other people want it to be.
Episode 1 does feel by the end like it has a clear point of view — a pretty clear thesis does emerge. But then, Episodes 2 and 3 don’t, really. They keep more of a distance through the later 70s and 80s, and there’s a bit more drift, less sharp focus, which seems to mirror his work in those years.
Episode 3 is very special to me. It’s one of the most emotional, because I feel like Paul is suffering a lot in the 80s. I open it with a segment about John being killed for a reason — I think it is drastically underestimated how affected Paul was by John’s death. Obviously, as somebody who was close to him that he loved and he lost, that’s not under-explored. But one of the Beatles was shot in the street! That’s now a thing that can happen. That’s got to be a game changer on some level. I made a whole different documentary about this which is Episode 5 of Understanding Lennon/McCartney, which goes deep into all the coverage and the media narrative after John’s death, when Paul is villainized again, and now he’s got to deal with people saying it should have been him (who was murdered). Nobody really has any respect for his grief, which he’s not good at showing anyway.
Then he makes that movie Give My Regards to Broad Street in which he’s playing himself, putting himself out there for the worst kind of criticism. He got it. He’s in a critical dip in his career, and he was arrested again — like his fourth weed arrest; he’s medicating himself. He’s got irons in so many fires and it’s so incoherent, a lot of it. I often see his 80s period described as his weakest period. He has a lot of strong material, but it’s kind of peppered throughout.
There’s a part in Episode 3 where he says, “I’m really average, you know.” That’s one of the most fascinating things to me. He’s literally the most successful songwriter of all time… clearly not normal! And for some reason he cannot embrace that. It seems as though there’s something threatening about that to him — about thinking he’s different. That’s one of the things about Episode 3 that is interesting to me — his inability to be normal and his desire to be normal, and his sort of maturing into that then becoming what he is by Episode 4, which is more like, I’m just gonna do what I do. It doesn’t matter if nobody gets it.
I think that speaks to his artistry. I mean, anybody who’s sitting on gifts like his and who continues to work as constantly as he does, ideas are going to just bubble up and you’re going to say, well why not, and just do it? Paul has never taken a break, right?
I don’t think he can! That is sort of a turn-on artistically. And he gets criticism for that, too! But he’s sharing it with us. After the Beatles, fans expected everything finely curated and only the best put out — 232 of the top-tier best songs. But he’s like, “That’s not really my jam, that’s not what I’m going to do. I’m going to do a lot of things and not all of it’s going to be to everybody’s liking.”
There are a couple of things I love about Episode 4. First, I really was not aware of what he was doing in the 90s. It was great to see him working in these new forms with much younger artists, and also doing the Liverpool Oratorio and Standing Stone. I really started to feel like this guy is due serious reverence. It’s staggering, the places he goes. And he’s doing all of it at once, like two or three at a time!
That period in the late 90s is absolutely insane. He couldn’t have had a single down moment. But he’s so highly functional when he’s completely overwhelmed. That’s a very special type of person, a freak of a person that performs best under the worst circumstances. How does he focus? And yet, he’s so in the moment. You can tell, just watching him in any of that footage, he is 100% focused on what he’s doing at any given time.
I don’t think there’s anybody like him. And it’s not as if he just wrote “Hey Jude” over and over again, right? He’s like, “I need a different genre because I’m bored with this. I have to go into something I don’t know how to do.” Have you ever written classical? Not really. Well, how about an oratorio? How about seven movements? Okay, sure. Let’s do that. And he does it and it’s great. I love that he doesn’t just do the same things over and over again.
I don’t think I realized the extent to which he was collaborating with younger artists, which we see in Episodes 4 and 5.
There’s a cliché in Beatles fandom where people say that if Lennon and McCartney hadn’t met, Paul would be a teacher. But Paul is a teacher. First of all, he actually does teach classes at LIPA, that school that he founded — he literally does do that on occasion. But I never see anybody even acknowledge Paul’s mentorship to other artists, though he’s been in that position for a really long time! He likes to mentor younger people, younger artists, even including his band to a certain extent. Listen to a lot of the bandmates — not the ones who are his age, but the younger bandmates — they all talk about what they learned from him and how fun and gratifying it was to work with him. So I think that’s actually a big part of who he is as a person and an artist, but also in the music industry. I think he has taken on that role as a benevolent older figure.
Paul has always been in that role. Paul was a teacher for John as well when they met — he taught him how to play the chords right, he taught him how to tune a guitar. And George Martin has said that John learned a lot from Paul in terms of songwriting about how to structure a song, how to do something that’s unexpected in the middle of the song to make it catchy. Not to take away the influence that John had on Paul as well.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on YouTube. Could you be doing what you’re doing if the medium just weren’t available?
Probably not. It was very, very hard to get a movie shown prior to YouTube. You’d have to finance your own film, and that costs $20,000 that you’ll never raise, so you have to go and beg and plead everywhere, and then you’ve got to intern and be an assistant and work your way up the ladder, and then you’ve got to get in the union, and you know, all that stuff. Then you’d have to submit it to festival after festival and hope somebody picked it up. And if you’re talking about short films, there’s a limited festival capacity, and the competition’s pretty fierce to get into those. So it’s a real slog. It’s like breaking into the film and television industry to begin with — you have to have the right connections. I think talent is one aspect of many that will contribute to your success, and it’s not even necessarily the most important element. That was my experience prior to YouTube.
I actually heard Paul McCartney mention seeing fan videos on YouTube of him and John. He said they reminded him of how close they were. It had never even crossed my mind that I could just make a documentary and put it up on YouTube! I mean, you’re not going to make any money and you’re not going to go to Cannes or Sundance with them or anything, but at least people will see them. So that’s when I got the inspiration to make the first series (Understanding Lennon/McCartney). For me, it’s not about making money. It’s not even about a career at this point. I just want people to see my work. I did something that I thought was really good and historically important and people responded to it.
So YouTube has allowed me to put out my own unauthorized guerilla content that has a built-in audience, or that the audience somehow found slowly over time. I’ve had no publicity. There’s been a couple of minor articles, and a couple of people posted the link on blogs and forums. It’s just kind of been passed around. I love that about YouTube. you don’t do any of that industry shit. You just make what you make and put it up, and you have an audience already. The whole thing has changed, and I’m here for it. I think people should be able to put their talent out there and be discovered on the internet. I think that’s great!
You’ve certainly found an audience. When you read these accolades and really loving comments, what’s that like for you? Is it simply gratifying, or does it also fire up a desire to expand the audience, or to consider your ambitions for where you go from here?
It’s honestly a wonderful feeling and it makes all of the effort worthwhile. I mean besides the fact that I would have been happy just to make it for myself, just to have made something that I liked — that honestly was enough for me. But to be able to share it with people and for them to appreciate it, not just on a ego-boosting level, but for people to feel closer to Paul, to feel closer to their own emotions, to relive things — just to bring joy to people’s life has been amazing.
I have a viewership that tends to skew older. A large part of my viewership is over 65. And I’ve gotten some amazing, heartfelt comments from people who are lonely, and who especially have been very lonely right during the pandemic. I’ve gotten comments that literally made me cry. A lot of people just unload and tell me their life story in the comments. They say what they did that day, where they’re from, when they got married, about their grandkids. It’s just these massively long comments that have little to do with the film, but they’re lonely and they’re desperate to connect with somebody and they feel like they’re connecting with me and the other people who are watching through these YouTube comments. This is social interaction for a lot of people. I had one from a guy who was in a nursing home who told me about being bedridden and how this really lifted his spirits and brought joy into his life that hadn’t been there for a long time, and how Paul’s music has lifted him.
I have a lot of people say that — about positivity or the joy that he’s brought into the world. If you scroll through the comments on Episode 5, so many of them have that tone of gratitude, happiness, love, just the positive energy that’s coming from Paul. It’s amazing to feel that you helped somebody that you’ve never met before when you don’t know anything about them. If it weren’t for YouTube enabling us to put stuff out there for free that people deserve to watch…. I don’t know. I just enjoy sharing it with people.
It must be such a great thing to foster that connection. You just wanted to explore this topic, and you packaged it in a way that meant something to you, and suddenly it’s having such an impact on so many people.
Yeah! It’s not kindness or nobleness on my part to put out for free. It’s just a joy that people are watching my work and appreciating it. But also it’s just nice to give people stuff! You know, they’re enjoying it. They should be. I like to share music that I love with people, and I like Paul. And I like that other people like him.
So do you have thoughts about what your next project might be? Or are you even thinking in those terms right now?
I’m concentrating on screenplays right now. I’m writing biopics of both Paul and Lennon/McCartney. Interested parties can email me at email@example.com.
As a creative person, do you take inspiration from Paul? How so? What are his lessons for you?
Yeah, for sure. I think the main thing is just to be true to yourself, even in the face of mockery and disrespect. Every now and then I’ll get nervous about sharing something I’ve created, and then I’ll think of Paul and all the hateful garbage he’s had to deal with. That gives me courage.
I love his audacity; I’m inspired by the fact that he’s always had the vision and courage to like what he likes and do what he does.
Have you read the article about Understanding McCartney and seen P.B. Conte’s playlist and album recommendations?
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