Paul McCartney Doesn’t Need Redemption

Alan Burnce
24 min readJun 1, 2021


It’s 2010, and President Obama is honoring Paul McCartney with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. It’s hard to imagine that there could be any praise or recited accolade given at such events that McCartney hasn’t heard many times over. But after recounting a handful of these, Obama notes that Paul’s “nearly 200… songs [that] made the charts… stayed on the charts for a cumulative total of 32 years.” Paul looks genuinely taken aback; this seems to be a fresh perspective. His eyes widen, he smiles, and he shakes his head in wonder. The number represents 1,664 total weeks in which a song or album of his appeared on the weekly charts, many times at the top (and sometimes at the same time). It’s a number so large that it’s hard to truly fathom, even if you’re the one responsible for it all.

Fifty years on, it’s still a little complicated, this Paul McCartney thing. On the one hand, I give you the living legend of modern popular music. He co-led the most famous, successful, influential, and beloved rock band of all time, then followed that first act with a solo career that has seen him sustain his place as a peerlessly successful songwriter, singer, instrumentalist, performer, producer, recording artist, and activist. Paul’s seat atop the peak of rock ’n’ roll Olympus is assured many times over.

On the other hand, consider the critics, professional and amateur alike, who have argued that Paul may be one of the most successful artists, but he is not one of the most important — his solo career plagued by slightness as compared to the Beatles or to the work of certain peers, by lack of focus and consistency, by shallow lyrics, by tendencies toward the cheesy or saccharine, by bad ideas no Lennon was around to talk him out of, by the alleged absence of a true masterpiece. To listen to many critics, Paul is a dubious greatest rock star, coasting on his Beatles fame and playing it all too safe.

At the 2010 Gershwin Award ceremony, Washington, D.C.

This is a silly argument, but it’s almost certainly had more impact than it’s deserved, as I can personally attest. Though I’ve been a huge Beatles fan since I was aware of music, I have mainly ignored Paul’s endless parade of solo albums, and I have mainly been unmoved by the little time I’ve spent with the bits of Wings’ output I had entertained. I’ve been aware of the derision heaped on some of his work, and with it in mind, I’ve shrugged and focused elsewhere.

So when the YouTube algorithms saw fit a while back to recommend to me the first episode of a recently uploaded documentary series called Understanding McCartney, I was intrigued. A major Paul McCartney documentary that I’d never even heard of? Comprised of five episodes over six hours, with hundreds of comments expressing unanimous and effusive enthusiasm (rarely a hallmark of anything on YouTube)? What is this? So I watched the first episode. It blew me away: not only showing me all I didn’t know of McCartney and his early solo music, but also with its inspired vision, its breadth and depth of source material, its narrative incisiveness, and its technical vibrancy. I binged my way through the rest, following Paul from the break-up of the Beatles to today, and arrived at two very clear certitudes: Paul McCartney’s musical output of 60-odd years is staggering. And it was about time that I started listening.

May I Introduce To You the Act You’ve Known for All These Years

Made at home during the pandemic lockdown, Understanding McCartney explores its namesake’s solo career, beginning with its dawn in the not-quite-post-Beatles days of 1970. The filmmaker, P.B. Conte, presents a beautiful and revealing portrait of the artist and the man, relying only on music and archival footage from borrowed audio and video sources: mostly at work, sometimes in his own words, often through the voices of his many bandmates and collaborators. Conte’s film devotes very little time to familiar stories and well-worn footage, instead illuminating its subject through lesser-seen moments: engaging a group of children with autism in music therapy, tearing up a slide guitar onstage with the surviving members of Nirvana, observing the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus rehearsing his symphonic poem Standing Stone, relaxing with his young family in Lagos during the Band on the Run sessions, goofing around with the band backstage during soundchecks. The series follows a simple chronological sequence: Episodes 1 and 2 take us through the 1970s, Episode 3 covers the 80s, Episode 4 the 90s, and Episode 5, the longest, covers the new millennium. Neither any single episode, nor the series as a whole, feels overstated or overstuffed. Indeed, I found myself seeking out some of the source material to watch it in its complete form. If you’re interested enough, Understanding McCartney is a wide entranceway into a deep rabbit hole.

But the film also argues, with quiet persistence, that viewing him only through this lens — forever chasing The Greatest Thing He’s Done Since The Beatles!!! — completely misses the point.

In the opening minutes of its first episode, the series wades into the turbid waters of Paul’s first post-Beatles year. We meet a weary, depressed 28 year old who’d just lost his band and, for the time being, his mates, and wasn’t sure what might follow the only thing he’d done since he was 15 years old. His wife Linda convinced him that he needed to just keep making music, so he began doing some 4-track recording at home. When this coalesced, unplanned, into enough material for a debut solo album, he released the entirely self-made McCartney, and was summarily ripped to shreds by a rock journalism establishment that not only seemed to expect another Abbey Road, but also considered him the villain in the Beatles’ demise. Critics then savaged Ram, his second solo album, and then the first two Wings albums.

These releases sold well, with both “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” from Ram and “My Love” from Red Rose Speedway hitting #1 on the charts, but a harsh narrative was being established that would dog McCartney through the ensuing decades. The criticism in those days was often personal, fueled in part by John Lennon’s sniping during the public bickering that followed the Beatles’ split. “Sheer banality,” said Melody Maker of the first solo album. “So incredibly inconsequential and so monumentally irrelevant you can’t even [hate] it,” proclaimed Rolling Stone of Ram. High Fidelity declared that Paul was “the only member of the Beatles who has stagnated as a human being.” Okay, then.

The intense criticism of his first two albums was pure folly, but it established a template for how McCartney would be assessed for many years. The critics were finally sated by the highly praised Band on the Run, and they mostly lauded the next two Wings albums as well, both of which sold well and established Wings as one of the major bands of the 70s. But the disapproval returned by the end of Wings’ run, then flowered anew throughout Paul’s solo work in the 80s, the vitriol giving way to more of a dismissive wave of the hand. And though most of the early work has been favorably reassessed, there remained — there still remains — a sense that McCartney has never fulfilled the promise of his work with the group that made him famous.

Understanding McCartney presents the evidence and lets us draw our own conclusions, but this is more technique than mystery; Conte surely wants us to recognize and respect McCartney’s greatness, and watching it crystallizes how daft any contrary argument really is. The lengthy final segment of Episode 1 features several collaborators calling him obviously a genius (always, though, as an aside to a different or related point they’re making — even here, Conte wants to give such proclamations space without emphasis). Allusions to Paul’s genius or greatness pepper the rest of the series too, especially across its final episode. But the film also argues, with quiet persistence, that viewing him only through this lens — forever chasing the greatest thing he’s done since the Beatles!!! — completely misses the point.

A Fine Line Between Chaos and Creation

Watching Understanding McCartney, I learned a few things:

1) Paul McCartney never stops creating. Understanding McCartney builds an argument that is never stated outright but is undeniably its point: Paul McCartney is a 24 karat legend whose gift lies at the crossroads where prodigious talent meets persistent creation, fearlessly shared. His body of work could only come from an artist of boundless curiosity, supreme self-belief, the ambition to work in new forms with new collaborators on fresh ideas, and the ability to render them all with the instrumental and vocal prowess we too easily take for granted. He’s not some kind of one-man Brill Building, sent here to crank out the hits, but a working artist in the purest sense who continues to actualize his relentless drive to create and to develop his embarrassment of gifts. He’s a great artist because he makes art tirelessly, and sometimes the art he makes is great.

Paul and Carl Perkins, 1993

“Love Me Do” first charted in the UK in 1962. Since then, as a Beatle or a Wing or under his own name, Paul has landed at least one album or single on the US and/or UK Top Twenty, or performed a sold-out tour, in 51 separate years. Who compares? Only the greatest of the greats: Dylan, Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Prince. Paul has done it simply by keeping the promise that accompanied his solo debut: “I will continue to do what I want, when I want to.” Regardless of the critics, Paul has pointed himself in any direction that’s moved him, shared his work with us, and continued on to the next project. Among other things, Understanding McCartney is a window into the depth of Paul’s engagement making music, and into the way it fuels and drives him in absolutely everything he does.

Consider his especially fertile years of 1996–99, highlighted in Episode 4 of the series. The prior couple of years had seen a pause in his solo career as he worked with George, Ringo, Yoko, and George Martin on the Beatles Anthology. But once that was done, he exploded with new work. He released Flaming Pie, one of his most highly regarded albums; Standing Stone, the second of his five classical compositions; his beautiful electronic album Rushes (made as part of the duo The Fireman); his old-time rock ’n’ roll covers album Run Devil Run, and Working Classical, an album of much smaller, more intimate, newer compositions and orchestrations of some of his songs. Meanwhile, he founded the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, worked with biographer Barry Miles on 1997’s Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, and received a knighthood. Amidst it all, he cared for, buried, and mourned his wife Linda, who died of breast cancer in 1998. He was well into his 50s. It’s head-spinning, all the more because it’s not much more busy than he’s been the rest of the time.

2) Paul McCartney does not have to eclipse or match the Beatles. Perhaps it’s impossible to consider his solo music outside the blinding light of the Beatles or the cynical shadows of his early critical dismissal. But to discredit McCartney’s work because it doesn’t measure up to that of his own former band is ridiculous. Virtually every musical legend does their best work in their first decade; in Paul’s first decade, he was the co-founder, co-leader, co-lead songwriter, co-lead singer, sometimes-co-producer, and single instrumental virtuoso of arguably the greatest, and inarguably the most important band ever. Paul was the Beatles. His solo work continued his career in music; it’s not a separate entity. Why should the very best of the Beatles — his first decade’s work — be the standard that Paul McCartney, of all people, must continue to reach? Has anyone else attained either one?

Paul would be a legend if he’d never recorded again, but he is always recording again. That he went on, in his second decade, to enjoy the great success he did with Wings is amazing. That he’s done all he’s done since is impossible. Yet here he is, approaching 79 years old and still delivering, still inspiring.

His solo career has mostly delivered different, less neon treats, exhibits of greatness that may fall short of being the towering monuments to singular genius that is his Beatles catalog. But it’s important to recognize that his early solo work does not actually represent the significant departure from his late work with the Beatles decried by the critics. “Maybe I’m Amazed” stands among his (or anyone’s) very best love songs, while much of the rest of McCartney and Ram is reminiscent of lower-wattage Beatles classics of just a couple years prior; think “Rocky Raccoon”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” or “Two of Us”. Tracks like “Ram On”, “Every Night”, “Junk”, and “That Would Be Something” could easily have appeared on the White Album, while Abbey Road’s “Oh Darling!” would fit snugly on Ram. The #1 hit “My Love” from Wings’ 1973 Red Rose Speedway could be a ballad on a Stevie Wonder Grammy-winner from that era, and “Dear Boy”, with its minor/major movement and sliding vocal harmonies, sounds like the launching pad for Elliott Smith’s entire career. The main riff of “Monkberry Moon Delight” was borrowed by Iron Maiden for its metal classic “Hallowed Be Thy Name” — consciously? If so, wide indeed is Paul McCartney’s influence; if not, that much wider still.

Assemble a roomful of his peers, the royalty of early Rock and Roll Hall of Fame classes, and most would defer to Paul. In fact, they plainly do. At London’s Live 8 concert in 2005, it was Paul who began and ended the affair, kicking it off with “Sgt. Pepper’s” alongside U2, and returning for a finale that brought forth a stageful of top artists — Mariah Carey, David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Elton John — singing the “Hey Jude” coda along with the massive crowd, with Paul in the middle of it all, hollering out his “Jude, Judy, Judy, Judaaaayyyy!” refrains like he was still shy of 30. Was Paul McCartney going to be followed by legends like The Who? Pink Floyd? No chance. Paul closes. The Beatles created the whole thing, showed the way, exploded the market. They changed the music, its presentation, and its possibilities. They changed the world. Paul would be a legend if he’d never recorded again, but he is always recording again. That he went on, in his second decade, to enjoy the great success he did with Wings is amazing. That he’s done all he’s done since is impossible. Yet here he is, approaching 79 years old and still delivering, still inspiring. If you have yet to hear the new covers and remixes of his most recent songs on the just-released McCartney III Imagined, you should. What he does is timeless.

3) There is a lot of outstanding music in his body of solo work. As I watched the documentary, I’d recognize some songs and find myself really enjoying other, unfamiliar ones. I started listening to the albums and quickly realized all I’d been missing. And of course I had been — Paul McCartney has made so much brilliant music. It’s been a true pleasure to discover all the music I had ignored for so long, first through the film’s soundtrack and then by diving into his three dozen or so albums and the releases under his collaborators’ names. Paul’s gorgeous voice shines through it all, rendering everything he does instantly recognizable, even when his signature melodies are held at bay, like in the wildman blues of Ram’s “Smile Away”. His pop masterpieces, from a hit like 1976’s “Silly Love Songs” to 2013’s “New”, bounce and soar. His rockers, from Band on the Run’s “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” to Memory Almost Full’s “Only Mama Knows”, still twist and shout. And his ballads remain as gorgeous and affecting as ever, from Red Rose Speedway’s “Little Lamb Dragonfly” to Driving Rain’s “From a Lover to a Friend.”

Paul listening to rehearsals for The Liverpool Oratorio, 1991

The steady intensity of his creative process can yield music that some wish he wouldn’t have released. Can he be a little cheesy or sentimental? A little cutesy or twee? Sure. No matter how you slice Paul McCartney, some of the slices are going to be laced with schmaltz. It’s baked in there, present in his Beatles work as well, and we’ve known this forever. Then too, Paul’s career may suffer a bit from criticism similar to that leveled at the White Album — there’s too much, it should have been pared down to the best stuff, it’s self-indulgent, too much of this or that isn’t what we expect.

But that’s part of the point too — here’s what I’m up to, here’s what I’m feeling, now allow me to share all of it using this enormous palette of colors I have at my disposal. Is there merit to the complaint? Maybe. But to ask him to do less is to ask him not to be the artist he is. I don’t like everything he does, but why do I have to? It’s plenty to hear it all and stay with what I love, and as I’m finally learning, it all bears repeat listening. And regardless of the style of the songs or production, his music is always his music. Paul McCartney’s songs aren’t like everyone else’s. His writing is distinctive and immediately recognizable; his voice is unmistakable. There’s almost always something about his songs that’s memorable. The gorgeous, seemingly effortless melodies that are his hallmark. The grooving, melodic bass lines that forever changed how the instrument is played. His beautiful, distinctive touch on acoustic guitar or piano. And that voice. I don’t know what it might be called, that quality that lifts it even beyond his four-octave range, perfect pitch, and half-dozen or so distinct timbres, but part of the alchemy that defined the Beatles is the singular euphoria in their voices. Hearing Paul McCartney sing feels good.

4) Paul McCartney is a true artist: fearless, honest, ambitious, and joyful. In interview after interview, decade after decade, Paul describes how much he loves composing and playing music. The course of his career reveals the breadth of his interests and tastes, and eventually he began to indulge these in his work. So we see him working on his first two classical compositions, the Liverpool Oratorio (1991) and Standing Stone (1997). As a novice at orchestral composition who has steadfastly avoided learning to read and write musical notation, he needs to work with symphonic composers on these projects. He was nervous about relying on experts such as these, noting that “the biggest fear actually was that it would end up not being my piece.” But that’s not at all what happened; the classical heavies he worked with on Standing Stone declared that the piece is “absolutely [Paul’s] work,” praising his “instinctive orchestral ability,” and emphasizing that “he prefers to stay naive on one level, but on several other levels, he’s just the most switched on, hip musician that I know.”

Paul reviews a tempo change with conductor Laurence Foster at the Standing Stone rehearsals, 1997

The “serious music” critics, though appreciative of the effort and complimentary of a few elements, weren’t great fans of the piece. Neither am I, though I do enjoy moments. But I love the fact that he did it, and that he keeps doing it; he’s composed three more orchestral pieces to date. To watch Paul during these segments of Understanding McCartney is to see an artist in ambitious, reaching delight. McCartney seems to bring a child’s enthusiasm and curiosity to all of his work, along with the honesty, discipline, and sanguine fearlessness of someone who knows exactly what he’s about, even if he’s still figuring out exactly what he’s doing. It is deeply inspiring to see him work with such engagement and good cheer on music that’s such an audacious stretch, at such a late point in his career, and reap such rewards for the experience not only for himself, but for his A-Team collaborators as well.

In 1993, enjoying his work with producer Youth on a couple of tracks on his Off the Ground album, the two formed the barely-noticed duo The Fireman and released the electronica album Strawberries Ocean Ships Forest that year, then Rushes in 1998 and Electric Arguments in 2008. He teamed with DJ Freelance Hellraiser to produce Twin Freaks, the 2005 album of heavily remixed and reworked versions of his songs, and he worked with Youth again in 2000 on his musique concrète composition Liverpool Sound Collage. “That’s the whole point about The Fireman — it’s very free,” Paul enthused in a 2008 interview. “And also it’s an approach I’m interested in. The whole idea behind ‘Sgt. Pepper’s…’ was to create a band, and we could pretend that we were that band and not the Beatles, so we made that record with that in mind… It’s a very joyful way to record. Sometimes it can be pretty scary but that’s OK. And it’s very quick. But I enjoy the process because it’s exhilarating.”

And that particular joy is the thing, isn’t it? In that joy lies Paul McCartney’s deep artistic honesty and his infectious exuberance. There may be no human being alive who has brought more joy to more humans over the course of (most of) a lifetime.

At 40, seeking another mode of expression, Paul began painting. He developed a style that owes a debt to Willem de Kooning and has had his work shown in exhibitions. British artist Brian Clarke, a longtime collaborator, calls Paul “the ultimate amateur, the anti-professional, the intuitive, the subjective; he is in short — by my definition at least — the genuine article, a real artist entirely fearless about getting lost. [Art critic] Robert Fraser described Paul to me in the late seventies as ‘that rare, exotic thing: a real artist.’”

Youth says, “I think one of Paul’s great qualities is he doesn’t really spend a lot of time… thinking about Self: Who am I? What am I supposed…? He just does what he does, and that gives him a greater ability to just throw himself into anything.” There is beauty in the fact that he explores it all and shares it all, and greatness in his eagerness to depart his comfort zone for worlds in which his work will never be considered great, strictly for the sake of developing his art and remaining a student who can be surprised. As he has said, “I know what I’m doing. And I know what I have to do in life. I’m not going to justify myself. I’m happy.”

It’s worth quoting all these people because one thing that Understanding McCartney makes clear is the influence that Paul has had on so many fellow musicians and artists of all stripes. His inventiveness and willingness to try almost anything has led him to some terrific collaborations.

5) Paul McCartney has had an immeasurable impact not only on fans, but on even the most accomplished of his collaborators and fellow artists. At the 12–12–12 Concert for Superstorm Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden, Paul steps to the mic to introduce the song he’s about to do with Nirvana — sort of. Kurt Cobain is only a beloved memory, but there is Paul, flanked by Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, with Dave Grohl smiling through his beard on the drum riser behind him. It’s the first live performance of the song, he tells the audience, before launching into a grungy, bluesy thunderfest, screaming his lead vocal and unleashing a torrent of slide licks from his cigar box guitar. He seems caught somewhere between a 17 year old kid in a Liverpool basement and the 70 year old senior citizen he is. They had written the song, “Cut Me Some Slack”, during a jam session earlier that year for Grohl’s Sound City documentary. Grohl had suggested they do the old Little Richard potboiler “Long Tall Sally” from the Beatles days; Paul thought they should just make up something new. The song they made up went on to win the 2014 Grammy award for Best Rock Song. For Elvis Costello, “This is the right way to be about music. Have all the experiences, don’t just have the one.”

12–12–12 Concert for Sandy. L-R Paul, Dave Grohl, Pat Smear. Off-camera: Krist Novoselic.

Paul has occasionally played the DIY solo artist, making entire albums on his own, but more often, he has sought collaborators who can push him and allow him to, in Elvis Costello’s words, hear new things. At various points, he’s been bandleader, studio session boss, peer collaborator, and amateur among pros. He’s collaborated in rock, pop, jazz, classical, electronica, and hip hop. Understanding McCartney gives us commentary from almost all of them: Denny Laine in Wings, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Carl Perkins, Eric Stewart, Costello, George Martin, Ringo, and more. We get perspective from younger producers like Nigel Godrich and Mark Ronson and performers like Grohl and Kanye West. The emphasis on these relationships is another way the film highlights a McCartney quite different from the overbearing perfectionist depicted in many accounts of the Beatles.

Eric Stewart of 10cc, who worked with Paul during much of the 80s, remarked, “I’ve never met a person with so many ideas in my life. And when you think about the amount of material that he has recorded in his life… you think that somebody like that’s gotta dry up at some time. But no. …[Y]ou’re putting an idea down that you know is good, and he’ll say, ‘Hold on, I’ve got a better idea,’ and it is! And he tops it. It’s very stimulating to work with somebody like that, because that also inspires you to think, ‘God, well, I’ve got to come up with something better now, bloody hell.’”

And, of course, the connections Paul’s fans feel to his music, his message, and the man himself are powerful and deep. Three generations of blissful fans dance, sing, and cry their way through his concerts. There’s Paul again in 2012, called upon to bring another global event to a close, this time the Olympics opening ceremonies, as millions of people Na-na-na-na-na-na-na their way to some kind of rare, rapturous worldwide consensus.

Meryl Streep once spoke of his “extraordinary gift of being able to pluck out of the air, from out of one soul, music that we’ve never heard before but which is instantly familiar and immediately unforgettable — songs that stir something in us, anthems of the spirit… It’s as if we’re sitting around the stereo like some futuristic campfire and being warmed by his voice, his music, his particular joy.” And that particular joy is the thing, isn’t it? In that joy lies Paul McCartney’s deep artistic honesty and his infectious exuberance. There may be no human being alive who has brought more joy to more humans over the course of (most of) a lifetime.

6) Paul McCartney has successfully endeavored to make his art and his life essentially inseparable. In those early years following the demise of his band, he rose from a deep depression, began knocking around his home studio, produced one album, brought Linda and a couple other musicians on board for a second, decided to form a new band, and created a life in which he’s taken a full swing at all of his musical ambitions, while maintaining a home-life normalcy that he’s been insistent on protecting in the eye of the hurricane.

McCartney family, 1974. L-R Mary, Linda, Paul, Stella (daughter Heather not pictured)

From its opening image, Understanding McCartney continually places his brilliant artistic career alongside his remarkable life. He’s crafted both in symbiosis, as though his life were another of his songs. The series shows us who he is and how he lives: the centrality of his family, bringing his wife into the band and his young children on tour. His vegetarian, animal rights, and environmental activism. His frequent insistence that he’s just a normal guy. This all seems perfectly harmonious, part of his genius — art and life not as spectacle, but as process. Paul’s guitarist of almost 20 years, Brain Ray, may have put it best when asked about the endurance of this current group of McCartney sidemen: “It all goes back to Paul. Paul and his managing style, Paul and his personal style, Paul and his own loyalty and faith and big heart and love. It’s really been a testament to Paul that we’re still together. He’s a guy that’s lived a rich life, he’s got a big family, so he’s dealt with shaping, developing — and when that calls for a little bit of discipline or a little bit of guiding — all of those things within his family and within his farm. So we’ve just become a satellite entity of Paul McCartney’s Big Life. I’m just — speaking for myself — very fortunate and very lucky to be counted as one of the few who can say that.” For Paul McCartney, the many-stranded braid of his art and his big life is there to be cultivated, nurtured, played with, pursued for its own pleasures, for its own proclaiming and reckoning, healing and rejoicing.

And In The End

The love you take is equal to the love you make. When Paul wrote this immortalized lyric, he may have been speaking to us, or he may have been reassuring himself. The Beatles knew, though we didn’t yet, that they were finished. There has surely never been a more lovely rendering of the idea that you get what you give. 50 years later, look at what Paul McCartney has given. Look at what he’s received.

Understanding McCartney has a lesson to teach, though it prefers not to say so: Paul McCartney is a pure gift, a seemingly inextinguishable flame of artistic genius bursting with invitations to joy. But Paul has lessons for us too. Perhaps it’s cliched, but it’s true, and the message is freshly inspiring after spending six hours watching the life this man has crafted: cultivate your curiosity, creativity, joyfulness, fearlessness, generosity, and kindness. And to thine own self be true. “I went to watch him at the O2,” Harry Styles said recently. “He plays for three hours, and he doesn’t have to. He clearly just loves it. When you look at those older guys, who ultimately do you want to be? You don’t want to be the guy who died, you don’t want to be the guy who’s wacked out on drugs — you want to be the guy who’s 70 and playing for three hours because he can, and because he wants to, and everyone’s loving it, and he’s having fun. I found it super inspiring… he’s incredible.”

From the video for “Find My Way”, the lead single from Paul’s self-made 2020 album *McCartney III*

Long documentary series excel at illustrating the grand and epic nature of their subjects. Conte covers 50 years of the most famous artist of his vintage not to have a proper feature documentary and brings it all: we’re well-informed, well-entertained, and fully imbued with awe and gratitude. The inspiration permeates the McCartney story, but it also runs through the nature of the film itself and how it was made. If process is about creating with great focus and dedication for its own sake, Understanding McCartney, made by a fan during pandemic isolation for the sheer love of doing it, is a fantastic argument in favor of its importance.

In the end, despite the best efforts of some critics, Paul McCartney doesn’t need redemption. He’s doing just fine, and he will continue to, in this life and beyond. P.B. Conte’s brilliant film series may seem to offer a sort of redemption for Paul, but it’s not Paul who needs it — it’s us. We need to redeem our love for not only the thing on the wall but also the process by which it was rendered. For the troubadour, the storyteller, the artist-at-work. We need to redeem our delight in the living-thing-in-progress, in evolution through practice, in peaks and valleys, in artful risk-taking and the pursuit of vision. Paul McCartney is not a perfect genius, and he has not delivered a universally hailed solo masterpiece. He exists in a class by himself only in every single other regard. He gives his energy to new music without rest. Recognizing his greatness has everything to do with how we recognize all greatness, in all the infinite corners of the living world where it shines — or doesn’t — every day. It has everything to do with how we understand what greatness is. It has everything to do with how we recognize the potential and realized greatness in ourselves.

Make something, reader, and enjoy making it, regardless of how it turns out. Then make something else. Powerful, moving art and all that it showers upon us come only when there is fertile ground for making it, and Paul McCartney has spent 62 years tilling the soil — for himself, in one sense, but for us all in the final sense. And take heart, because Paul McCartney supports you: “Having made it, and knowing how bloody hard it is to keep making it and to continue in success, I’m really for anyone who can make it. I don’t care if they’re the World’s Worst Mrs. Miller. I don’t care. As long as they make it, and it’s what they want to do, I’ve got sympathy for them.” So go watch Understanding McCartney, then pick up that idea you once had and go create something. Make art. And if that seems beyond your grasp, then take another lesson from Sir Paul the Wise: your life is an artistic medium, too. You can treat it that way.

Understanding McCartney



Alan Burnce

Politics and justice, live and recorded music, reading/writing, art/creativity, teaching/learning, living abroad, and self-actualization for all.