There is something wonderful, evocative, and more than a little nostalgic in seeing Albert Maysles train his documentary camera--shooting in 16mm black and white, no less--on one James Paul McCartney. Maysles and his brother David were the lensmen of What's Happening!: The Beatles in the U.S.A. (aka The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit), accompanying the lads from Liverpool on their first whirlwind invasion of New York. The McCartney that Maysles meets here is now an elder statesman of rock, and the occasion is a more solemn one--the assemblage of "The Concert for New York City," the all-star show McCartney helped put together a month after 9/11.
The resulting documentary, The Love We Make (co-directed by Maysles and Bradley Kaplan), ran on Showtime for the 10th anniversary of September 11, and is now seeing a limited theatrical run. It seems strange that the footage sat unused for so long (its belated release, and those of such other delayed items as the 30 for 30 entry Muhammad and Larry, makes one wonder what other treasures are buried in the Maysles vaults)--or, at least, it seems strange in the first hour or so of the film, which is marvelously intimate and frequently entertaining. Once the picture reaches the home stretch, however, the motivations for the interval become a bit more clear.
But that first hour is worth seeing. McCartney, who was on the tarmac at JFK on the morning of September 11, saw his participation in the concert as an opportunity to give something back to the country that had given him so much--and to indulge in the power of music to unite, console, and (to some extent) distract. Maysles's camera captures McCartney in the week or so before the concert, as he rehearses his set with his band, meets up with other artists on the bill, and goes on a New York media tour to promote the show.
The rehearsal footage is strong, from a rollicking rendition of "I'm Down" to a jokey, lounge-singer cover of "Fly Me to the Moon." The media stuff is interesting as well; Maysles and Kaplan are more interested in the quiet conversations happening outside of the proper interviews (and before them--McCartney seems genuinely nervous about going on Howard Stern). Sir Paul's interactions with fans are fun to watch; he turns respectable adults into baited-breathed teenagers, and still attracts crowds that are downright feverish ("Remember this, Al?" he grins to Maysles, as his towncar is chased by fans). The "little walk" he takes through midtown Manhattan feels like a false, constructed set piece for the film, but to the credit of the directors (and editor Ian Markiewicz), they are careful to leave in awkward encounters with the more insistent and pushy passers-by.
Most importantly, the picture subtly captures the very specific mood of the country--and specifically that city--in those tentative weeks following the tragedy, when we were still on edge, trying carefully to offset our fear with (as Paul once sang) our brave face. McCartney is seen cooling his heels for a bit in a studio, waiting for Dan Rather to show up for an interview, only to find that the newsman's tardiness was due to an anthrax scare in his office. (It all comes back so quickly.)
The problem with the film, however, is that once it reaches its destination--the October 20th Concert for New York City--it doesn't have anywhere to go. It is fun to watch McCartney talking shop with Townsend, Clapton, and Billy Joel at sound-check; we enjoy eavesdropping on his backstage conversation with Bill Clinton; there is an easy but full laugh provided by the gaggle of screeching publicists as the all-star group shot is taken. But once the big show is underway, the filmmakers can't really figure out what the hell to do beyond a simple rotation between backstage glad-handing and performance snippets (which are themselves presented using ugly, low-quality video, in sharp contrast to Maysles's gorgeous 16mm footage).
And there's another problem: "Freedom." A fairly healthy chunk of the film, and the final show, is centered on the song that McCartney composed for the event, a number that even this diehard fan had willed himself to forget. "I didn't worry that it was a big corny," McCartney admits on camera, and that is quite an understatement--it is a terrible song, a mushy collection of bumper-sticker slogans matched to a brain-dead beat, barely above the Toby Keith level on the 9/11-inspired anthem cringe-o-meter. We hear it a lot in The Love We Make, particularly towards the end; the filmmakers wisely buffer off its selection as the concert's closing number with a touching epilogue, in which McCartney visits a fire house and makes a personal connection.
The Love We Make is full of Maysles's signature intimate close-ups and priceless moments with its subject. But it loses its footing in the third act, and the concert sequences--which should represent an electrifying congregation of the best musical acts of our time--turn into a long watch-checker. Fans will not want to miss it. But it feels less like a full-scale Maysles film than a DVD special feature.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.