Who is Paul McCartney, really? Is he the person who George Harrison once said was a "selfish" Beatle fixated on his own accomplishments? Is he, in the words of Howard Stern, "a saint" -- someone whose music is "so goddamn uplifting" that he's unlike any other living musician? Or is he somewhere in-between these polarities of selfishness and sainthood? The Love We Make seems to solve that question, and the credit goes mostly to director Albert Maysles and his filmmaking partner, Bradley Kaplan, who show that McCartney -- in old age -- has come to terms with his own rough edges.
McCartney is 69. The Love We Make, which opens tonight (Friday, December 16, 2011) at the Roxie Theater, follows McCartney in the weeks after 9/11, when he is planning and pulling off a fundraising concert for New York City. McCartney walks the streets of Manhattan, where he's subsumed by strangers who ask for his autograph. He meets with musicians he's asked to perform on the same Madison Square Garden stage. And he speaks with celebrity interviewers like Barbara Walters and Dan Rather, who pepper him with questions about the Beatles, and about where he was when 9/11 happened (on a plane at a New York City airport, on the tarmac preparing to fly to England). McCartney hand-picked Maysles to make this behind-the-scenes documentary, but he gave Maysles carte-blanche to film whatever he wanted. He trusted Maysles -- McCartney had known him since 1964, when Maysles made a film about the Beatles' first visit to America -- and Maysles doesn't disappoint.
Maysles, who is 85, lives by the credo, "Show, don't tell." Every one of his films, including Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary about the Rolling Stones that he shot with his brother David, lets the documented events tell a bigger story. There's no voice-over narration. No "theme music" that anchors scenes. No extra anything except the credits and a you-are-there approach that makes viewers feel like they're active witnesses, almost participants, really, in the dramas that unfold before them. Maysles is the antithesis of a filmmaker like Michael Moore.
"Michael Moore is out to get people. I'm out to understand them simply by filming what's going on, and letting people judge for themselves," says Maysles in a phone interview from New York. "What I'm always trying to do is to humanize through the process of empathizing with the people I'm filming. My mother used to say, 'There's good in anybody.' And I'm always looking for that in my films."
Still, The Love We Make shows McCartney in some awkward moments, as when he encounters a Beatles fan on the street who appears to be homeless and slightly delusional, and tells the fan, "Good luck to you, man. . . I can't help you."
The encounter is one of several where McCartney maneuvers away from public crowds that are borderline threatening, and these scenes recall -- though it is never elucidated in The Love We Make -- John Lennon's New York assassination by a deranged stranger in 1980. When McCartney first previewed the film with Maysles and Kaplan, he was relieved to see himself in all his complexity, including the unflattering moments.
After the screening, Kaplan tells me, "the lights came up and I turned to look at Paul, and I could see he was moved. He gave Al a big hug and gave me a big hug, and he said, 'Wow guys, that was incredible. For years, I've been able to watch other performers on screen, like Robert De Niro, and how much they give of themselves and show the edges of things. You kept all the edges in; I'm so glad you did. I'm ready to share them. I don't know if I would have felt the same way 10-20 years ago. But I'm willing to see the edges now.' "
In fact, those edges are the best part of The Love We Make. The concert itself, which raised tens of millions of dollars, was televised live on October 20, 2001, a truncated version was later broadcast, and a DVD was released, so footage of the music has been in the public domain for a decade. Footage for The Love We Make, meanwhile, sat in Maysles' vault for at least five years until McCartney sent Maysles a note asking about it.
In 2010, Kaplan (who joined Maysles' film company in 2006) and Maysles finally began editing the scenes into a bona fide documentary. It aired earlier this year on Showtime, just in time for the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. In the film, McCartney talks about dealing with tragedy -- about how crying in front of others can be cathartic -- and also reveals his humorous side, like when he imitates film producer Harvey Weinstein, who produced McCartney's Concert for New York. As he speaks with Eric Clapton, McCartney mimics Weinstein's thick New York accent in all its pageantry. McCartney also does an imitation of Mick Jagger. Clapton shakes his head and laughs. McCartney knows how to entertain. That's always been true. It's the giving and humility that seem more evident now, though Maysles says these traits were always there, too.
"I don't know that he has changed," Maysles says. "Right from the start, in 1964 and all these years later, he's always been very cooperative and has given me total access. He hasn't in any way tried to manipulate anything, and I commend him for that."
The Love We Make screens at the Roxie Theater from Friday, December 16 to Thursday, December 24, 2011. For tickets and more information visit roxie.com.