On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Sir Paul McCartney sat on the tarmac waiting to fly back to the UK. The pilot came over the speaker to announce that there had been an accident, and that the trade centres had been hit (viewable out the port side of the plane). As they taxied back to the gate, the second plane hit, and everyone aboard knew something very dramatic was taking place in NYC.
Just weeks later, a memorial concert is staged for the people of New York. Headlined and organized by the former Beatle, he called upon some help from his very famous and accomplished friends to stage a show at Madison Square Gardens. The front of the audience was filled with first responders and their families, many holding framed pictures of their loved ones killed a few blocks south, buildings that were then still smouldering after the attacks.
Against this backdrop, the film could have been simply a general documentation of that time, rushed out as some sort of advertisement for the event or tacked on as a DVD extra. Instead, we get a truly remarkable bit of cinema, and, I’d suggest, a verité classic. The images are captured on black and white 8mm stock, harkening back to the likes of DON’T LOOK BACK or other seminal music documentaries. Calling upon Albert Maysles, one half of the team that captured the Beatles’ arrival back in ’64, we follow Paul as he engages with his fans, ducks into limos, and hangs out backstage waiting for his turn in front of the audience. This is the usual, casual stuff of any verité doc, but what’s made remarkably compelling is the intimacy of the event that is captured.
The city at that time, for obvious reasons, was still entirely on edge. Paul walks the street, signing dozens of autographs with a smile, taking time for those approaching him, grateful to see his return. What’s often forgotten is the real sense that things would never be the same in NYC, that it was a real political act to come back and hold a celebration. What’s also not to be forgotten is that some 20 years earlier his partner and friend had been shot on those very streets, a gunman who approached John ostensibly looking for an autograph.
After the ease with which he engages with the crowd, Paul gets into the relative security of his limo, extolling his driver to exit the scene that has now swelled to dozens of people. The sense of quiet consternation, almost panic, is at first blush embarrassing, the big star putting on a false facade to his fans whom he can’t exit soon enough. However, we quickly realize that, in fact, this is a man wrestling with his own fears and trepidations quietly, privately, while outwardly exuding confidence and generosity. It’s entirely reasonable, given both the events of that time and the events of two decades previously, for him to be on edge in the city. Yet despite any reservation, he still takes the time to engage with his fans with courtesy, even one who manages to follow the fleeing limo on bicycle. There’s a real sense of moral courage on display, overcoming his natural reservation, and it provides a stunning metaphor for the city at large during that time period. The sense of anxiousness that is overcome in order to both celebrate and commemorate, the actions of the concert are mirrored in Paul’s own engagement with the city and its people.
At the concert itself, we find Paul engaging with his friends in a similarly casual way. There are some delightfully telling moments – Letterman Bassist Will Lee is talking about his Beatles cover band, and Paul seems to be feigning interest. When Pete Townshend walks him mid conversation, Will slips away almost unnoticed, despite the fact that he’s tasked with performing Paul’s own Bass parts that evening. Paul talks of a song he just wrote for the event, “Freedom”, and Pete seems amused as the thought of debuting what amounts to a demo on a night like this. Reconnecting with James Taylor, an early Apple Records signed musician, is elevated by the entrance of Bill Clinton, who then regales of tales about being aboard JT’s sailboat. A scene where Ozzy Osborne meets Paul for the first time is both touching a strangely surreal.
We watch Paul watch the show from backstage, cross cutting with broadcast footage of the event. His reaction to Zak Starkey, drummer for The Who and son of his own bandmate, is another one of those small slices of intimacy that makes the film so remarkable. Sure, verite docs often dwell on these tiny moments, but what elevates this film is that the participants themselves are often so grand, so controlled in their public persona, that these small, human moments are even more telling.
With yet another remarkable scene, Paul convinces Clapton to play guitar on “Freedom”, saying “it’s just in G, you’ll follow along”. When the song is finally trotted out, it’s a brash mix of cliche and sing-song chorus, but Clapton does nail a bluesy solo and the crowd gets to chant with appropriate aplomb.
More than a mere concert doc, THE LOVE WE MAKE weaves these and other stories with the events of that time period, capturing in a most remarkable way the mood and spirit of the city shortly after the attacks. The work benefits enormously by waiting for a decade, for its message is subtle enough that it may have been lost in the slew of other works. By capturing this unique moment in time, by tying Paul’s own trepidation with that of the city, and by highlighting the remarkable events that led up to the show, THE LOVE WE MAKE proves to transcend any expectations, and is an absolute gem of a film.