Publicity for this film might lead viewers to expect a personal response to the 9/11 tragedy from Sir Paul McCartney. We’d then expect insights into why he agreed to participate in the New York benefit concert that took place in Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001. Much has been made of the fact he was in New York when the Twin Towers went down and that this inspired him to compose the song, “Freedom.” In the main, however, the documentary is largely about a musician who happens to be on the scene and is agreeable to playing a few songs for the firefighters as a kind gesture. Most everything else is a film crew following McCartney around capturing a few days in the life of a former Beatle talking to anyone who happens by.
I suspect the motivation behind this movie, directed by Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan, was that after Harvey Weinstein had begun organizing the benefit concert, McCartney’s involvement meant a bit of history in the making might be caught on film. However, judging from what we see, McCartney’s role was merely as one of the performers on the all-star roster and he had little to do with shaping the event. As a result, the first hour of the footage is McCartney walking on the streets talking to strangers, McCartney off stage talking to fellow musicians and friends, and McCartney talking on the air with Dan Rather and Howard Stern about all manner of things having nothing to do with 9/11. No, he has no Beatle boots in his closet, and he’s not answering questions about sleeping with black women. Instead, he’s promoting a rather low-key album playing with a rather low-key band who are quickly trying to throw together a short set for the concert. In the end, we get a moveable feast of McCartney showing what he does in public when the camera is turned on.
For Beatle aficionados, there are nuggets along the way. For example, the closing moments are the most poignant when McCartney tells firefighters that seeing them helped him understand his father’s own such work during World War II. We hear Bill Clinton admitting how strange it is that all his rock idols are the same age he is. McCartney praises Ringo’s son, Zak, who plays with The Who. Sir Paul and James Taylor retell how “Jimmy” became an Apple artist. After going down Beatle memory lane with Rather, it’s clear McCartney is a seasoned veteran of handling the media who is in the unusual position of having his home movies include a 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The saddest, and most unintentional irony, is that McCartney felt his song “Freedom” was going to become a new anthem and thought its debut would be the musical grand finale of this project. The song, like the film that leads up to it, is built on good intentions. The viewer will have to decide if these intentions are worth 90 minutes plus the costs of postage and handling.
It must be said we get very little of the concert that sparked it all, but of course that’s on a separate two DVD set. In fact, this documentary could be a superlative bonus feature bundled with the concert discs as, on its own, this isn’t a film for many repeat viewings. Not much history was made; the love that was made was mostly for McCartney himself.