Some celebrities have had such a huge impact on our culture that it's difficult to imagine them as individual human beings. But filmmaker Albert Maysles has built a career out of quietly capturing the character of each of his subjects, including American Bible salesmen (Salesman), Big Edie and Little Edie Beale (Grey Gardens), The Rolling Stones (Gimme Shelter), and The Beatles (What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA). Co-directed with Bradley Kaplan, Maysles' new documentary The Love We Make follows a former Beatle (and one of the most beloved figures in pop music) during the weeks immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Paul McCartney spent that period organizing a vastly ambitious concert that would raise funds for victims' families while raising the spirits of the city (and the country) as a whole. Today, The Concert for New York City is remembered fondly as a mesmerizing, emotional experience. Maysles uses his filmmaking skills to bring us the emotional interaction behind the scenes. We see a genuinely compassionate and understanding McCartney speaking with fans in everyday situations as well as humbling encounters with other celebrities and public figures backstage at the show. We also see McCartney is his more relaxed and private moments. None disappoints.Maysles and his crew were given free access to McCartney as he moved around the city, planning and promoting the show. The film is shot in raw black-and-white, although "quoted" footage from interviews and the concert itself is in color. This provides a visual juxtaposition between the private McCartney and the more public figure who appears in the color footage.
Roughly the first half of The Love We Make turns out to be about how McCartney manages his status as an iconic public figure, particularly in his relationship with his fans and the media. It's a double-sided game that McCartney skillfully maintains: We follow him through the streets of New York and the offices of major media organizations as he greets fans and fellow celebrities with equal effusiveness, approachability, and candor. We also watch him as he charges his driver to "get some distance" between trailing autograph-hounds and paparazzi cameras. Pragmatically, he understands that he cannot be responsible for dragging people into the bustling streets of New York and that he must protect his privacy as a matter of personal safety. He is cool and comfortable when thronged by fans, yet he takes a deep breath when finally ensconced in the relative safety of his limousine.
The second half of the film covers the concert itself. Color clips from the show help maintain the chronology of that evening in October 2001. But most of the remaining screen time consists of a massive parade of celebrities trickling through the green room at Madison Square Garden to pay their quite humble respects to McCartney (watch Jim Carrey practically stumble over his own modesty). Each one thanks him and acknowledges the enormous undertaking that the show represents. That undertaking was lightning fast: The concert took place just a month after the attacks. The planning was no doubt eased by McCartney's ability to enlist the participation of David Bowie, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Eric Clapton, Janet Jackson, and Elton John among dozens of others.
The footage of McCartney schmoozing backstage with the likes of Eric Clapton, Harrison Ford, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and President Bill Clinton does not consist of mutual ego-stroking. Instead it reveals the extraordinarily high regard in which McCartney is held by everyone who meets him at the show. Comparing these scenes to the footage of McCartney on the streets of New York earlier in the film reveals a common thread -- that McCartney is beloved by his fans as a performer and as a human being, whether those fans are strangers on the street, colleagues in show business, or powerful world leaders.
The Love We Make starts Friday (Dec. 16, and continues through Dec. 22) at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia), S.F. Admission is $6.50-$10. On Friday at 7 p.m. is a special screening introduced by music journalist Ben Fong-Torres to benefit MusiCares; admission for that is $12.