The Love We Make follows Paul McCartney as he organizes The Concert for New York City, an all-star benefit in the wake of 9/11, and the immediate appeal of the film is that it manages to mostly sidestep the sort of galling self-congratulation associated with charitable celebrities in the midst of national catastrophe. McCartney has 40 years’ practice as a living legend, of course, so he’s mastered and perfected the art of faux-humility, which is to simply not fake the humility. McCartney, an ex-member of the single most famous band of all time, sells his everyman status by admitting that he’s anything but an everyman.
The film, co-directed by Albert Maysles, isn’t a zeitgeist-defining achievement like his Gimme Shelter or Grey Gardens, which, to be fair, wouldn’t be likely anyway, as those are the kind of right-place-at-the-very-right-time, lightning-in-a-bottle films that are exceptionally rare. The Love We Make is mostly about placing viewers in an icon’s shoes as he makes a rehabilitative gesture toward a city with which he’s grown considerable roots. The film is basically a well-executed making-of special with more charisma and human interest than usual, an attempt to sell McCartney as a man every bit as effected by the attack on the towers as anyone else.
You never quite believe that notion, but The Love We Make thankfully doesn’t sell it too hard. The film underplays McCartney’s altruistic tendencies to focus on the nuts-and-bolts of organizing a massive show. The little details (the juggling of egos, the fans, the interviews, the administrative logistics) accumulate to paint a portrait of fame as an exponentially magnified version of the kind of tedium that many cogs in the white-collar machine must brave daily, a notion that drains the film of much of the sentimentality and pomposity that’s potentially inherent in this tricky subject matter. McCartney is focused and fascinating, a tap dancer alternating between the roles of legend, human being, and benefit organizer as the situation suits.
Perhaps unavoidably though, McCartney and his unending list of celebrity admirers effectively dwarf the 9/11 concerns. This film is more effective as a gossip piece that doesn’t insult your intelligence. There are plenty of (obligatory) shout-outs to the policeman and firefighters on Ground Zero, but the true momentum comes from the voyeuristic position with which the film places you. You get to hob knob with Bill Clinton, Sheryl Crow, Leonardo DiCaprio, etc., and watch as they are reduced to the role of fan in the presence of a Beatle.
There are a few moments that point toward Maysles’s gifts though, as they acknowledge a tougher side to McCartney’s life and profession; Maysles has always been a maker of films with quiet details that accumulate to something considerable. One such moment finds McCartney on the streets playing the role of iconic musician only to be greeted by a fan so obviously insane that McCartney’s façade almost crumbles so that he may tell the potential mad man to go to hell, a reaction not unreasonable in this context. In another scene, McCartney is chatting with Harrison Ford, one of the few people to appear who doesn’t seem to be bowed over by his legacy, which results in an awkward role reversal that casually parodies wealthy entitlement as well as the universal daily need to blow smoke up someone’s ass in order to function in mainstream society. During these moments, The Love We Make, which is always likeable and even poignant, flirts with becoming something that would be subversive in the contemporary context: a comedy of the tunnel vision we presume of the top one percent.