Paul McCartney in Red Square(New Video, 6.14.2005)
Back in the 60s, The Beatles were banned in the USSR for writing "Back in the USSR," one of their most annoying tracks. Okay, that's not true but it would have been a good reason. Actually, they were banned because the communist powers-that-be felt The Beatles represented all the freedom that Russians needed to be protected from. The Russian people always loved The Beatles, they just weren't allowed to show it. Then, after decades of Beatles-free living, the Russian people finally got a Paul McCartney concert. That's not quite the same as the whole band but it's all that was available.
Simultaneously providing musical entertainment and history lessons, this New Video disc brings together materials from both A&E and The History Channel. It's an impressive package but there are problems. For one, the main program never really builds momentum, as we get disruptive history lessons between most of the songs. In and of themselves, these pieces are interesting but they disrupt the rhythm of the concert.
The program is structurally reminiscent of The Last Waltz, an amazing film in which the same technique worked wonders. There are at least three reasons it worked better in The Last Waltz: 1) that was an inherently episodic, disjointed concert with new guests emerging after each song, 2) the intervals felt more organically relevant and immediate, and 3) Martin Scorsese directed The Last Waltz.
But don't worry, the supplements pick up the slack. First up, we get two 6-minute historical featurettes. This is similar to the material seen during the concert but, removed from that context, it's much more effective. We also get a "resource guide," which is really just a list of 6 semi-relevant websites.
The best feature by far -- and clearly the reason to purchase this disc -- is Paul McCartney: Live in St. Petersburg, a complete bonus concert. Although this is only half the length of the other concert (it's about 54 minutes), it's much more lively and pure, presumably because it isn't constantly interrupted by historical footnotes. You almost get the feeling of attending an actual concert, which isn't the case with the Red Square doc.
It's probably worth noting that both performances suffer from a major weakness of McCartney's current live act: his band. I'm not saying they're bad musicians -- they're clearly very talented -- but they're younger than McCartney and seem determined to inject false youthfulness into the show. Plus, they're all in their late 30s and 40s so this stab at "hip" comes off as out-of-touch, particularly a series of guitar and drumming flourishes that seem to corrupt the songs they're used in. And don't get me started on the video projected behind the band (rollercoasters?). Very karaokesque.
Unlike the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney's street cred hasn't survived into his 60s. He seems like a really nice guy and he's definitely one of the greatest rock musicians of all time but the chemistry between him and his band just isn't right. It almost feels like a Beatles cover band...with special guest Paul McCartney.
I also wish McCartney would play less Beatles songs -- this, along with the doc intervals, gives the impression that he was clearly the most important Beatle, a debatable argument -- and stop burying his very worthwhile solo material. The only McCartney/Wings album that gets much attention on stage is "Band on the Run," an excellent album but not his only good solo work.
Of course, these are all the nitpicking complaints of a die-hard fan. There's plenty here to enjoy and, while this is no substitiute for the real Beatles (or even the real McCartney), it's not a bad supplement. Everything on the disc is presented in 1.33:1 and it looks fine, while the 5.1 surround is suitably rockin'. -- Jonathan Doyle