For those of us born in the States and after the ‘60s, it’s hard to imagine Paul McCartney as being dangerous. Perhaps this is because we’ve only known Macca the solo artist, the one who wrote chipper—and often sappy—pop tunes that were always upbeat and encouraging. The McCartney we’ve known recruited his wife into his band so that he could spend every waking moment with her, even though her talents as a musician were, at best, questionable (let’s not, however, forget her genius as a photographer). And yes, as painful as it is to admit, we’ve known the McCartney who infamously recorded “Say, Say, Say” with Michael Jackson and then made that horrendous video where he and Jackson made a stab at acting. Most of all, though, we’ve known Paul McCartney as a sort of cultural father, a living institution and reference point who occasionally goes on tour. But dangerous? No. The most dangerous thing our McCartney did was declare that the world had had enough of silly love songs—that is, within the context of a silly love song. Our Sir Paul is courteous, making sure to never upset.
Back when McCartney was a Beatle, however, his music was considered very dangerous in the former Soviet Union. The Beatles, it seems, were seen as the epitome of Western debauchery, proof positive that too much capitalism and freedom leads to a meltdown in values. At least this is what the Soviet government told the people. Indeed, back in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, liking the Beatles was tantamount to treason—not political, but cultural—and the powers in control officially banned the band from the airwaves to prevent the spread of “alien propaganda”. Many of the citizens, however, had a different view of the Beatles, and this is the story told in Paul McCartney in Red Square, a new DVD that mixes interviews and historical footage with clips of McCartney’s first concert in Russia, which didn’t occur until 2003. Through interviews with citizens of the former USSR, we learn of their struggles to do such simple things as purchase a Beatles LP, which was an offense punishable by imprisonment.
Of course, when anything is labeled taboo (and certainly when the government deems it as such), an incredible amount of interest automatically arises. And here is where this film succeeds—in telling the amazing story of people who risked their livelihoods and reputations to listen to Beatles albums and congregate with other fans of the band. For them, the Beatles weren’t purveyors of Western propaganda, but intellectual liberators who stood in stark opposition to a government that dictated what was acceptable and what was anathema. For these people, who weren’t allowed to openly love the Beatles until the fall of communism, seeing Paul McCartney in concert was not simply a fan’s dream come true, but a historical event marking the changes in their society.
In Red Square does an excellent job of telling this inspiring story while also giving ample time to the concert footage, which includes songs from all phases of McCartney’s career. With such an amazing catalogue of songs, it’d be hard to choose a less-than-stellar playlist, and this film doesn’t disappoint the casual Beatles fan or the devoted Macca devotee. Anybody who’s seen McCartney on tour in the last few years knows that his band is impeccable, able to recreate the complex music of the Beatles that the band themselves never recreated in front of a live audience. Together, they masterfully perform classics of the Beatles, Wings, and McCartney’s solo era. The climax of the film comes during the performance of “Hey Jude”, when McCartney urges a visibly uncomfortable Vladimir Putin to join the crowd in the closing chorus. Putin merely sits there, but he’s the only person not in his entourage unmoved by the historical moment.
The film itself is absolutely gorgeous, full of bright, crisp colors that practically jump off the screen. The brilliant colors highlight the excitement of the event, which is further underscored by the digital surround sound; you’ll swear you’re in the audience during the concert segments. The only shortcoming of the film is that some of non-concert footage is boring and often breaks the enthusiasm of the music. In one of the segments, McCartney rides around on his bike, only to find out that bikes are prohibited in certain areas around Red Square. In another, he receives an honorary doctorate, which is significant for historical reasons, but certainly isn’t riveting stuff. Indeed, the footage documenting the fall of communism runs out midway through the film, which is probably why the latter half of the film shows such mundane occurrences. These segments, however, are easy to forgive when the footage switches back to the concert, which is undeniably genius.
Cynics—and let’s face it, there are many in the music-buying public—will deride this film as being overly sentimental and perhaps a bit revisionist. True, the sequences of McCartney receiving an honorary doctorate and visiting an orphanage are a bit too self-congratulatory. And yes, the opening quote in the film that asserts the Beatles played the biggest role in the fall of communism is sheer nonsense. The central story of a people now free, however, is both compelling and hopeful. As McCartney and his band perform, old men dance with their wives, fat guys breakdance, couples hold one another, and everyone in the crowd forgets their past and present trials. If that’s not the goal of music, what is? Paul McCartney in Red Square serves as a reminder of the magical power of music, a power that nurtures, intoxicates, and refuses to be walled off.