On TV This Week: Paul McCartney and the PBS Special with a Long Title

Forgive me for the vague title, but Paul McCartney: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, in Performance is an exceedingly long name for a TV special, even if it is on PBS. Unfortunately, its title wasn’t the only thing that needed a little more planning.

The special, which debuted Wednesday night, began with some behind-the-scenes footage of McCartney arriving at the capitol and meeting with some of the show’s performers, with concert footage from his Good Evening New York City DVD mixed in for good measure. Unfortunately, this interesting video was presented to us in black and white. This could have been a nod to A Hard Day’s Night, but I still think it would have been better in color. Fortunately, the rest of the event (except “Yesterday”) was in the type of clear, color film that really pops out in HDTV.

McCartney opened the festivities with “Got to Get You Into My Life”, and you can tell just from the way he said “white house” how important this was to him. A nice touch to the event was the fact that Paul’s own touring band provided back up for both him and most of the other performers. However, being broadcast from a rather small stage in what appeared to be a dining room, the acoustics seemed to be a little off throughout the night.

Guests were announced by voiceover, and due to heavy editing, the cameras quickly cut from one to another. Stevie Wonder, a 2001 Gershwin award honoree, did his hit version of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out”, sounding similar to the 1970 recording. Later on in the show, Paul joined him on stage for their No.1 duet “Ebony and Ivory”.

The Jonas Brothers, known to be long-time fans of Paul McCartney and the Beatles, served up an excited, fun version of “Drive My Car”. Though I have heard a lot of Beatles and McCartney fans heartily complain about and mock the Jonas Brothers recently, they seemed to turn out one of the best performances of the night. Paul certainly seemed to enjoy their cover, as well as all of the other artists’ performances, stating later on that he “loved the interpretations”. Sitting in front of stage, next to the President and his family, he often mouthed lyrics and bopped his head along to the beat.

The only thing he didn’t seemed enthralled with is Jerry Seinfeld’s lame, over-stretched monologue. After going into a bit about being a Sir and renting a car, Seinfeld poked fun at some of the lyrics and titles of Beatles songs. Apparently, he doesn’t have a vast of knowledge of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership. At least he did say that Paul has written, “some of the most beautiful music ever heard by humans on this earth”.

Despite the fact that this ceremony was for honoring Paul McCartney’s work, and not just that of the Beatles, few solo songs were covered. In light of that, special recognition should go to Jack White, who saved his odd rendition of “Mother Nature’s Son” with a brief interpretation of “That Would Be Something”. I wonder exactly how many of the high-profile political people in that room recognized that one.

Next up, Faith Hill performed a by the book “The Long and Winding Road”, which was completely devoid of any country twang. She seemed a little nervous, but honored to be there.

As happy as Herbie Hancock looked, you would have figured he and guest Corinne Bailey Rae would have done something a little more lively than their somber rendering of “Blackbird”. When he closed the song with a jolly piano interlude, I thought he was going to launch into a more upbeat song, but no.

Elvis Costello lightened things up a bit with a unique cover of “Penny Lane”, complete with instrumentation by US Marine Band trumpeter Matthew Harding. This, along with the camera’s frequent cuts to the political bigwigs in the audience, was the only thing that reminded us that this special was brought to you from the White House, and not some sort of all-star version of American Idol‘s annual Lennon-McCartney night. However, Costello had a good excuse for not singing a Wings or solo McCartney song, “Penny Lane” is a street near his mother’s birthplace. (I’m still a little miffed that they passed up the opportunity to duet on either “My Brave Face”, “Mistress and Maid”, or their great, unreleased duet, “Twenty-Five Fingers”.)

Emmylou Harris, sounding a little like Mary Hopkin, performed an acoustic version of “For No One”. I’m glad that such an under-rated Beatles song got a moment to shine here.

Pianist Lang Lang performed “Celebration”, a track off of McCartney’s Standing Stone classical album. He seemed very skilled and enthused about it, and I’m glad the non-lyrical side of songwriting was honored.

Dave Grohl performed the only Wings cover of the night, a rocking, energized version of “Band On The Run”. If only Paul had gotten on stage to join him!

The musical fun was cut by the President’s speech, which seemed copied and pasted from a Wikipedia article. Distracting from its meaning was the fact that he kept looking down at the paper/teleprompter that was on top of his podium. He then presented Paul the Gershwin award.

Paul said a few words, but it seemed like everything was heavily edited in order to fit the 90-minute timeframe. He performed a cutesy version of “Michelle”, no doubt because of the President’s wife. (If her name was Rita, Martha, or Sally, would we have heard “Lovely Rita”, “Martha My Dear” or “Sally G”?) Then he did “Eleanor Rigby”, which suffered from the room’s bad acoustics. When he darted to the other side of the stage to get to the piano, he seemed to really enjoy himself with an in-joke between him and his daughter, Mary, about whistling. Things turned more serious for “Let It Be”, which was accented by stained-glass window-inspired lighting. Not one to make himself the center of attention, Paul closed the show by saying, “This has been such a great honor for us all”, before launching into “Hey Jude”. Towards the end of the song, all of the night’s speakers and guests got on stage and sang the chorus together. As to be expected from such a crowd, the result was a little off-key, which PBS tried to hide with a voiceover advertisement for their website. An added bonus however, was footage of Paul performing “Yesterday” with the Loma Mar Quartet. Using Stradivarius instruments in a theater setting, the sound was much better than that of the rest of the show.

As a fan of both Paul McCartney and the Beatles, I heard quite a bit about this special, and had low expectations. The event seemed focus too much on itself and its guests instead of the real reason they were there. Despite the fact that this was the Gershwin Prize, little mention was made of the award or the men whom the award was named after. They also really slipped up on an opportunity to have Paul sing his excellent cover of “Summertime”, too. However, all of the artists involved seemed to be at their peak, enjoying every minute. Many memorable moments wound up redeeming the show, but I still think that it could have really been something great if just a little more planning were put into it.

If you missed Wednesday’s airings, check your local listings. PBS often reruns these specials many times throughout the week.