Paul McCartney & Wings Soar in ‘Rockshow’

In 1976, Paul McCartney was on top of the world. His band, Wings, had just released their fourth consecutive number one album, Wings at the Speed of Sound, which also boasted one of the year’s top-selling singles, “Silly Love Songs”. Music critics had begun to lighten up on his wife and bandmate, Linda. Perhaps most gratifying of all, the majority of the millions of people who were coming to see him perform during his massive Wings Over the World tour were coming to see Paul McCartney & Wings — not Paul McCartney, the former Beatle.

That McCartney was having a fantastic year is plain to see in the concert film Rockshow, featuring performances from the North American leg of his Wings Over the World tour, and recently released on DVD and Blu-ray. Rockshow features an indefatigable McCartney arguably at the peak of his performance ability, which lessens the blow of the film’s technical flaws and oddities.

Most McCartney fans have been waiting a long time to see Rockshow. Many fans were not alive when Rockshow premiered in theaters in 1980. Furthermore, those few who were able to snag a copy of the 1982 laserdisc release were subject to grainy picture quality, and sub-par sound. This version also formed the basis for the numerous bootlegs floating about the internet in recent years.

The most recent release on DVD and blu-ray is, naturally, a marked improvement over the old laserdisc edition, with crystal clear picture quality, and a stellar 5.1 digital surround sound mix. My only complaint about the mix is that certain songs feature far less bottom end than others, which is especially frustrating given the brilliance of McCartney’s bass playing in this performance.

To see McCartney perform in 1976 was to see him at his best. Since the Beatles had ceased touring a decade earlier, McCartney had only made sporadic live appearances, though you wouldn’t know it by watching Rockshow: the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is obviously well-rehearsed and in top-form, and accompanied by a more-than-capable supporting group composed of drummer Joe English, rhythm guitarist (and Moody Blues alumnus) Denny Laine, lead guitarist Jimmy McCullogh, keyboardist Linda McCartney, as well as a four-man brass and woodwinds section. Playing a wide selection of Wings and Beatles hits, it was McCartney’s most recent efforts than burned brightest on this tour. “Silly Love Songs” bounces along with an infectious bass line and high-octane horns; “Call Me Back Again” features Paul singing at his rawest since “Oh! Darling;” while “Live and Let Die” nearly blows the roof off the stadium, with a frantic lightshow and spectacular pyrotechnics for added effect.

By comparison, Wings’ performance of certain Beatle standards such as “Lady Madonna” and “The Long and Winding Road” are underwhelming. The inclusion of brass and woodwinds on “The Long and Winding Road” seems, in retrospect, a particularly odd choice for Paul McCartney; six years earlier, McCartney seethed at Phil Spector’s overproduction of the Let it Be record, and was particularly offended by the over-the-top instrumentation on McCartney’s baby from that set, “Long and Winding Road.” Listening to his performance of the track in Rockshow makes me wish for the Beatles’ more sensitive and minimalist performance from Let it Be… Naked.

There are a few other odd choices, and at times frustrating moments in Rockshow. The central characters from “Magneto and Titanium Man” (which, yes, is just as corny and fun as it sounds) are emblazoned on a massive and distracting projection behind the band as they perform. Certain songs fall flat (Why did Paul choose to cap off such a terrific performance with a song like “Soily?” Ever heard of it? Exactly).

The only extra feature on the DVD is a trifling short film featuring backstage footage from the tour. Perhaps most frustrating of all, in certain moments throughout Rockshow, the on-camera performance does not sync with the soundtrack. Some might argue that I am splitting hairs here, but I have always found it frustrating in concert films when the images we are seeing do not match exactly what we are hearing; it’s interesting to note how musicians do what they do in real time, which exact chords are being used by each guitarist, or how the drummer’s technique lends itself to certain fills, etc. Thankfully, this does not happen too often, but when it does it irritates the musician in me.

For the most part, however, Rockshow soars, and is essential viewing for any McCartney aficionado. I watched Paul perform in Vancouver last November, and was astounded at the 71-year-old’s exuberance and stamina through a two and a half hour long set. Understandably, he performed with even greater ebullience as a man half that age in 1976, and we are lucky to have Rockshow as testament to the musician’s enduring brilliance.

RATING 8 / 10