Buried beneath the excessive adoration and dizzying camerawork is an amazing concert.
To say that Paul McCartney is a genius and has had an incalculable impact on both pop music and the culture in the 20th century is really to say nothing new. We all know this. Nobody would dispute this, and even if someone did, he would find no evidence to support his assertion. Indeed, saying that McCartney is a monumental figure in popular culture and the arts is as enlightening as saying the sky is blue or that Paris Hilton's fame is a sure precursor to the Apocalypse. And yet, for whatever reason, director Mark Haefeli feels the need to drive this point into the viewer's head again and again and again – and again.
If you own either of Haefeli's previous two films about McCartney, 2002’s Paul McCartney: Back in the U.S. or 2005’s Paul McCartney: Live in Red Square, you know his formula: show footage of McCartney in concert; show footage of people tossing accolades upon Macca; rinse; repeat. To heighten the excitement of the songs, use short camera shots combined with disorienting cuts. Throw in bright, saturated colors to intensify the effect. After a while, the result is like going to midnight Mass on acid: all the idolatrous worshipping and sensory overload can be overwhelming -- so overwhelming, in fact, that you forget the original purpose.
Haefeli makes use of this formula again in his latest McCartney "concert" film, which is only superficially so. Like its two predecessors, Paul McCartney: The Space Within Us features plenty of concert footage, but also plenty of interruptions. Just as Live in Red Square used McCartney's historic visit to Russia as a narrative foundation, The Space Within Us builds its story upon the beaming of the former Beatles' concert to the Mir space station. The event serves as a metaphor: if music is so powerful as to reach the heavens, what effect might it have within the listener?
This metaphor, however, also serves as the catalyst for all the filler that plagues this film. Interspersed throughout the concert footage are interviews with average Americans, famous musicians, famous politicians, academics, and old acquaintances of McCartney -- all of whom are eager to tell the world how his music transformed their lives. The list of interviewees is indeed impressive, including such icons as Bill Clinton, Eddie Vedder, Steve Jobs, and Tony Bennett, but the point is foregone; McCartney, of course, is a genius, and we don't need former presidents or music therapists to convince us of that. Would you, after all, rather see a Picasso painting or hear 20 different people react to it? The choice is easy, and while you wouldn't necessarily have to choose in reality, you certainly wouldn't want to hear twenty different people react to a Picasso while you were trying to view it.
Unfortunately, Haefeli also has a tendency to cut away from McCartney performing to show the crowd's reaction. To do this to some extent is understandable; music is an interactive experience, a spiritual connection between performer and listener, so seeing how an audience responds to an artist is intriguing. The problem, though, is that Haefeli overdoes it, showing the audience as much as the performance, and exploiting such moments for sentimental effect. Middle-aged couples dance, young couples kiss, little kids discover the wonder of music -- it's nice, but it gets a little sappy halfway through the film.
And yet, McCartney's magic somehow finds a way through all the cinematographic distractions and insufferable idolatry. Though his voice is beginning to slip -- witness the strained shrieking during the high notes of "Maybe I’m Amazed" -- he stills sounds remarkable for a man of 64, and his affable charm continues to radiate, even on film. But even a man of Macca's talents would be helpless in trying to capture the Beatles' orchestral majesty without a strong supporting cast, and his band (drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr.; guitarist Rusty Anderson; guitarist and bassist Brian Ray; and keyboard player Paul "Wix" Wickens) nearly steal the show. Somehow the four of them reproduce what took the Beatles, George Martin, and often a full orchestra to create, and they're able to play the music like it's their own without needlessly tinkering with it. Laboriel, in particular, is amazing; his abilities far outpace those of Ringo Starr, and he often adds small nuances that fill out the songs while maintaining the integrity of the original versions.
So, if you can tolerate the jarring cuts, effusive audience shots, slobbering canonizing, and thin narrative, The Space Within Us is an enjoyable view. Haefeli's enthusiasm for his subject is understandable -- McCartney is not only the last relevant Beatle alive, he's also a link to a fading, more innocent era -- but the world needs no other proof of his genius than his music. Thankfully, buried beneath the distractions are amazing live versions of his masterpieces, both with the Beatles and as a solo artist. The track listing is amazing, including songs not captured on Haefeli's previous films, such as "I'll Follow the Sun" and "I Will". In the end, you might have to dig deep beneath all the clutter, but the space within is rewarding.