Low-key and charming are not the adjectives that came to mind when I first heard ABC was doing a two-hour prime-time film about Paul McCartney during May "sweeps." I expected the breathlessly hyped-up worst, and while I wasn't exactly amazed, baby, I was delightfully surprised by "Wingspan," which airs tonight at 9.
ABC is promoting the two-hour documentary as a backstage look at Wings, one of the most successful rock bands of the 1970s, and it is certainly that. But I have almost no interest in Wings or the music it made, and I loved this film for the other, more human stories it tells about a husband and wife searching for a way to have a fulfilling life as personal and professional partners. I have never seen a documentary humanize a superstar the way "Wingspan" does Paul McCartney and his late wife, Linda, who died of breast cancer in 1998.
As a journalist who values objectivity, I suppose I should be more troubled than I am by the fact that "Wingspan" is produced by McCartney's 31-year-old daughter, Mary, and her husband, Alistair Donald, but that familiarity is exactly what makes the film so engaging.
At the heart of the documentary is an ongoing interview of McCartney by Mary, and it is a delight in its give-and-take, gentle prodding, jokes shared and father-daughter/daughter-father teasing. At one point, the film gives us McCartney answering questions from Mary as he brews and serves tea for the two of them at the kitchen table. He looks like a guy who is very comfortable in that role.
OK, sure, his daughter doesn't bore in on him the way some of the phony, network-newsmagazine, hotdog interviewers might when asking about, say, his drug bust at customs in 1980 in Japan, but the documentary provides deeper truths than you're ever going to get watching Diane Sawyer interview a celebrity.
McCartney does address the drug bust that led to the breakup of Wings, and the editing by Alistair shows McCartney moving from denial to apology [to his daughter], to the real reason he put a big bag of marijuana in his suitcase where it could not possibly go undetected by Japanese authorities.
At first, he tells Mary, "We had this pot. I'll tell you the truth, to this day, I don't know what made me do it."
But after explaining that he and Linda came to Japan feeling burned out on the band and that it was "all winding down," McCartney says of his week in a Japanese jail, "I suddenly didn't have to do the tour. It was almost as if I wanted to get busted."
Not almost, Paul.
But to appreciate how exhausted he and Linda were in 1980 from the musical journey they started together after the breakup of the Beatles, you have to hear some of the stories McCartney tells in "Wingspan."
Like the Scottish farm he and Linda and the kids moved to right after the breakup. They thought it would be an idyllic retreat. But it had rats in the walls and no hot water. Mary calls it the "lumber yard," and home movies show us a wreck of a building with rotting wood and mud everywhere.
Then came the depression. Paul says he was so dazed and depressed by leaving the Beatles that he only got out of bed on some days to see if there was anything left in the bottle of whiskey from which he had been drinking the night before. It was Linda, he says, who convinced him he was still a musician and songwriter and that he needed to pull himself together and find another outlet for his talent.
The outlet was Wings, but McCartney wanted no more egos or superstars. He wanted to be surrounded with people he loved or at least liked. Linda had never played the piano. He showed her middle C and made her the piano player.
Their first tour consisted of five band members getting in a van and driving around the UK visiting universities. The equipment manager would go into the student unions and ask the kids if they wanted to hear Paul McCartney's new band.
Paul and Linda McCartney willed Wings to be a huge success. It was their way of proving, as he says, "That there was life after the Beatles." Like their family, it was a creation of ego and love.
Is this McCartney family version of events all true? Who cares. Watch and listen to McCartney the way a psychiatrist doing therapy or an anthropologist doing a life history might - savoring and deconstructing the narrative even as it's being spun. It is a fascinating and inspirational love story of our times.
When: Tonight at 9
Where: WMAR (Channel 2)
In brief: A gentle documentary that takes you inside the life of Paul and Linda McCartney.