Paul McCartney takes long and winding road to ‘In Performance at the White House’


“I hope the president will forgive me if I do this one,” says Sir Paul McCartney as he launches into a lovely rendition of “Michelle.” As McCartney croons, President Barack Obama sings quietly to his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, who is beaming at McCartney.

Find a woman, especially one named Michelle, who wouldn’t.

“I could be the first guy ever to be punched out by the president,” McCartney says.

This unfolds near the end of a delightful concert, “Paul McCartney in Performance at the White House” Wednesday, July 28, on PBS (check local listings).


Taped in June, when the president bestowed upon the former Beatle the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the 90-minute concert features various artists covering McCartney’s songs. McCartney is visibly touched, explaining in a brief segment before the concert that his father adored Gershwin.

“I just love music,” McCartney says. “It doesn’t matter what style it is -- classical, Django Reinhardt, the Stones, the Beatles.”

Leading up to the concert in the East Room, McCartney is shown arriving at the White House, and he’s clearly excited.

“I’ve been showing off, telling mums at school, ‘Guess where I’m going! I’m going to play for the pres!’ ” he says.

After McCartney opens with “Got to Get You Into My Life,” musicians from different genres take the stage. Stevie Wonder is first with his arrangement of “We Can Work It Out.”

The well-connected crowd is subdued but rapt. Malia Obama looks extremely happy when the Jonas Brothers take the stage a couple of feet from her. They perform a perfect cover of “Drive My Car.” Unlike the Jonas Brothers’ usual concerts, no one shrieks.

Jerry Seinfeld does shtick about prizes and what a loose term that is, considering people get prizes at amusement parks, there’s a Nobel Prize winner in the room, and now this prize. Yet the star of the night is music, McCartney’s glorious music.

Jack White, lead vocalist of the White Stripes, performs a haunting version of “Mother Nature’s Son.”

Like all the artists, White is dressed more formally than we expect, and mainly in black. Faith Hill takes the stage next and sings an exquisite “The Long and Winding Road.”

Herbie Hancock accompanies Corinne Bailey Rae in a jazzy rendition of “Blackbird.”

Though most of the artists come onstage, look a bit nervous, perform flawlessly and leave quietly, befitting the stately room, Elvis Costello has something to say.

He reminisces about how music is “often an us-against-them proposition,” but he recalls how his parents and he were entranced the first time they heard a song that took place half a mile from where his mother was from. He then sings “Penny Lane.”

Emmylou Harris, Dave Grohl and Lang Lang also perform. What’s so stunning about the songs is how much a part of the popular American songbook they are.

When Obama presents the award, he talks about how the Beatles “in a few short years changed how we listened to and thought about music forever.”

The president then states this remarkable fact: “Nearly 200 of his songs made the charts and stayed on the charts -- for an accumulative total of 32 years.”

McCartney is visibly moved by the award and affirms his continued support of the president. Ever the performer, he goes on to play “Eleanor Rigby,” “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be.”

“I don’t think there could be anything more special than playing here,” McCartney says.

At the end, at least of the unfinished version of this show, there’s a clip from another concert on the eve of the June taping of this one. McCartney walks out on the bare stage and says, “Some of those songs. I don’t know where they come from.”

He tells about waking up with a song in his head. He asked John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison if they knew it. They didn’t. “It’s a magical, mysterious process,” McCartney says. “This song came to me in a dream.”

And with that, he begins singing the most recorded song in history, “Yesterday.”