Thursday, August 8, 2019
Beatless: Thoughts on Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis' Yesterday
The announcement of the film Yesterday was seemingly met with a collective eyeroll from everyone under the age of 40, and a collective, "Oh, that sounds pretty good" from everyone over. Those of us in the lower bracket may be a little tired of the constant deifying of Everything From Back Then at the expense of the good things being made today. Those in the upper one probably just wanted a chance to hear all those great old songs in a slightly freshened up context.
Over a decade ago, both groups agreed on Across the Universe, which was a hugely popular movie with my friends when I was in University, but in the time since we've come into our own a little bit more as a generation and are getting a little tired of Boomer influence directing the culture.
My own reaction to the announcement of the film was to go, "Wait, this doesn't already exist?" It seemed like such an obvious premise for a movie that I found it hard to believe nobody had already made it. The movie is rather like Paul's creation of "Yesterday" in that respect, where he felt convinced he must have ripped it off, since it seemed like such an obvious song. (I nodded knowingly at the aged ticket-taker who told us we were all going to see "Scrambled Eggs.")
Personally, I love the Beatles, and am as likely to enjoy the old songs in slightly tweaked configurations as anybody. My feeling about an entire film about how they were great, once-in-a-lifetime geniuses to which everything that came after can scarcely hope to compare, is a pained "Well, yeah of course..." Do we need to labour the point?
The Beatles were indeed a singular moment in pop culture history, an act whose music has been examined, recontextualized, reconsidered, re-examined, debated, excavated, covered and remixed millions of times by artists since, across all generations. How could this movie have anything new to say about it? (It doesn't - that's the point.)
Nevertheless, I was game to go see it with my fiancee and inlaws-to-be. What the hell, you know? A night out is a night out. Predictably, in the discount theatre where we ended up seeing it, the half-full audience was comprised almost entirely of retirees, people older than my parents.
The movie is executed with clean, consummate professionalism by director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis - the latter, my fiancée might not be shocked to learn, is the person behind Love, Actually and About Time (a surprisingly affecting film about fathers and sons masquerading as a cheesy romcom.)
The likeable and talented Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a failing musician who is obviously insanely competent at playing various instruments and has a good radio-friendly voice, but lousy at actually writing songs (creating affably sucky tunes like "Summer Song" - which is exactly the song you'd think - and the sadly never-heard "Dinosaur" - is one of the movie's charming bits.) At the exact moment he realizes he has no future as a performer, A Thing happens and the Beatles are erased from history, except in his own memory.
From the first frame, the movie proceeds exactly as it is supposed to, from trying out his "new songs" like "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" for befuddled audiences at the local pubs, to rocketing to stardom. The movie builds out a few key bits - Jack's frustrated attempts at getting his parents to sit still and be the first people in history to hear "Let It Be," the meddling producers insisting that "Hey Dude" is a catchier title than "Hey Jude."
Because of the way the movie has to be structured, Jack gains virtually instant fame and acclaim. Ed Sheeran hails him as the Mozart to his own Salieri (Sheeran is pretty game in this but the movie has to overcorrect and establish him as this generation's version of a pop musical genius, which - fine, sure, at least it wasn't Chris Martin.) Jack has the requisite crisis of conscience, as he knows he's not succeeding based on anything innate in him (except his impeccable ability to actually recreate and perform the material, which I think is laudable) but on the back of the creativity of four guys nobody now remembers. There's also the girl-from-back-home in Lily Collins, who believed in him when nobody else did, and guess what, would make an amazing romantic partner if they hadn't been lifelong friends. Sigh.
I actually want to shout out the scene where Jack "wins" a songwriting duel with Ed Sheeran by busting out "The Long And Winding Road," which sums up the movie perfectly and quite gracefully - most people don't think about this song very much, it was a hit single but only after the Beatles were done and not as memorable as a lot of the other ones. In sum toto of the Beatles discography, it's a middling moment, an even sappier version of "Let it Be" or "Hey Jude." But in the larger context of all pop music ever written, it's beautiful and would indeed by a big deal if someone wrote it in 10 minutes today. I might even go so far as to say that this version of the song outdoes the Beatles themselves: on the Let It Be record the song is taken too far into the saccharine by a vocal chorus added by Phil Spector, and the "Naked" version McCartney released later has an overly cutesy electric piano break that undercuts the song's delicate balance.
By contrast, I objected to the key scene near the end where the movie shows us an aged and happy John Lennon, who is probably a little confused by this young man who has sought him out for life advice, and yet is perfectly willing to sit and share his vague, unhelpful wisdom from a life lived in obscurity. Knowing how much John loved Yoko, it's borderline insulting to him to suggest he would have found true peace had he never been famous and thus never met her - although it's as possible as anything, you have to admit, I still think it's unfair to put words in a dead man's mouth like that. And this is coming from a guy who, in the first draft of "Half Past Eight PM," very much had the ghost of John Lennon come onstage to advise our protagonist on his love life.
I did like the bit about Oasis not existing either, though. The movie does have it share of laffs.
In the end, Jack decides that recreating the Beatles' music for a world that doesn't remember them is an act of altruism, and puts his album online for free, thus foiling Kate McKinnon's greedy music exec character (as in virtually everything, McKinnon is great here.) I had hoped the movie would climax with Jack writing his first Actually Great song, a sincere reflection of his own experiences and feelings, that borrows just enough from the Beatles to attach itself into the public psyche, but original enough that he would have felt good about it.
Like I said, the movie is exactly what it's supposed to be, All Glory to the Beatles, with a silver medal to Ed Sheeran, and Jack goes back to the humble life of a schoolteacher that he had eschewed with hopes of stardom, losing the game but winning the girl.
There's a different movie in there, a more sinister one and dark one of course but one that I feel is more true to life. A movie where the world is actually a Jack becomes somewhat famous for his Beatles songs, but as an also-ran - an eternal opening act for Sheeran, losing out on Grammys and finding his fame fleeting to a fickle public. ("How could these people not like me? I gave them 'In My Life!'") After all, in this splintered and distracted marketplace, would people recognize greatness en masse if they saw it? Or was it all about the spirit of the times and the four men who conjured it up? Isn't it likely that the Beatles just got into us at such an early, important time in a burgeoning postwar culture that they made an impact far greater than anything could today that has shaped what we even like? Would "I Want To Hold Your Hand" even be "I Want To Hold Your Hand" in 2019? You could make some pretty heady suppositions about a Beatles-less world, I suppose.
That's not as much of a feel-good, though. Hard to get the in-laws to come out for that on a Saturday Night.
It's hard to believe that a world where the Beatles never existed could be exactly the same as ours, of course, but perhaps making it a literal dystopian hellscape simply because "All You Need Is Love" was never recorded seems like it might be taking things a bit too far. Besides, our actual world is enough of a literal dystopian hellscape that we don't need to imagine things being so much worse right now.
Somehow I feel that the eyerolling reaction to this movie, in the end, wasn't just about the continued glorifying of baby boomer properties. In a day and age where movies seemingly must either be record-shattering blockbusters or lofty award-worthy masterpieces, it was actually hard to believe anyone would spend time making something so deliberately medium, middle-of-the-road, minor, destined to make people happy for 90 minutes and then disappear, never to be thought of or analyzed again. Something safe and warm, with all the old faves and none of the troubles of today.
In these dire times when it feels like the world is literally falling apart, it almost feels indulgent to take two hours retreating into something safe and cozy like this. Sometimes it feels like even spending that much time not focussing on how awful things are is like turning a blind eye to the real suffering in the world all for the sake of hearing 40-year-old songs all over again, and I can see why there's a negative reaction to that right now.
Anyway, before the screening, we saw the trailer for Blinded By The Light. Should be pretty good!