Yesterday (2019): How I Longed for a Bit More

Yesterday_(2019_poster)The majority of movies have to fight to earn our allegiance. However, Yesterday really does have a foolproof premise because, from the outset, it can bank on a viewership who will already have memories crowded with the Beatles and as the Fab Four play a key role in the story, you already have a huge cross-section of humanity as a potential fanbase.

Then, for good measure, you have Ed Sheeran for any of the younger folks who might not be old enough to remember the good old days. If its goal was to come out a little better than even, it would almost be there before the movie began. Although this might be too cynical an outlook for such a delightfully sentimental endeavor like this, and Sheeran is actually quite likable having a go at playing himself.

Regardless, Yesterday is the definition of a high concept storyline. Imagine something like this. You woke up tomorrow, after a freak of nature, and you were the only person in the world who knew The Beatles. All credibility aside, it does tickle one’s fancy and Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis work accordingly during some of the movie’s best bits.

There are endless possibilities to explore including other pop cultural staples also getting disrupted in a similar vein. The film chooses a few that feel completely arbitrary but no less enjoyable: cigarettes, Coca Cola, Oasis, and you guessed it, Harry Potter.

The other component a Beatles saturated audience will appreciate is Jack Malik’s (Himesh Patel) daily struggles to drum up all the lyrics to tunes like “Eleanor Rigby.” Because, of course, he doesn’t have the safety net of the internet to help him recall “she was picking up rice in the church” or that “Father McKenzie was “darning his socks in a nigh where there’s nobody there.” He must go at it — quite comically — by trial and error.

In this way, Yesterday manages to touch the surface of its potential though it admittedly doesn’t feel complete — at least in a satisfying manner. Granted, I only feel an obligation to point this out since it proves such an agreeable film, directed by a veteran like Danny Boyle, that also happens to be bolstered by the catalog of the greatest band of all-time.

Richard Curtis remains the great British romantic, and we see this throughout the movie. It always seems to be his greatest asset and also his major undoing. In his favor, Patel and Lily James have an unadorned if altogether amiable chemistry. There’s little legwork to get us to like them, and so we can cheer for them unabashedly.

We can say much the same about their peanut gallery (including Sheeran), although there are a few misses. Their roadie Rocky ups the oddball quota as the dysfunctional sidekick while Kate McKinnon, a particularly irksome American road manager, feels like less of a much-needed antagonist and more of a pale imitation to lampoon a self-possessed music industry.

The core romance is a crucial piece, but it felt like it might have come off more substantially had there been more supplementary elements. I can think of a couple areas going beyond simply playing with the new reality more extensively. Themes of fame, art, and authorship in a generation drunk of social media, 15 minutes of fame, and remixes also come to mind. We start to see how it impacts Jack, but it never feels like it gets to its fully-realized potential.

The closest I can come to explaining it is the fact Yesterday never earns its Groundhog Day finale. Because, like Phill Connors, Jack is given an extraordinary power — in this case the Beatles’ catalog — but it never feels like he reaches the same depths of despair before he is granted his revelation and the love of his life.

It feels like Yesterday takes liberties or short cuts with its story, since it thinks we already understand, and instead of wanting it to go anywhere more challenging, we’re here for the music (which isn’t entirely false).

Whereas Jack is only one individual, what made the Beatles was the fact there were four of them. He sings the whole catalog and yet they belong to this group who rode the wave of Beatlemania, fame, critical success, and impending discontentment together.

Malik does get a brief moment with two people who at least share the same knowledge he has and yet in all other regards, he’s by himself as a singer-songwriter. We never really comprehend what one would imagine is the sheer debilitating weight of loneliness in its full force.

I am intrigued by Jack Barth’s original story and where it might have taken the conceit. Logistics or licensing aside, what it Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr actually did come out of the woodwork to oust the imposter (instead of merely being teased in the James Corden dream sequence).

What if the two Beatles fan who actually did still remember the old songs came not bearing olive branches in the form of a yellow submarine, but some malicious intent? It’s not much and yet would it have at least given Jack more hurtles to work past?

As is, a lot of the movie feels like clip shows featuring montages played to iconic tracks. It’s easy enough to get away with it because the songs are beautiful, Patel is charismatic and a fine vocalist and nothing else ever ruins the mood.

SPOILER ALERT: What could be better than bringing John Lennon back from the dead to share a bit of sage advice to the pilgriming stranger he doesn’t know? He feels like a wonderfully insignificant man of 78 living a peaceful life of contented solitude. It’s another agreeable invention.

And yet, if I’m honest, I’d rather listen to McCartney’s own remembrance “Here Today.” Then, instead of seeing Jack go gallivanting around Liverpool for inspiration or trying to fake to Ed how he was inspired to write “Hey Jude,” I’d rather see Paul return to his roots with James Corden in Car Pool Karaoke.

That’s it isn’t it? The Beatles are so much about context and what we bring to them. In one way, Yesterday works so well because even the titular track allows us to wax nostalgic by tapping into what we carry with us.

But it can’t quite get us over the hump, because it is an imitation; it is not the real thing, and part of what makes these songs great is where they come from and the lads who brought them into the world. Their fingerprints are all over every one and so history is not some plug-and-chug phenomenon where any four fellows could have been stuck together to become the Beatles.

Jack realizes something along these lines, which is part of the reason he makes the final decision he does — to crowdsource them, in a sense. But for the sake of the movie, there’s nothing to be done about it. We’ve spent the entire film listening to a stand-in, though the love story does leave us some breadcrumbs to pick up and feel warm and fuzzy about.

It was partially a joke when I told myself the end credits were the best part, but I got to listen to the real “Hey Jude” for seven glorious minutes. There’s nothing that can beat that. If you’re a Beatles fan with a generous streak Yesterday might very well be an unmitigated delight. There’s a lot to like. Whether it’s entirely greedy or not, I found myself wanting a bit more.

3/5 Stars

Yellow Submarine (1968): The Beatles Vs. The Blue Meanies

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Like all the great fantasy stories, this one begins with “Once upon a time…” The world is Pepperland, 80,000 leagues under the sea, where people live in harmony frolicking across the hills with music wafting through the air.

But there must be villains and there are no cartoonish baddies more nefarious and reviled than the Blue Meanies. They come from the outskirts of Pepperland with an arsenal of dastardly weapons at their disposal, among them Projectile Gloves, Three-Headed Hounds, and Anti-Music Fishbowls.

Soon the melodious world is overrun by their chaotic cacophony of blueness. One can only guess what they would have thought of the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf. But as this is a Beatles adventure, the intrepid Young Fred (with graying hair) escapes on the Yellow Submarine as the refrains of Ringo’s iconic tune overtake the screen. It’s our first sense that this is a picture about the Fab Four. Beatlemania, as a zeitgeist of screeching girls, might have cooled but their music and personas still made them rock royalty of the late 60s.

To return now, functions as an all-expense paid nostalgia trip because Yellow Submarine as an animated movie is something I knew from a VHS that my dad brought home one day from work. I had no idea what LSD or an acid trip was, much less acid. Consequently, my 6th-grade school report on the Beatles was entirely lacking this information too. More so, I distinctly remember presenting about their music and how these lads from Liverpool were able to captivate the world. Because their music had always resonated with me from an early age.

Up to this point, the movie was the most whimsically inventive exploration in animation I had ever seen. Without fully comprehending the psychedelic overtones, I was taken with the utter fanciful nature of it all. The dividing line is thin between a drug trip and a childlike imagination simply accepting all things as fact. There need not be any deliberate explanation.

Collages of song and image become second nature. Eleanor Rigby playing over snippets of footage with little rhyme or reason — the submarine motors along — it’s penny-plain as the Brits might say (Not to be confused with Penny Lane). Meanwhile, the cartoonish anatomy of the figures is outrageous in not only their mechanics but general proportions. The world they reside in is even screwier.

Eventually, the yellow submarine follows Ringo home and Fred leaps from its hull ranting incessantly, barely cognizant, about explosions and BLUE MEANIES. So we go from Pepperland to an equally trippy mansion the Beatles reside in followed by a labyrinthian sea filled with the most curious creatures imaginable. It never stops with the wonkiest bits of invention. As a child it is brilliant. As an adult, it’s a bit bewildering.

But George, always the calming force, reassures with his ever available mantra, “It’s All in The Mind.” As they get a move on, the boys strengthen their camaraderie underwater with “All Together Now” one of the best new additions to the soundtrack. There’s a liberal amount of grace provided, as the plotline seems to evolve out of the songs. For instance, the ensuing “Sea of Time” makes an obligatory rendition of “When I’m 64” all but imperative.

Then, the “Sea of Science” births the organ-propelled new-age rhapsody of “Only a Northern Song.” Even an early Rubber Soul track like “Nowhere Man fits in a pinch to obliquely describe the rhyming, rolly polly alien furball Jeremy, going by any number of names (Jeremy, Hillary, Who?). The Sea of Holes (a nod to “A Day in the Life”) gets us closer to Pepperland and finds Ringo picking up a souvenir from their adventure (I’ve got a hole in me pocket). Really you could choose any of these tie-dyed realities as emblematic of the entire experience but for my money, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the film at its height of kaleidoscope psychedelia.

When we finally do return to the monotone Pepperland from The Sea of Green, the juxtaposition is stark. We see to what extent the Blue Meanies repression of song has drained the landscape. Without any musical expression, all color has gone out of life quite literally, and it’s the lad’s job to put it back where it belongs.

They don disguises, casting them as the spitting image of the members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, currently encased in a giant fishbowl. Not for long. It is this final assault that somehow captures the magic of all the great adventure stories childhood’s have thrived on. The boys go into the heart of the enemy territory only to come prepared for a showdown and take back what is theirs. The only difference is their weaponry is a killer soundtrack to bring the Meanies to their knees.

It really is a tour de force in the final stretch stacking tracks like “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help from Friends,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Hey Bulldog” one after another. It’s an agreeable onslaught of tunes exploding over the screen and revitalizing the world, flushing Pepperland with a cornucopia of colors as one might expect.

We reached the apex of the concept album, paying heavy dividends in this animated film with a world loaded up on background whimsy and filled out by content from the Beatles’ hit records. Much to the Meanies chagrin, the hills are alive (with the sound of music) and in battle, two pairs of Beatles are better than one. Three pairs really.

Because we hardly realize till the very end but the Beatles — John, Paul, George, and Ringo in human flesh — barely appear. It comes with a minute-long cameo tacked on for good measure. In other words, they didn’t actually voice their cartoon selves. As a kid, I didn’t care and now it doesn’t make much difference to me either. Because we still have the music exerting its presence over the story. As is, their moment of screen time is a final capstone on a doozy of a film.

Lifelong Beatles enthusiasts, lapsing hippies, and kids with fledgling imaginations can all wholeheartedly join in on the communal Yellow Submarine experience. Yes, the title song is the most overplayed of all the Beatles canon but who cares? This movie is ceaselessly entertaining with bad puns to boot. If quotability is any indication, this might be one of the most seminal movies of my childhood.

4/5 Stars

Help! (1965)

Helponesheet.jpgWhat can I say? I am one of the proud and the many who loved The Beatles before they loved any other type of music. So when I watch Help! I look for all the best in it because that’s all that I can do.

However, if you are familiar with this follow-up to the frenzy and the success surrounding A Hard Day’s Night (1964), then that picture will feel like a serendipitous accident where everything came together for 90 minutes of magic. Help! is more of what one might actually expect from distributors trying to capitalize on The Beatles fandom before “the fad” ran its course. It’s less inspired and hammered out with what seems like little forethought at all. Because that’s what it was. Except previously a better job was done to fake it.

Though a quality filmmaker, Richard Lester was hampered by time constraints even going so far as to edit his daily footage while he was making the film. The ending results showcase a purposely disjointed narrative with a ludicrous script following a Far Eastern cult’s attempts to swipe Ringo’s prize ring for their human sacrifice. There’s not much more to it than that. It would prove ample fodder for many an episode of The Monkees which made no qualms about being a Beatles knockoff.

The rumor mill even provides accounts that the Fab Four were to have made a western picture with the lads all fighting for the affection of a rancher’s eligible young daughter. Maybe it’s the novelty of an idea never realized but I would have liked to see that picture in lieu of this one. However, we must content ourselves which what we have.

Stacked up against some of its more forgettable contemporary spoofs and scatterbrain comedies, Help! could have done a worse job blending the exoticism of Bond with its attempts at comedy. There are numerous Eastern influences and if anything the film facilitated Harrison’s introduction to the sitar. We even hear a version of “Hard Day’s Night” on the Indian instrument.

Otherwise, the boy’s flat is decked with Tati-like contraptions and coloring that evoke the Frenchmen’s work in Mon Oncle (1958). The lines of disparate gags owe a debt to Peter Sellers (especially The Goon Show) and act as a less inspired precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These are the only reference points I can manage and yet this suggests that Help! might have been so much more. Instead, fueled by their new infatuation for marijuana, the boys are in a bit of a garbled haze and it reflects the mess of the film full of flubbed lines and absurd non-sequiturs.

Nevertheless one could argue that much of it feels akin to the world The Beatles were finding themselves adrift in. Their fame had blown up to outrageous proportions that were almost laughable. It would make someone go batty. Perhaps they needed a trip to the Alps and the Bahamas, play acting with tigers and then tanks on the Salsbury Plains. For a few stray moments, they were not a commodity. They could muck about and be themselves.

That gets down to one of the primary takeaways. We still have The Beatles. True, John Lennon later commented that it felt like the boys were sideshow attractions in their own movie. I get the sentiment but I would disagree it in the sense that I’m hardly drawn to any of the other characters. There’s little interest in their antics because I’ve seen countless more inspired takes on the same material.

But we have Richard Lester directing The Beatles’ music so we have something iconic to grab ahold of. It’s not a total loss. What you gain an appreciation for, especially in this effort, is how Lester has almost single-handedly invented the language of the music video whether he meant to or not. At its best that’s what this manic comedy is — an early exhibition in the music video — using spliced together standalone sequences showcasing the boys in various situations most memorably attempting to ski or playing curling.

“Ticket to Ride” in the snow, “I Need You” out in the brisk British air, and “Another Girl” shot in the Bahamas are able to bottle just a little bit of The Beatles because it’s their music that stands the test of time meshed with those playful personas.

While it’s momentarily amusing for flashes of humor and memorable for the unparalleled tunes, in many ways, it pales in comparison to its predecessors.  It lacks the perfect docudrama zaniness of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the pure animated invention of Yellow Submarine (1968). Instead, Help! slates itself as an often shallow even dopey picture.  But, I’ll say it again. We still have The Beatles. Surely that is enough for most of us.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Review: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

A Hard Day's Night 2.pngAre you a mod or a rocker? ~ reporter

Um, no, I’m a mocker ~ Ringo

As a 4 or 5-year-old, I didn’t know who the Marx Brothers were and no one had told me yet about Cinema Verite and what that meant. But I loved the Beatles. Also, I didn’t find out until years later that Richard Lester was an American director who caught the eyes of the Fab Four and predicted the MTV age with its frenetic editing style. But if you actually watch A Hard Days Night with the eyes of an unabashed fan — like I was as a boy — none of that matters. So let’s leave that on the drawing room floor and look at what makes this film pop with vitality all these years later.

Any conversation must begin with the music. The film bursts onto the screen with the iconic riff of A Hard Day’s Night as the Beatles scramble down a street corner fleeing frantically from a screaming mob of fans. It perfectly encapsulates this rash of Beatlemania that was exploding onto the world stage and making its way across the pond.

And what the film does so well is create this fun aura around the four lads from Liverpool. There silly, fun, a bit cheeky too but there’s something so endearing about them still. It struck me this time around that these are four men are hardly over 20 years of age and yet they had fame and stardom thrust upon them. And they are superstars but they don’t act quite like superstars.

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The filming style and handheld camera work lend themselves not only to Lester’s frantic style but there’s also an indication that this is a day in the life type of musical comedy (no pun intended). It’s the perfect combination of quotable one-liners and zingers paired with a certain British humor (I now declare this bridge open!) and some of the early classics from the Beatles canon (Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You, etc).

Paul’s Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) is very clean but that’s only a veneer for a searing personality that looks to manipulate others and stir up trouble. On Paul’s own account he’s a real mixer.  Norm is their road manager and general killjoy while Shake is his gangly hapless sidekick good for a few laughs of his own.  If you want a “plot” in the conventional sense you probably won’t get it but it’s enough to watch the boys run out on their obligations by sneaking off to dance parties or abandoned fields to do their own renditions of Monty Pythons silly Olympics.

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We watch them in their idle moments as John messes around in the tub and George exhibits his shaving prowess on Shake’s mirror image.In another moment George takes a wrong turn and finds himself in some new age advertising agency where he unwittingly tears their campaign to shreds by calling their merchandise “grotty.” Meanwhile, the boys are herded from press junkets to tapings, from makeup to answering fan mail (a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room). That’s about their life at this stage.

It’s odd to think that the name The Beatles is never spoken in the film. It just is. It’s part of the world consciousness. It brings to mind a chance encounter John has with a woman who while she doesn’t utter his name notes his striking resemblance to one of the boys. In the end, she’s mistaken and he walks away muttering that she looks more like “him” than I do. So A Hard Days Night is a film that while boasting great music and wonderful comic mayhem still is a slight commentary on the Beatles stardom.

They have become beholden to their rigid tour schedule. Prisoners in a sense. But they still find time for personal expression and a bit of playful rebellion despite those very restraints. Of course, the backbone of this comic-laden rock musical is the pinnacle of their artistic expression — their music. By now all these songs are like old friends to me that it hardly seems necessary to list them off one by one. You just have to hear them.

In the final moments before their climactic show, Grandad stirs up Ringo to go out and live a little and so the boys must track him down before time runs out. What follows is an inane ruckus involving the majority of the local bobby population. But all four make it back and put on a lively showing for their adolescent admirers screaming their heads off the entire set.

As quick as they arrived they get whisked off by a helicopter to their next destination ready to rock another day. I’m not sure if this is based on the film or my own wishful dreaming, but I like to think that they’re heading across the ocean blue as the flagship of the British Invasion. When you watch this film it all comes into clearer focus what all the hoopla was about. They had a genuine charisma, a certain presence, and their music speaks for itself after all these years. Still sincere, catchy, and enduring even in its pure simplicity. Billions of screaming girls can’t all be wrong.

5/5 Stars

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed (2013)

Living_Is_Easy_with_Eyes_ClosedI still remember driving through the hills and dales of the English countryside listening to Hard Day’s Night in the family rental car. Back then I had a haircut that could best be described as a mop top. And then during my one visit to Liverpool, I was beyond ecstatic. I’m a fairly reserved person and yet standing in Paul McCartney’s kitchen at 20 Forthlin Road (his childhood residence) what else could I do but bend down and kiss the floor?

So you see, Living is Easy resonates with me a great deal. I’ve had similar feelings, similar joys and epiphanies listening to the Beatles. Even as I have matured and branched out in musical taste there’s no doubt that the Beatles will always be a part of my cultural heartbeat. When I was younger I would say that I idolized them and as I’ve grown older those feelings continually evolved.

That’s why sometimes our hopes are dashed and our heroes fall off their pedestals. We get so close to them — feel like me know them so well — without ever having met them or interacted with them. But they don’t know us and they can’t know us in the same way.

No superstar, musician, actor or athlete can hold up to the kind of scrutiny that we put to their lives. So maybe this is an utterly ludicrous fantasy, a dream wrapped up underneath the unassuming folds of a Spanish comedy-drama. But David Trueba’s film is the perfect summation of our pursuits in life. Going after the long shots just for the sheer invigorating fun of it. For Antonio (Javier Camara) that means meeting John Lennon. For others, probably someone else. It’s no different. I still wouldn’t mind meeting Paul McCartney someday. That’s the point. We can dream and pursue big things.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, especially the way Antonio goes about it. He practically is an enigma within the culture he lives in, repressed, fearful and stiff as it is. He breaks all those molds, teaching English with enthusiasm, using the Beatles’ lyrics (most memorably “Help”) as a didactic tool to get his little pupils to think beyond the nominal.

His journey, to find John Lennon in the rural town of Almeria during the filming of Richard Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966, is an inspired heroes journey and the beauty of this story is that he doesn’t go it alone. In fact, being the personable, talkative and genuinely fun-loving man that he is, he welcomes others into his adventure. Belen is a woman struggling to figure her life out as she tries to hide the fact that she’s well along 3 months pregnant with nowhere to turn. Juanjo sports a mop top rather like the one I used to have, except in this case his father doesn’t approve. The familial tension is too much for him and he skips out, looking for something different.

These are the crossroads at which they end up riding down winding coastal roads as Antonio slowly puts them at ease with his charms — and an unfathomable enthusiasm for the Beatles. The following interludes of Living is Easy are better seen than explained because they generally unfold with the clarity and everyday delights of real life. And in this case, the Fifth Beatle gets his happy ending. He was rewarded for the disarmingly audacious way he chose to live.

Admittedly, I probably don’t hold up nearly as well against the fandom of Antonio, but if nothing else, I admire the Beatles for their lyricism and the pure, revolutionary nature of their music. I never grow sick of it. And like a great many of us out in the audience, I hope to live out these kinds of adventures with the people I meet along the way. To badly paraphrase Tennyson, it’s better to say you tried and failed than to never have tried at all. Because you never know, you just might get lucky.

For all those who don’t know, the film’s title derives from Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a very personal song in its own right. However, as I scanned the backlogs of my mind, I thought to myself, of all the options, what an odd song to choose. But, in truth, it fits perfectly with the themes of this magical mystery tour. An evocative song for a deeply heartfelt film.

4/5 Stars

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

5b3a7-a_hard_days_night_movieposterA Hard Day’s Night directed by Richard Lester and starring the Beatles, showcases the eponymous album and plays out rather like a documentary more than a full-fledged movie. 

The opening sequence has the Fab Four running frantically away from a mob of fans as they try to get to their train without being carried off. On the train we get a bit more acquainted in a day in the life of the Liverpool Lads. Paul’s clean but crafty grandfather has come along for a change of pace and the boys try to pick up girls, while their manager attempts to keep them in line. They get to their destination, but would rather dance, talk with girls, and frolic in an open field rather than answer fan mail and attend a press conference. They find themselves in trouble a number of times in between rehearsals for their show. It might be Paul’s grandfather getting in trouble at a casino, George taking a wrong turn, or John being cheeky and childish. Then, thanks to Paul’s grandfather they lose Ringo when he decides to get out and live a little! Time is running out and so they try to run him down with the police hot on their trail. They make it to their performance in time and Beatlemania takes over as they perform complete with swooning girls and deafening noise. The Beatles are a success and then they quickly head off in a helicopter, stopping one of Grandad’s schemes in the process. 

We can only assume they were heading to American and as we all know the rest was history. I read an interview with Bob Dylan once and he said the true 1960s did not really start until about 1965. With Marx Brother antics and their challenging of authority you could say that the Beatles led this change. They may have looked like four clean cut boys, but their music, hairstyle, and nonconformist demeanor, at times, reflected a new generation. If you like the Beatles’ music this film is for you, and it also gives an interesting representation of 1960s London.
 
4.5/5 Stars