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Posts Tagged ‘The Beatles’

We have, in the past, occasionally discussed some of the more unusual and esoteric aspects of film production, not least what all the money actually gets spent on. One envisages a sort of pie chart, with various slices set aside for the actors, director, scriptwriters, costume department, and so on. Of course, occasionally a film comes along where one slice of pie is disproportionately large, compared to all the others – occasionally a small and unassuming film pays big bucks for a major star, for instance, or you get a big special effects-driven film where two-thirds of the budget goes on the CGI. Danny Boyle’s Yesterday must have a fairly unique sort of pie, as a good 40% of the budget went on negotiating music clearances. This sounds wildly extravagant until you learn what the film is about, at which point it becomes clear why they stumped up all the money – without the uncanny potency of cheap music (or not so cheap, in this case), this film wouldn’t be being made.

Himesh Patel plays Jack, an aspiring singer-songwriter who is slowly starting to realise that he just hasn’t got what it takes to become successful as an artist. Pretty much the only thing that keeps him gigging is the unconditional support and belief of his friend Ellie (Lily James), with whom he has a close but entirely platonic relationship (shush now, I know, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Then, cycling home one night after deciding to pack it all in, Jack falls off his bike during a brief global blackout. He awakes sans beard and a couple of teeth, but fairly soon discovers that something rather odd has happened: he seems to be the only person in the world with any memory of the Beatles or their music. He very rapidly realises that suddenly having unique and (apparently) exclusive access to a priceless stash of some of the most perfect pop songs ever written is a boon to a struggling musician like him, and is soon frantically trying to remember the lyrics to Let It Be and I Want to Hold Your Hand so he can pass them off as his own work.

Pretty soon the music industry comes calling, and he is summoned off to Los Angeles by his demonic new manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), accompanied only by his idiot roadie Rocky (Joel Fry). It seems like his success is forcing him apart from Ellie and whatever deeper feelings they may secretly have for each other. But is it really ethical to keep ripping off the Beatles and taking all the credit? And shouldn’t he be taking a moment to consider The Important Things in Life?

Yesterday represents a coming together of two of the great powers of what passes for the British film industry: it is directed by Danny Boyle, whom even I will happily concede has made some really great films in the past, and written by Richard Curtis, who has been a huge figure in British cultural life for decades now. Given their involvement and the strength of the film’s premise (it is intriguing, to say the least), you could be forgiven for expecting this to be one of the more substantial films of the summer.

Folks, it ain’t. This is as lightweight and disposable as low-sugar candyfloss, to the point where the film’s refusal to engage with its own ideas becomes actively irritating. What it basically is, is another outing for that well-worn fable about a young man whose head is turned by the prospect of material success, but must make the choice between that and The Important Things in Life – in this case, true love and personal integrity. Bolted onto this are various scenes that feel like comedy sketches of rather variable quality.

It feels rather odd that they have spent $10 million on rights clearances for Beatles songs, when the Beatles themselves feel rather peripheral to the movie. There’s a sense, surely, in which the whole point of this kind of film is to make you realise just how massively significant and important the band were and remain; the hole left by their absence is a memorial to their contribution to society and culture. Except, not here: the Beatles vanish from history and yet the world spins on almost entirely unchanged. Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Coldplay are still there, unaffected; society has not been affected at all. The film almost seems to be suggesting that the Beatles have no substantive legacy whatsoever (I should still mention that one of Yesterday‘s best jokes is that the only other band who seem to have vanished in the Beatles-free universe is Oasis).

And what’s going on here, anyway? What has changed, and why? (It’s not just the Beatles that have disappeared.) How come the Beatles apparently never got together? Why is Jack (apparently) unique in remembering a world with all their songs in it? Would the Beatles’ songs still be successful if they were released today as ‘new’ music? There is potential here for a rather different and probably much more interesting film about the alt-hist of the new universe Jack seems to have tumbled into (he appears to have a weird form of reverse amnesia, remembering things that never actually happened), and there is one eerie sequence in particular with an uncredited Robert Carlyle which sort of touches on this without ever really properly exploring it. I was really left wanting more, for the film to explore its premise in a more systematic way, but it doesn’t come close to truly delivering on this. It’s just a facilitator for a hackneyed rom-com plot and some comedy sketches.

Still, it is at least played with gusto and sincerity by most of the cast, even if none of them looks set to get the kind of career boost from it that actors have enjoyed from previous Boyle or Curtis productions. Perhaps this is because neither man seems to have been willing or able to really set his stamp on it – it’s not as stylistically distinctive as the best Danny Boyle films, nor does it have the humour or heart of Curtis’ best scripts. That said, Kate McKinnon works her usual off-the-leash comic sorcery and the film lifts whenever she’s on screen – but I fear I must also report that the movie also features a James Corden cameo and a fairly extensive supporting role for Ed Sheeran (Sheeran seems to be one of those people who’s unconvincing as an actor even when he’s playing himself).

By far the best moments of Yesterday come when the film-makers relax and just let the songs speak for themselves without attempting to do anything too clever or iconoclastic with them. The whole point of the film should really be about what an awful place the world would be without great music and great art, and how we shouldn’t take these things for granted. It’s a point that it never properly manages to make, but the music itself is lovely enough to remind you of that fact. The music of the Beatles is timeless and beautiful; Yesterday never quite manages to do it justice, but it’s a pleasant enough film even if it’s inevitably a bit of a disappointment given its pedigree.

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A bit over ten years ago I had the great good fortune to spend a year or so living in Japan. Naturally, there are lots of unexpected things that arise out of this kind of experience, things you never would have expected: and one of the realisations which it brought to me was how rarely you hear the music of the Beatles in the course of everyday life in the UK. In Japan, if you sit down for a toasted sandwich in a cafe, there’s a very good chance you’ll be doing it to a soundtrack from Rubber Soul or The White Album – you hear their songs everywhere and anywhere. (John Lennon is virtually the only foreigner to be treated like an honorary Japanese person, for possibly-obvious reasons, while there is a chain of shops named Yellow Submarine.)

Over here, though, not so much, especially when you consider the extent to which the Beatles have written themselves into the fabric of our popular culture. Everyone knows a couple of dozen Beatles songs in some detail, but nobody under fifty can remember where that knowledge came from, I suspect: it’s a strange kind of cultural osmosis, to which each new generation is subjected. Judging from the number of parents bringing quite small kids to a 50th-anniversary revival of Yellow Submarine which I rolled up to the other day, I may have seen the process in action.

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Directed by George Dunning, Yellow Submarine, I probably don’t need to tell you, was the Fab Four’s third movie, and one with which they had fairly minimal involvement, not least because this is a full-length animation featuring a dozen or so songs from the lads. Things get underway with a vision of Pepperland, a paradise of freedom, enlightenment, and music, where all is peace and harmony – at least, until the place is heinously assaulted by the implacably negative Blue Meanies, a bunch of killjoys with a rather eccentric arsenal of apple-bonkers, anti-music missiles, snapping Turks and a terrible flying glove.

Pepperland seems certain to fall to the forces of glumness, and so the mayor packs off the crusty sailor Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) to fetch help, putting him in command of, well, a yellow submarine, which can fly. Of course. Old Fred’s quest winds up leading him to late-sixties Liverpool, where he encounters first Ringo (voiced by Paul Angelis), and then the other three Beatles – John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes), and George (mostly an uncredited Peter Batten, who departed the production quite rapidly when it was discovered he was wanted for desertion from the British army). With the lads on board, the yellow submarine sets course back to Pepperland, but a strange voyage it will prove to be…

I’m really in two minds when it comes to the plot of Yellow Submarine – on the one hand, there is something absolutely sound and perhaps even mythic about the basic structure of the quest for help against invaders. But on the other, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t a musical film in the conventional sense – by which I mean, it’s not a narrative in which the songs serve to establish or develop character, and comment on the plot. Rather, it seems like a collection of songs around which a very loose storyline has been written, with animated sequences used to illustrate the tunes. Comparisons with Fantasia (another non-narrative musical anthology) seem to me to be quite apt.

It is customary to praise the film for the ceaseless psychedelic invention of its visuals, but if you think about it, what else were they supposed to do? Given the job of animating an accompaniment to the song Yellow Submarine, what would you do? You’d look at the lyrics and try to discern some underlying metaphor or subtext to the song. And I suspect you’d find that this really is just a piece of oompah-oompah silliness about some people living in an ochre-hued submersible. The same seems to be true of a lot of the other songs here – I’m reminded of a John Lennon quote, about Hey Bulldog in particular, suggesting it is ‘a good-sounding record that means nothing.’ In a similar way you could probably argue that Yellow Submarine is a visually-striking film that has no particular depth to it.

Then again, the late 60s were littered with good-looking cultural artefacts that are a bit cryptic, to say the least, at first glance – you could probably add The Prisoner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same list. And the best sequences of animation in Yellow Submarine are certainly distinctive and reasonably inventive, even if the animators seem to be struggling with the fact that some of the songs don’t really have any particular meaning. (The film’s sequence accompanying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – and I have to say that while I like the Beatles’ rendition, it’s William Shatner’s which is truly definitive for me – shies away from actual visions of newspaper taxis and marshmallow pies in favour of rotoscoped ballroom dancing.) By the far the most effective segment of the film, if you ask me, is that accompanying Eleanor Rigby, a song which genuinely seems to be about something, and I think this is not a coincidence.

That said, the film’s producer Al Brodax was quite cynical about the creative process involved: the Beatles were under contract to produce four brand new songs for the film, and ended up only giving Brodax ones which they didn’t think were particularly good, saving the better ones for other projects (or so he suggested). I have to say this does remind me of the apparent modus operandi of the Monty Python collective, who would sell any sketches that didn’t pass their own quality control process to The Two Ronnies – but then comparing the Pythons and the Beatles is something of a cliché, for all that some of the animation here looks decidedly Gilliamesque, and the surreal humour of the film also not a million miles away. (Much of the puns and wordplay in the script were apparently courtesy of an uncredited Roger McGough.)

One is tempted to suggest the whole film could almost be seen as an exercise in the meeting of contractual obligations – the band themselves turning in some rather variable tunes (It’s Only A Northern Song is about as close to forgettable as the Beatles ever produced) and only turning up in person very briefly at the end. (It has to be said that the actors do a pretty decent job of presenting the Beatles as they are, or were, popularly received – John the sarky rebel, Ringo the clown, George the mystic, Paul the nice guy of ambiguous mortality.) For all of its inventiveness, there are still moments when the film is clearly being rather thrifty – seconds go by in front of static images, while the animation for the second half of the Nowhere Man sequence is plainly pretty much that of the first half, only run in reverse.

And yet, and yet, and yet. You sit there and think this film has not aged well, and its roots as a quaint piece of pop-art psychedelia are clearly showing, and the plot is not up to much – but then you listen to the string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, or the guitar solo of Nowhere Man, or the piano part of Hey Bulldog, or the crescendo from A Day in the Life, and it lifts you up and makes you smile and reminds you of just why the music of the Beatles is woven into all of our lives so indelibly. No-one else in music has ever done so much, so quickly, so well. If ever a band was touched by genius, it was these boys, and for that I am more than happy to forgive them, and this movie, a lot.

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