Yesterday

“Yesterday” is a delightful little fantasy, that has little on it’s mind but everything in it’s heart. It is a love story about the music of the Beatles and the love of music in general. There is also a romantic element that weaves through the main story that dramatizes some of the same ideas that are being told in the main tale. Ultimately however, it is merely a fantasy film, designed for audiences that care both about music and the nostalgia of history.

The premise is pretty well summed up in the trailer. After an accident that results from a worldwide blackout, Jack Malik, an unsuccessful, struggling musician, is the only person who seems to know the Beatles. It’s as if Thanos snapped his fingers and just wiped out part of cultural history, rather than half the population of the planet. Like most fantasy, you have to be willing to go along with the conceit and not worry about the logic behind it, because there isn’t any. Much like a body switch comedy from the 1980s, we don’t need to know why the phenomena occurred, we just need to handle the consequences. Jack remembers the songs and lyrics of the greatest pop music ever written and starts reproducing it for himself. Himesh Patel has a face that conveys defeat and frustration at every turn. His failure to connect with an audience outside his circle of friends is sapping his spirit and draining the passion he has for music. The chance to make a success out of his life by claiming the music of the Beatles as his own offers him a conflict that we as an audience can sympathize with. He becomes the greatest plagiarist in history, but he does so in the most guileless way imaginable. He just wants to play the songs. Success is great but he knows he is riding on the work of someone else, but those people will never be able to produce the material themselves.

Jack’s school chum Ellie, has been his manager for all of the time he was not a success, and she steps aside for his career to advance because she can’t really represent him effectively, without altering her life too much. Lily James plays Ellie and she is lovely and sweet and as a secondary character asks on multiple occasions, why have the two of them never gotten together.  Much like a time travel story, “Yesterday” wants us to think about the opportunities that we missed along the line and ponder why circumstances end up as they do. Jack and Ellie seem perfect for each other but after years in the “friends” zone, they are making choices that are fall back positions. Ellie withdraws to a new relationship and Jack pursues fame and fortune with the Beatles songs.

The music is of course terrific, we can thank Lennon and McCartney for that. Patel performs the songs with passion, and although he has a good voice, it is clear why he never made it on his own. The songs he writes are not bad, they simply lack the magic that came from the musical genius of the fab four. When people hear the tunes and the lyrics, they are captivated by the music, not the musician.  Success feels hollow for Jack because he has lost his friend and the songs are not his own. There is a building plot point that concerns whether he will be revealed as a fraud, and in fact he has a nightmare about that possibility. The resolution to this plot line is a good twist and it has one of the most satisfying “what if” scenes that a film like this wants us to speculate on.

It is interesting to think about the way the world might be different if the music of the Beatles did not exist. There are references to some contemporary artists who certainly were influenced by the Beatles but they seem to be unaffected by the disappearance of  John, Paul, George and Ringo. While this might make a logical movie feel off completely, this is a fantasy, and the story gets by simply by acknowledging one influence that would be altered, instead of making it as widespread as it clearly would be. That reference was my biggest laugh in the film, it also opens up another line on music for Jack to take advantage of if he keeps going.

The music business is also lampooned a great deal. Kate McKinnon arrives to manage Jack’s career and make him rich, but mostly make the record company richer. Her greed based, heartless music executive is a stereotype that we will recognize, but she also knows how to manipulate Jack by using his own momentary short comings to guilt him into her way of thinking. Ed Sheeran plays himself, and he cheerfully goes along with sending up his own image. In fact, he may be a little too brutal on himself for comfort.

Screenwriter Richard Curtis takes a premise he created with another writer and makes some magic that will be very recognizable to fans of “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.  It is possible that he is mining the same material from his own film from 2013, “About Time“, which has many of the same fantasy elements and dilemmas. This movie is directed by Danny Boyle, who will not be doing James Bond but still can end up on an anticipated list of movies that I want to see. “Yesterday” is a good sized hit for the kind of movie that it is. I think it plays to an older audience because of the Beatles connection, but the young stars probably have added to it’s appeal for a younger audience. If the Beatles music means nothing to you, feel free to skip this movie. But if you are a part of the population with the good sense to know how important that music is, I suspect you will enjoy the film in spite of some flaws along the way.

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

Maybe it’s because I am a child of the Seventies, or that I have always loved movies with singing, or just that it is Summer-time, but I thoroughly enjoyed “Mama Mia !”, and now I will repeat that experience with the totally unnecessary but still fun sequel. “Mama Mia! Here We Go Again” has no depth, it is frequently campy beyond description and there are some songs that just don’t do much for you. So What? It is also visually inventive and gorgeous to look at, it has a two to one ratio of good ABBA songs to mediocre ABBA songs, and it is full of pretty people who all look like they are having a blast making fools of themselves.

The  marketing department that choose to release this in the middle of the summer, probably will re responsible for half the take at the box office. This is a movie that works because it is so light and insubstantial that your head will not hurt from trying to think about plot lines or what dialogue you should be paying attention to. Like a revue show on the Vegas stage, or an RKO or MGM musical from the golden age, this film story makes little sense and doesn’t matter. What you really want is to hear the songs and see the choreography. There are a few repeats from the first film of musical selections but the staging is all new and there were plenty of ABBA songs to fill out a second film, although some of them are justifiably obscure.

Once again the setting is primarily in the seas off of Croatia, and the landscape is spectacular. Anyone who has every taken a vacation somewhere and asked themselves when they were leaving the location, “How could I live here, what can I do to make that happen?, knows how the beauty of a place can transfix you. On film, you can also control the lighting and angles to make it even more attractive, and so this production does. Now to insure that people will really like what they are seeing, you fill the movie with lovely young women, who have romantic crushes and flings with handsome young men. When you race forward to present day, the young women and men are now old but they are vibrant and handsome in their advanced states.  Lily James and Amanda Seyfried are glowing, longhaired blonde pixie dream girls. They may lack the requisite mania to make the characters the stock issue in other films, but their smiles and enthusiastic singing are the stuff of summer romances. The young men who are cast as the youthful counterparts to Pierce Brosnon, Stellan Starsgard and Colin Firth, are effectively familiar and they carry most of the load when it comes to singing, so we only get snatches from their less tuneful older versions.

Director Ol Parker makes the film flow smoothly with inventive staging that frequently suggests his theatrical roots. As we bounce back and forth from 1979 to today, there are transitions using back to back walls, images appearing in mirrors and actions that begin with one set of characters but finish with the other set. Maybe they are not completely new inventions but they work well at moving things along and keeping the energy of the story from lagging too much. Anthony Van Laast put the dance sequences together in a vigorous manner that may lack the grace of a Busby Berkley extravaganza, but is compensated for by the diverse chorus of dancers who are not all 20 something models. Even the geezers in the cast look like they can dance a little, and if not, they look like they are having fun trying.

Meryl Streep who crooned her way through the starring role in the original film, appears in only one number near the end and then in the end credits. Lily James does the heavy lifting as the young version of the slightly promiscuous Donna. It is a bit of a leap when Meryl does come in because her Donna is definitely a different version of the character she and Lily are playing. Andy Garcia has become a go to older romantic lead, following his earlier turn this year in “Book Club“, another film to appeal to the geriatric set. Finally, Cher shows up and makes a movie star sort of impression with a minimal amount of screen time. She has one song that she chers [shares, ha ha] with Garcia and then sings in the ensemble closing credits.

If you were seeing this as a revue on stage, you would clap along and sing the chorus and when the finale shows up you’d stand up and boogie in place. The demographics on this film will definitely skew over thirty and female. At an 11am screening on a Friday, the theater was packed…with walkers, wheel chairs and canes. Forget your age, and your dignity. Don’t pay any attention to the usual standards that you might apply to a movie. This is a little like the song lyric from the 1990s, “Disco lemonade”. Have a cool drink on a warm summer day and dream of “sex and candy”.

Baby Driver

While I was tempted at one point to suggest that the hyperbole around this film was a bit over the top, I got closer to the end of the film and realized that I was wrong. This movie may not be able to be oversold to the audience that it is made for. Baby Driver hits the notes, plays a nice melody, and has a crescendo that will build and satisfy like  the final movement of a symphony. All these music references are relevant because the song score for this movie is an integral character and you need to be able to grove to it to appreciate the way the film is put together.

In fairness to all of you, I will say upfront that I am an Edgar Wright fan. His off kilter story development and flashy cinematic style is strong enough to make a mundane story work, but it usually does so within the constraints of the universe that he has created. People who don’t like “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” are put off by how excessive the imagination seems to be. That film however is a comic book story that is designed to flaunt convention and dazzle us with flash. “Baby Driver” is full of flash, but not the kind of cinematic magic that you see in every other action film these days. There are not bullets tossed in the air and then magically landed into the chamber of a gun as it is twirlling in slow motion through the air. Lots of movies will have those moments (in fact I saw that very thing in the trailer for “The Dark Tower” which played before this film). The synchronized cinematic moments have to do with the soundtrack and the pop songs that populate it. The music matches the driving, shooting and running action on the screen. Yet when Baby, as played by Ansel Elgort, drives a car or runs across the screen, if is not obviously digitally enhanced. The moves look real.

The story is not new. There are standard gangster tropes throughout the film. The crews have nicknames, the main character is involved against his will, the brains behind the plots are ruthless and there are innocents that are used as leverage against our hero. Yet for every trite moment, there is a variation or twist that makes the story pay off for the character. An eight year old is used for cover in the process of casing a job, and the kid does a better job than the criminal. When there is a car chase, the cars really get damaged and the criminals shook up. The innocent romantic interest is tougher than we expect her to be, and the big boss turns out to have more empathy than you would have imagined given the stereotype that is set up. There is a seemingly indestructible bad guy who keeps going like the energizer bunny, but he is a character that is motivated by romantic revenge not simply the story requirements.

Except for the style of filming and the ability to use camera angles and editing tools so very smoothly, this feels like a 1970s heist picture. Everyone knows that something will have to go wrong, the interesting things in the story are what things go wrong and how they play out. It’s as if this film is the grandchild of “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” crossed with “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”. The bad guys make  few mistakes but when they do, a double cross or a shift in loyalty is coming. Jamie Foxx and John Hamm are effectively grim and disturbed as members oif the violent crew of criminals. Eiza González is perhaps the most blood thirsty of the gang, so there is a feminist moment for you. Lily James as Deborah, Baby’s love interest kept reminding me of one of the girls from the original “Twin Peaks”. Maybe because she is a waitress (trope #243), she just seemed a lot like Shelly Johnson. Baby is over his head in the violence department, but he is never afraid for himself. He is smart, but clearly not as smart as Doc, the mastermind played by Kevin Spacey, in a role he feels like was tailored for him. He has played enough bad guys that this part is hardly a challenge but it still feels natural.

The practical car stunts and gritty character moments are the things that make this film enjoyable for an old timer like me. I only knew half of the songs that were used in the film, but all of them felt right for the moment and the fact that they are not as well worn as the songs used in a lot of other films, is a plus from my point of view. There were a few moments in the middle of the film that are not action heavy and I started to wonder if the film was moving off track, but it was just a counter tempo and a character theme and we get right back to the melody after those brief solos. “baby Driver” is definitely gritty and stylish. It is not a garish shoot-em up, but rather a fast paced heist movie with a strong 70s feel. Just the thing to help rescue the movies from the summer doldrums of films like the “Transformers” sequel or “The Mummy”.  Be sure to buy the song soundtrack, but make sure you get it on vinyl.