Friday, September 20, 2019

Here, there and nowhere: on a world without the Beatles

[my latest “movie moments” column for The Hindu]

The premise of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is emotionally resonant and slightly silly at the same time: struggling musician Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) suddenly finds himself in a rebooted world where the Beatles had never existed. Since only he remembers their songs, he starts putting the lyrics and arrangements together and passing them off as his own.

This idea is stretched about as far as it can be stretched, in an earnest film that treads a line between heartfelt and maudlin. In one scene, musician Ed Sheeran – playing himself – challenges Jack to a competition where they each have to write a song in a few minutes and perform it for a small audience; when Jack sings “The Long and Winding Road” (which, naturally, no one present has ever heard before), a sheepish Sheeran admits to having been bested.

But there is also a sequence where it feels like the story may be about to take a turn into sinister territory. When Jack, during a concert in Russia, decides to introduce the audience to a “new” song and launches into the Beatles’s “Back in the USSR”, we see a startled-looking bearded man in the audience. A little later this man is Googling on his computer and perusing the list of songs Jack has been performing.

It’s easy to conjecture that this Russian is another of those people who “remembers” the Beatles before they were magically wiped off history. Later, when he shows up backstage with a woman, the two of them goofily holding a toy yellow submarine, the film appears to be creating suspense: will they blackmail Jack, or do something worse? Might they even be minions of John-Paul-George-Ringo, sent from a parallel dimension to take revenge?

Nothing of the sort. Instead, what follows is an unabashedly sentimental moment. The man and the woman are Beatles fans who have been traumatized for months by the disappearance of all the music they adored. Now, thanks to Jack, they are getting to hear it again, and – far from wanting him hauled up for plagiarism – they are eternally grateful. “WE can’t sing or perform,” they tell him, “and we never thought we would hear these songs again.”

For most of us, an important part of feeling strongly about creative works – books, films, albums, even music videos and TV shows – is being able to share them with others. Even though much of my film viewing these days is solitary, I dream of starting a home-screening club in the not-too-distant future, to curate old films for those who can appreciate them. But imagine being in a world where something beautiful that you have experienced – and been influenced by – no longer exists. You can’t watch it again, or listen to it, or discuss it with anyone; you can’t have defensive arguments or shake your head in shared awe. A big hole has appeared in your personal history and perhaps even your sense of self.

Watching this film, other thoughts involving other creative forms come to mind. Isn’t it much easier for a (moderately gifted) musician to recreate a great song than for a (moderately gifted) painter to recreate a great lost artwork? Jack has trouble remembering the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby”, which, after all, is just one song. So how would a fanboy attempt to bring back, say, a whole novel that has suddenly vanished from the world’s memory?

Yesterday is a film that can put off viewers who prefer understated cinema – it is emotionally manipulative at times, pat, a little syrupy. But leveling such charges may be to miss the point. Like another film – the 2015 Danny Collins – which was about a musician who idolized John Lennon, some of Yesterday’s most effective moments involve its use of beloved old songs that can trigger associations for a viewer. These songs DO make us feel sentimental and mushy: they heighten our fantasy lives, allow us to feel like the protagonists of an operatic tragedy or romance. Why bother with such trivial things as grit or understatement while listening to them?

The word “melodrama”, usually employed as a putdown these days, derives from “music + drama”, and can there be a better description for a narrative where stirring songs like “In My Life” or “Imagine” or “Carry that Weight” or “Working-Class Hero” help a protagonist connect with his buried emotional life? I had mixed feelings about Yesterday overall, but returning home after watching it I found myself bingeing on old Beatles tunes, recalling the little ways in which they had intersected with my life: coming to them through my mother’s love of the band’s early work, buying audio-cassettes with her as a child, discovering for myself the later, more experimental albums and songs that she didn’t care for too much. And it was therapeutic. I felt fine.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

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