MUSIC MOVIES & ME: Music as Context in YESTERDAY & BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
This article is the third in a series by Sarah Jae Leiber exploring "music movies" and all the beauty and frustration that comes with them! Read last week's column here.
Last week's column was tangentially about the crimes of screenwriter/director Richard Curtis. He was a corollary to the central problem, a footnote in a sea of bad representation. This week, I'm going in. I'm not mincing words. Richard Curtis, your time has come.
"Yesterday" and "Blinded By The Light" both came out this summer. They share so much of the same DNA it would be impossible to talk about one without touching on the other; both movies are about uber-charming British/South Asian male leads (Himesh Patel and Vivek Kalra, who are both excellent), their love of famous, white, rock musicians, and how their love of music impacts every other area of their lives.
"Blinded By The Light" is grounded in reality. It's based on a true story, from a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor about how Bruce Springsteen's music influenced him as a writer and human growing up in Margaret Thatcher's England. "Yesterday" is a fantasy, a what-if scenario that asks us where we'd be if The Beatles had never existed. The former is a heartfelt, celebratory coming-of-age story; the latter is a manipulative, soul-sucking, unearned tearjerker.
Guess which one was written by my nemesis Richard Curtis?
To be absolutely fair, a LOT of people I know loved "Yesterday," just like a lot of people I know loved "Love Actually" or "Notting Hill." Some people like to have a good time while they watch movies-I recognize that I'm THE ONE with the goblin in my brain that doesn't let me enjoy things when I want to. I sat through "Yesterday" knowing it wasn't for me, even though it should have been, because I'm speaking to you as a person who took a solo trip to Liverpool just to stand in or near places where The Beatles stood.
I also recognize that you sometimes have to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy things. But I only have so much capacity for disbelief.
In "Yesterday," cigarettes don't exist, which implies no global tobacco market, which implies no United States of America. Ed Sheeran is a character in "Yesterday"-there's something hilarious about the fact that, in this implausible fantasy world where anything could happen, Ed Sheeran is still at the center of Western music culture. "Yesterday" ends the same crappy way "Music & Lyrics" ends, with a manipulative declaration of love in front of an enormous audience and a blatant disrespect for the leading lady's feelings and choices. But these are the least of my problems with "Yesterday."
I didn't like "Yesterday" because the only thing that changed about the world sans-Beatles is that we didn't have any Beatles songs. They talk about Coldplay in the movie, as if Coldplay would sound like Coldplay sounds without Beatle influence. They recreate classic Beatle tunes like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in a modern Pop studio and somehow achieve the same gorgeous, crunchy, imperfectly resonant guitar quality George Harrison is legendary for achieving. The movie is singularly interested in the legacy The Beatles left behind; it wants nothing to do with the how-they-got-there or why they were able to or why it all matters.
Like, you have this beautiful, charming, British/Indian leading man who loves The Beatles and wants to preserve them and what they mean to him. It seems like a waste not to have the character reckon with later-Beatles and their white British co-opting of Indian aesthetic and tradition and sound. India didn't gain independence from British colonial rule until 1947-It wasn't a coincidence that The Beatles went to India and came back with sitars and "Jai guru deva om" in the late 60s. Colonialism doesn't just end when it ends in name, and the line between appropriation and appreciation has always been that thin.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have something like "Blinded By The Light"-a smaller story, but one that is planted firmly in a year and in a place. Brown-haired, eye-linered Tommen Baratheon makes fun of Kalra's Javed for listening to Springsteen in 1987-it's music your Dad listens to! But the movie, more than anything else, is interested in showing audiences how and why Javed connected to Bruce Springsteen's music and message. It was music from an earlier generation that spoke to his experience in the here-and-now: as a young adult, as an immigrant, as a Muslim, as a son.
What's more, the movie is interested in the people watching understanding that experience. I'm a casual Bruce fan-I know "Hungry Heart" and "Dancing in the Dark" and "Thunder Road," but hell if I know any of the lyrics. The Boss is a mumbler, and I've never had the patience to listen that hard or to look anything up. Luckily enough, the filmmakers project the lyrics in big, important letters behind Javed when he's listening to a song for the first time, when his mind is being blown by how much this white American seems to understand his life as a British Pakistani.
"Blinded By The Light" deals with the far right, with racial inequities, with privilege, and with the struggle to succeed in a world built to make you fail. It is not perfect; there are moments that are clumsy and contrived and self-indulgent, and it suffers from that coming-of-age story syndrome where every female character is there to support the leading man and nothing else.
The main difference between the two films: "Blinded By The Light" is situated in a social context where it gets to shine, where it gets to speak to a new generation. In "Yesterday," the literal point is divorcing The Beatles from their social context-When old white people watch "Yesterday," they get to nostalgically relive the British Invasion without having to remember what else the British may have invaded.
UPDATE: "Yesterday" was released on digital today, Sept. 10, and arrives on Blu-ray & DVD on Sept. 24. "Blinded By The Light" is still playing in theaters. Here are trailers for both films: