The asset of ‘Yesterday’ is recalling Beatles memory

Ah… Summertime, and the viewing is breezy.

Even if you didn’t know the composer is George Gershwin, or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice doesn’t come to mind, you’d probably know I got the line from something bigger than it is, as the original song lyrics had made its way into our communal usage through the years… “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.”

Here lies the very original story idea of the movie Yesterday: what if there’s no collective memory of The Beatles, except one person. And it happens that this guy is a struggling, busker kind of a singer songwriter on the brink of giving up his music and submitting to a career as a warehouse grocery stocker. Imagine, what would he do now?

Yesterday.jpg

Richard Curtis, whose expertise is writing rom coms, best known for Notting Hill, Love Actually, Bridget Jones and not the least, Mr. Bean, seems to have gone on a breezy trip imagining his newest work. Director Danny Boyle as well, reprises his rags-to-riches gist as in Slumdog Millionaire to create another fantasy. Yesterday looks to have the privilege of a dynamic duo of movie magic, and it seems they’d planned it as a summer joy ride.

To enjoy a fantasy, viewers have to drop their guards and suspend rationale. Stop trying to reason how a 12 seconds global blackout could wipe out the collective memory of The Beatles, both human and online memory that is, while one man, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), being hit by a bus right at that moment, wakes up to find he has lost only his two front teeth but his memory is fully intact.

In his hospital bed, Jack says to his manager Ellie (the ubiquitous Lily James), who has had an unrequited crush on him since their junior high days, “will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” Sure, but why 64? She asks. There’s the first clue.

Later when he gets out of the hospital, his close friends gift him a new guitar to replace the one that’s crushed by the bus. Keep on writing songs, they encourage him. So he sings his newest for them, it’s called “Yesterday”, and they’re almost moved to tears. Here’s the beginning of a world-wide sensation, Jack Malik, the one man show, creator of fresh, hit songs, and the rest is (new) history.

Now consider another premise, or maybe a philosophical construct: if a lesser known gallery painting is taken out of its frame and thrown on the sidewalk, will people have recognized it as a work of art? In parallel, if the collective memory of The Beatles had been wiped out and a Beatles song is sung by Jack Malik, a dowdy guy who doesn’t have the slightest sense of charisma, will it be a hit? Will it ever be turned into a classic? Well, too much thinking here. This is a rom com after all.

Curtis wants to humour us with quick, spontaneous laughs, and he delivers. Like showing us the Google search results for The Beatles when all such memory is lost, or when the less than attentive parents of Jack’s mistakenly remember the title of his new song as “Leave it be”. Or when Ed Sheeran, yes, the real Ed Sheeran, advises Jack on how to create a better song title, “Hey Jude” is a bit old-fashioned he tells him. “Hey Dude” sounds just right.

Kudos to the filmmakers, Jack’s Indian descent isn’t mentioned; he’s just another dude. It’s a kaleidoscope of humanity on our streets, no need to explain. As for the plagiarism issue, no worries, Boyle and Curtis deal with that at the end. So you can leave the theatre at peace with your conscience if you happen to really like the movie.

Jack’s friend and sidekick Rocky (Joel Fry) reminds us of Spike (Rhys Ifans) in Notting Hill, adding both sparks and silliness, especially in the weak, second part of the movie where it feels gas might have run out. As for Jack meeting a guru type of a guy called John in the last act feels an unnecessary add-on. Now Curtis really had run out of ideas.

On another note, I can’t seem to find much chemistry between James and Patel for them to a strike up an intimate relationship. Maybe they’re following to the dot the exact storyline, quiet, unrequited lover meets oblivious subject. Albeit I do see a chance there which unfortunately the director and writer had not pursued further.

The movie can be enriched if James is given more opportunity to perform. In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, as young Donna, James has shown herself to be a natural singer and dancer. There’s just one scene in Yesterday, maybe for a minute or less, where we see her character Ellie singing along with Jack in the recording studio. The story could be richer in content and more entertaining if James is given a chance to shine by accompanying Patel in some of his songs. After all, there were four harmonized voices that made up the Fab Four. Further, James’ participation in the music-making could beef up the story and open wider the road to romance as well.

Yesterday has an ingenious idea for a fantasy, Sheeran’s appearance as himself is marvellous. While the storyline turns weak and hard to sustain in the middle of the movie, the 15 Lennon-McCartney compositions save the production. Augmenting Patel’s singing with James’ collaboration would enhance the story and be more entertaining.

So for the overall production, I’ll give 2.5 Ripples, but I’ll still post this as a ‘Fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes, for the originality of the concept as well as the memory of the Beatles numbers, especially for certain demographics among us.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Ripple Review:

Nowhere Boy

 

Words Without Music by Philip Glass

“For me music has always been about lineage. The past is reinvented and becomes the future. But the lineage is everything.”    — Philip Glass

This 400 plus page memoir by Philip Glass (1937 -), with 14 pages of photos and 20 pages of index, is nothing short of epic. Glass has not only told us the story of his life so far, but chronicling a generation of American arts and music from an insider’s perspective. The zeitgeist of the Beat Generation and the preoccupation of Eastern philosophy with its search for transcendental experiences make the memoir an interesting and informative read.

Pertaining to Glass’s innovative musical style, I’ve experienced the book in several ways: reading the first half in hardcopy, listening to the latter part in audiobook format via hoopla, superbly performed by narrator Lloyd Jones, and listening to Glass’s works available on hoopla. Hoopla, btw, is wonderful.

Words Without Music Cover

Born 1937 to a secular Jewish family in Baltimore, Glass’s father Ben was a record store owner, mother Ida a librarian. The flute and the violin were his first instruments. Bursting with potentials ready to be unleashed, he left home to attend The University of Chicago at merely 15 years of age majoring in philosophy and mathematics. At Chicago, he’d decided what he wanted to do after graduation, to pursue a career in music, albeit the realization of which was still a blurry vision.

As a young college grad, Glass worked at a steel mill to save enough money to head to NYC for Juilliard, a decision that was against the wish of his mother: “If you go to New York City to study music, you’ll end up like your Uncle Henry, spending your life traveling from city to city and living in hotels.” His uncles also frowned on such an idea. They wanted him to take over the family’s building supplies business.

But the teenaged Glass was determined, only to face a closed door upon audition at Juilliard. No, he wasn’t qualified as a flute player, but, he was given the chance at the extension program to learn composition. Only a detour. Once he’d become a full-fledged student in Juilliard, he devoured all opportunities to learn. You’d think such a talent would become a young success soon after? Well, that wouldn’t have been as interesting a story as real life.

Philip Glass is classified as a ‘minimalist’, a label which he frowns upon. Reading the memoir, I can only say what’s minimal is the material means, money, while all else, passion, intellect, talents, cultural milieu, internal space, and the prolific output of works have been abundant throughout his life journey.

It would be decades later that Glass could earn enough to make a living by only composing. Along the way, he was contented with his day jobs in NYC, including being a furniture mover, plumber, and taxi driver. He nearly got killed driving a cab in NYC, albeit he does recall more pleasant excitement like the time he picked up Salvador Dali from 57th Street to the St. Regis Hotel. During that short trip, he was, alas, tongue-tied. Yes, the word is “contented”, for no matter what he had to do to earn a living—at first just for himself, later a family of four—he seemed happy to be on the right course striving for the ultimate goal. That in itself is inspiring. The tone of the book reflects a quiet and humble soul, reflective and personal.

Glass’s contact list is a who’s who of the Beat Generation and cultural icons in the following decades. He was a contemporary with Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollack, John Cage, friend with Alan Ginsberg, Doris Lessing, Richard Serra, collaborator with Ravi Shankar, Leonard Cohen, wrote music for the works by Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, composed for Martin Scorsese, Steven Daldry, Woody Allen, studied with Nadia Boulanger as an American in Paris, journeyed to the East to find enlightenment in New Delhi, Katmandu, Darjeeling, explored and created global music with musicians from India, Himalaya, Chinese, Australia, Africa, and South America. Just a few names. The 20 page index is a definite asset.

“I have come to understand that all music, without exception, is ethnic music.”

As for his own music, people always say it’s like “the needle is stuck in the groove.” To understand this, of course, you’ll have to know the operation of a vinyl record. To counteract the general public impression of repetition to no end of his music, he explains in details the Glass music theory. That I let you to explore for yourself.

But here are some passages that I’ve particularly noted with low tech stickies on the side of the page:

About John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″, wherein the pianist sits at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without touching any keys, whatever sound the audience hears during that time lapse becomes the piece, Glass writes:

“… a work of art has no independent existence… What Cage was saying is that there is no such thing as an independent existence. The music exists between you—the listener—and the object that you’re listening to. The transaction of it coming into being happens through the effort you make in the presence of that work. The cognitive activity is the content of the work.” (p. 95)

What goes on internally in the listener is what the piece is about. Makes me think of Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” notion.

So do we have “the death of the composer” now?  Wait, actually, no. You see, Glass has this brilliant point. The composer still lives in that the performer interacts with and interprets his works, thus becoming a co-creator:

“… the performer has a unique function in terms of what I call this transactional reality which comes from being in the presence of the work: that the interpreter/player of the music becomes part of that. Until then, I had really thought of the interpreter as a secondary creative person. I never thought he was on the same level with Beethoven or Bach. But after I had spent some time thinking about all that and began playing myself, I saw that the activity of playing was itself a creative activity… ” (p. 96)

And how should the performer play the music? By listening intently and purposefully:

“The ideal way of performing, to my way of thinking, would be when the performer allows the activity of playing to be shaped by the activity of listening, and perhaps even by the activity of imagining listening.” (p. 97)

In 1957, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had just been published and “everybody had read it”. With the $750 prize money he received from Juilliard at the end of his third academic year, he bought a motorcycle, probably an unintended item on which the music school would like to see the scholarship spent. Off he went on a cross-country road trip. But what’s the difference between he and his friends and the Kerouac’s clan? Glass writes:

“His [Kerouac’s] book is full of interesting characters, but that’s not what happened for us. We weren’t interested in having those kinds of experiences, we were out and abroad in America, consuming the country visually and experientially by driving through it…. (p. 102)

The renowned sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, or Raviji as he was known to friends and colleagues, at that time started collaborating with George Harrison. Glass notes that “The casual drug use by young people particularly upset him. Sometimes he would lecture me about drugs, and I had to remind him that I was drug-free.” Ummm, wonder if Raviji had lectured George Harrison on same.

In 1964, with a Fulbright Scholarship, Glass went to Paris to study with the eminent music guru Nadia Boulanger. For two years, she inspired and led Glass to higher grounds of musical epiphanies. One of the crucial lessons he took away after two years with Boulanger was the route to innovation. First, learn the conventional theoretical foundation, then you diverge and create your own:

“… an authentic personal style cannot be achieved without a solid technique at its base. That in a nutshell is what Madame Boulanger was teaching.” (p. 145)

His mother Ida went by train from Baltimore to NYC for her son’s first concert at Queens College on April 13, 1968. There were only six people in the audience including herself. As Glass drove her back to the train station after the concert, the only comment she made was that his hair was too long.

The second time Ida attended her son’s concert was eight years later in November 1976. This time, she was in the full house audience of four thousand people at the Metropolitan Opera for the performance of his first opera, Einstein on the Beach.

Glass movingly recalls his conversation with his mother at her death bed. She was in and out of a coma. She whispered two last words to him: “The copyrights”. Mother and son came to a perfect understanding. He reassured her, “It’s all taken care of, Mom. I’ve registered them all.”

He’d better.

Glass has composed more than twenty operas, eight symphonies, two piano concertos and concertos for violin, piano, timpani, and saxophone quartet and orchestra, soundtracks to films, 125 credits on IMDb for all sorts: full features, doc, shorts, TV. And more to come.

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Merry Christmas!

To all, a Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas

Sharing with you a song for the Season, sung by the a cappella group Pentatonix.

 

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know
that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?
This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary, did you know
that your baby boy will calm the storm with His hand?

Did you know
that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

Mary did you know.. Mary did you know

The blind will see.
The deaf will hear.
The dead will live again.
The lame will leap.
The dumb will speak
The praises of The Lamb.

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know
that your Baby Boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
The sleeping Child you’re holding is the Great, I Am.

***

Downton Abbey Season 4 Episode 2 (PBS)

CLICK HERE to Season 4 Episode 3 (Jan. 19, PBS)

After an uneventful two-hour opener last week, Downton has gone Gosford Park on us here in Episode 2 (E2 on PBS. In UK aired Sept, 2013 this is E3). Don’t forget, Julian Fellowes wrote the Oscar winning screenplay of that Altman directed movie Gosford Park. And so we’re warned from the start. ‘Viewers Discretion Advised’, as scenes may not be bearable for everyone.

Before we move on to discuss that tragic scene, I think there are several good things in this episode. First is, good for plot development, Mary finally has stepped out of mourning. She reconnects with her childhood acquaintance Anthony Gillingham at a weekend house party in Downton. That’s seven months after Mathew’s death, too early? Isobel Crawley may think so. While this is the first time Tom hears Mary laugh, Isobel sadly replies, ‘I find it hard to join in the merry-making.’ Lord Gillingham seems like a decent prospect, but here’s the rub: he’s engaged. Of course, under the pen of Julian Fellowes, that isn’t too big an obstacle.

During that party, Tom feels absolutely out of place. Edna is quick to console. Troubles brewing.

Kiri te Kanawa in Downton

A moving scene is Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the real-life diva herself, appearing as a guest star in this Episode as the real-life Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba upon the invitation from Cora. She sings several arias to entertain the guests. One of them is her favourite, O mio babbino caro, which she dedicates to love and lovers. Kiri Te Kanawa’s mesmerizing voice singing this Puccini aria has made an indelible mark in my movie memory from the Merchant Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View (1985). Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley) must have felt an affiliation with this piece since she herself had starred in that legendary film. (Click here to listen and view a short clip.)

Edith has brought Gregson to the party but Robert avoids talking to him, until money is involved. Gregson has done some heroic poker playing to gain back lost ground for Robert who thanks him for ‘saving his bacon.’ Gregson winning back ‘fair and square’ from the dubious poker player Terence Sampson just might have revealed a bit of his past, schemes he learned in his ‘misspent youth’. This person remains a mystery still. Should Edith be more cautious?

As Dame Nellie Melba sings the love aria upstairs, good-natured Anna encounters evil embodied in Gillingham’s butler Green downstairs. I’m afraid from this point on, she will be a changed person. Green strikes Anna hard on the face and drags her into a room. The subsequent rape is hidden from our sight, thankfully, but we can see the aftermath. The charming voice of a diva singing a love aria upstairs is juxtaposed with the unheeded screams from Anna downstairs makes a powerful and ironic dramatic device. Anna has been the bulwark, a pillar of quiet strength and principle in the Series up to now, I can understand the outcries from fans.

Is this too harsh a dealing from Julian Fellowes? I don’t feel this scene is gratuitous or sensationalized. Why, Mr. Bates has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, William dies from a war wound, Lavinia a casualty of scarlet fever, Ethel has to resort to prostitution and give up her son, Sybil meets her end after childbirth, Matthew crashes out, it’s not the first time tragedy happens to Downton characters. No, I wouldn’t want to see Anna suffer either. But if that is the twist in the plot, I’m eager to see what will happen next. This drastic turn will bring some tension between Anna and Bates as she tries to hide the fact of her wounds, worrying that if Bates knows about it, he will likely do something to Green that will send him back to prison or even hanged. Further, the social stigma of being a rape victim would lead to even more detrimental consequences.

Julian Fellowes has just reminded us that Downton Abbey is more than fashion and parties, etiquettes and zeitgeist of the roaring twenties. It is foremost a world inhabited by humans, with all their tragedies and ugliness.

I’m adding this note in. Some of you have provided stats on sexual assaults and a link to an interview with Joanne Froggatt, all point to the unfortunate social reality that crimes against women are still happening today, and, tragically, the stigma of being a rape victim is just as acute as in the past, while reporting only threatens them even more. Like Anna, they are twice victimized; first being raped, and after, silenced.

Yes, Mr. Carson, this is a topsy turvy world you’ve come to.

***

Fresh off the press: Season 4 Episode 3 (Jan. 19 PBS)

Downton Abbey Season 4 Opening 2 hour Special

Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

As preparation for the movie, I bought the CD soundtrack a few weeks before. This has proven to be a mistake, for I’d been listening to it so much that when I watched the film, I wasn’t surprised by the music at all. I consider that a loss. It would have been much better that I were mesmerized by that haunting voice of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for the first time as I watched the movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis copy

Music is a major player in many Coen brothers movies, often used to comedic and acerbic effects. The whole odyssey in O Brothers Where Art Thou (2000) comes to mind readily, or Jefferson Airplane in A Serious Man (2009) where ‘Somebody to Love’ reinvents itself, or even in True Grit‘s (2010) ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ as we see the one-arm Mattie Ross riding into the sunset.

But in Inside Llewyn Davis, music is no laughing matter. Llewyn is the serious man here, a folksinger down on his luck. T. Bone Burnett has crafted an impressive music production. It should be noted too that Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford and Sons and husband of Carey Mulligan, is also involved in the song arrangement and singing, in particular, the part of Llewyn’s duo partner Mike in ‘Fare Thee Well’.

The setting is New York City’s Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn is a folk music purist, an idealist. All he wants is a gig to kick off as a solo performer. The backstory is that his singing duo partner had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The record he has produced as a soloist isn’t selling. It’s cold in NYC, Llewyn is homeless and coatless. Maybe it’s arrogance coming from being a music purist that makes him callous and abrasive, even to fellow folk singers, or maybe he needs to have that aloof hardness as an armour to sustain the slings and arrows life hurls his way.

O, if only Llewyn’s personality were as charismatic as his voice, he probably would have done better in life. Despite his musical talents, our protagonist, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, is trapped by his own character flaws and tripped by no small amount of fate, he slips slides into the wayside. Sadly, that’s exactly where he lands at the end of the movie.

He has friends and acquaintances, but there’s not much that they can do to help. He has already made the best use of their couches, and some of their wives. The latest to get pregnant is Jean, played against type by the sweet Carey Mulligan, all wrapped up in anger, understandably so, for her friend Llewyn is more concerned about a lost cat than her upcoming abortion. Jean has a very limited vocabulary to express herself except the overused expletive. Not a pleasant role to play I’m sure. Her character could have been written with a bit more depth.

Oscar Issac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan copy 2

Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are also folk singers but ‘careerists’ according to Llewyn. They would one day concede to life in the suburb, settle down and have kids. ‘Is that so bad?’ Jean asks Llewyn. The answer is obvious. Llewyn is definitely not going down that path.

Talented folk singers converge at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village during the 1960’s. Why some succeed and others don’t, the Coen brothers seem not so much to offer rational explanations than to depict the misfortunes of one. In that dim, brick-walled and smoke-filled Café, we hear some fantastic singing. We hear Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands) perform ‘Five Hundred Miles’, evoking Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, to an oblivious Llewyn, we see the silhouette of what looks like Bob Dylan and hear his voice singing ‘Farewell’.

Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) sets the mood from the opening scene. In that basement Café, we see the place dimly lit with spotlight on Llewyn’s face, as his ‘Hang Me, O Hang Me’ captivates us right away. We follow him later as he steps outside to a pitch-dark alley where he meets his nemesis. Even during the day, we see him walk on wind-swept streets under dull, grey sky. The overall bleakness can be soothed only when Llewyn picks up his guitar and sing. His voice seems to be able to neutralize any outrageous fortune.

Llewyn takes a surreal road trip to Chicago to try his luck with a club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, a double for Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman?) He is stuck in the car with the old and sardonic Roland Turner (John Goodman) who wraps up his opinion in one short line: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.” If the trip seems absurd, it could well be the exact impression the directors intend. We follow one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a week of failed attempts, gloomy encounters, and bleak prospects. The only light is the voice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)

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