Director Danny Boyle has done good movies, that are often dark (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later, Shallow Grave). Screenwriter Richard Curtis has done good movies, that are often very light and rom-com-y (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, Notting Hill). Combine their talents, and the best band of all time — what could go wrong? Well, with this wacky a premise, a lot could go wrong. Thankfully, it doesn’t. You’ll have a smile on your face the entire two hours you’re watching this.
Some could argue that any movie that’s going to just play a bunch of Beatles songs would be fun. Yeah, well…I own 8 Elton John albums and and didn’t care much for Rocketman. It doesn’t always work that way (although, the strong Queen songs made a poor bio-pic at least watchable).
We meet British busker Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) playing the boardwalk and small, almost empty bars. His manager/best friend Ellie (Lily James of Cinderella, Mama Mia, Baby Driver) seems to be the only one with a smile on her face. Some of his buddies will encouragingly yell out “Summer Song” — his biggest “hit.” Jack has put off his job teaching school kids, to work part time at a Costco type warehouse store, while playing pubs at night.
Ellie surprises him by booking a show at one of the biggest festivals around. Yet after he realizes he’s performing in one of the small tents at the venue, he decides to hang up the six string. While he angrily bicycles home, a blackout occurs everywhere on Earth. That causes a bus without lights, to hit him on his bike with no light. After a few days in the hospital, and a few less teeth, he meets up with his friends. He plays the song Yesterday on a guitar that’s been given to him, and they’re amazed at this terrific song he seemingly just came up with. When he tells them Paul McCartney wrote it, they have no clue who that is. Since the audience has all seen the commercials, we know what’s up. Nobody knows the Fab Four anymore. So, what’s a struggling musician to do? Well, sing and write the songs that make the whole world sing (sorry, a Barry Manilow reference really has no place in a review like this).
A few of the jokes you can see coming, but they’re still funny (for example, Googling The Beatles and finding a page about beetles). Other jokes were hysterical, that I hadn’t thought about (needing to figure out all the weird lyrics to Eleanor Rigby or Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite in the proper order).
I had a fun debate with my wife and friend before my first screening of this (I liked it so much, I saw it a second time a few weeks later with different friends). I claimed that if the Beatles never existed and one guy now has all these songs at his disposal, it doesn’t mean he’d become popular performing them. The Beatles songs were huge for a number of reasons. The way the band rose to stardom, and how their music evolved as the ‘60s changed. Singing Lucy in the Sky or All You Need is Love, might just leave people scratching their heads today. And as amazing as the song Yesterday is, I’m sure there are thousands of singer/songwriters that have songs just as lovely, that we’ve never heard, because they’re playing in a bar somewhere in Des Moines, Iowa. Now, after the movie, the couple I brought with me the second time I watched it, said, “You can’t think too hard about all of it, because stuff doesn’t make sense.”
That is true. The universe they give us doesn’t quite hold up if you really analyze it, but so what? If you think about how Avengers: End Game, that doesn’t either; but talking about those things makes the experience of having watched it, that much more fun. You want to know if there were no Beatles, does the world still have Paul McCartney and the Wings? Does George Harrison release the great All Things Must Pass records? Would anybody even know the name Richard Starkey? (You can Google him if you don’t know him).
The movie does surprise us by answering some of those questions, in a very, very satisfying way.
All the supporting characters in the movie are solid. The parents that don’t seem to want to pay attention when they’re first hearing “Let it Be” (the mom tells her friend on the phone it’s “Leave it Be”). Who can blame them? Their son has been messing about with a music career that isn’t going anywhere, despite the gem he has for them at the piano in the living room.
Talented Saturday Night Live member Kate McKinnon gets some big laughs as a ruthless manager, although her craziness should’ve been taken down a notch. It gets unbelievable the more she talks. For me, the funniest side character was the roadie named Rocky (Joel Fry). You can totally buy his flakey, stoned character.
It’s surprising that real life singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran wasn’t just a cameo. He does a terrific job as the guy that sees Jack on a small local TV show and asks him to open some shows for him. In one scene backstage, they have a competition to see who can write the best song in 10 minutes. Listening to Sheeran strum a tune about a relationship being like a penguin on ice, was incredible. Although, instead of Jack whipping out The Long and Winding Road (which to me sounds so much better with full orchestra Phil Spector gave it and McCartney’s voice)…it would’ve been more fun/funny to have him look at Rocky and jokingly sing Rocky Racoon, saying “You did a penguin song, I’ll do a raccoon.”
There were a handful of times I thought of songs that would’ve worked better. Another time is after Ellie complains that she is just his “roadie and car driver” that he could’ve whipped out a little “Baby you can drive my car, and baby I love you.” But hey…Richard Curtiss is doing just fine writing screenplays without my input.
I glanced at one critic’s review that claims that you never warm up to Jack, because while he might have the soul to belt out these tunes, he’s not the best looking. That’s completely absurd. He’s decent enough looking, and his look helps make the fish-out-of-water stuff work brilliantly. It also helps that when he gets into crazy situations where things are thrust at him, he’s clever enough to have snappy responses.
I did have a hard time believing that Jack would’ve never tried to make a play for Ellie who so obviously has a crush on him. There’s a scene where she looks at the post-it notes on his wall with various Beatles song titles. We see Julia, Michelle, Sexy Sadie, and beneath those — And I Love Her. She gets sad, and asks why she never made it onto that list. It breaks your heart, and you yearn for him to say and do the right thing to make this relationship work. It’s a wonderfully romantic film.
Another moment was captured better than almost all music themed movies ever. It’s when Jack gets the idea to do a concert on the rooftop of a hotel (wonder how he thought of that). Things are going horrible with Ellie, and he glances down and sees her with another man, and goes into a version of Help that is so angst-ridden and punk, ending with a guttural scream of “Help me!”
Now, as someone who has heard every cover of every Beatles song — that version of Help now ranks as my favorite cover ever of a Beatles track; and keep in mind, Sinatra covered “Something” Emmylou Harris “For No One,” Fionna Apple “Across the Universe,” Aimee Mann “Two of Us,” Paul Simon “I”ve Just Seen a Face,” and “Homeward Bound” The Jam “And Your Bird Can Sing,” Allison Krause “I Will,” Siouxi and the Banshees “Dear Prudence,” The Black Keys “She Said,” Florence and the Machine “Oh Darling,” Oingo Boingo “I am the Walrus”.
Of course, there are predictable elements to this film. I figured someone would want him to change the bizarre lyrics of “I Am the Walrus” (instead, it was Ed Sheeran saying “Hey Dude” works better than “Hey Jude” which was given away in the commercial, but it’s made even better by Jack’s inability to explain the origin of the song). Surprisingly, the joke about changing Beatles lyrics has been made before. In the 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married, Kathleen Turner goes back in time and is in high school again. Her boyfriend (Nicolas Cage) is in doo-wop band in the ‘50s and she gives him the song “She Loves You” but thinks it works better with the “yeah, yeah, yeah’s” being changed to “oow, oow, oow.”
Now, a teenager asked me if you have to be a Beatles fan to like this movie. You do not, but it certainly helps. I can’t imagine a 16-year-old kid, that might only know a few songs, laughing when they’re in the studio and Jack pleads with the guitarist “You need to make the guitar more weepy!” [Beatles fun fact: It was Eric Clapton that made that guitar so weepy on the Beatles track]
A kid might not appreciate the difficulty of nailing the exact lyrics to Eleanor Rigby (another joke that was done previously; by Sigourney Weaver’s brilliant comedian uncle Doodles Weaver in the early ‘70s).
Another thing that I think was an interesting and smart choice was the score by Daniel Pemberton (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and with Boyle previously on Steve Jobs). It’s nice that they aren’t just Muzak versions of Beatles songs, but music that sounds like something you’d hear on Magical Mystery Tour, with that recorder/Strawberry Fields vibe.
On paper, and in the commercial, this all looks so corny. But trust me, it works. The characters have great chemistry, they’re charming, and hell…it’s Beatles music.
It was also fun to discuss with my Beatles friends, ideas I would’ve included in the movie. For example, when they’re trying to decide on album covers, and we see an Abbey Road, White album, and Sgt. Pepper parody, why not a “Meet the Malik”?
Or Kate McKinnon, perhaps a few less scenes of her sounding so money hungry, and instead asking Jack what the hell the meaning of “sitting on a cornflake” is, but adding, “You win me over once you get to the ‘eggman; goo-goo-g’joob’. I see breakfast commercials in your future, sir.”
Again, that’s one of the many great things about this movie. You can talk about songs and scenarios you would’ve added, or how the world would be different with no Beatles.
Do your entire family a favor, and bring them all to see this movie this weekend.
4 stars out of 5.