Review: "Yesterday" and "Blinded by the Light"
You may have noticed that there’ve been a ton of rock-themed movies, most prominently Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocket Man. There are a couple of recent additions to the genre, and, interestingly, they also come with English accents.
Yesterday isn’t a bio pic, but uses the Beatles music as a plot device. It tells the story of a struggling Anglo-Indian songwriter from a small English town who gets hit by bus during a global blackout. When he comes to, miraculously he’s the only one who’s heard of the Beatles. Encouraged by his friends, he starts singing Beatles songs as his own, to enthusiastic response. He gets discovered by Ed Sheeran and becomes a worldwide sensation.
The movie obviously requires a major suspension of disbelief, but the screenplay by Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually) and direction by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) are professional enough to carry it off. And it gets a lift from the fine cast. Himesh Patel plays the songwriter Jack Malik with just enough musical credibility and plenty of ambivalence about his fraudulent success. Lily James (Downton Abbey and Cinderella) is endearing as Jack’s childhood supporter and unrequited love interest, while Kate McKinnon is unctuous and ambitious as his American manager, and Ed Sheeran is personable as a reasonable facsimile of himself. In the end, Yesterday is sweet and reaffirms our faith in the enduring power of the Beatles music.
Another English movie with a music theme is Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha, known for Bend It Like Beckham, about a girl from Indian background who gets obsessed with David Beckham. In this case, Javed, a young guy from a Pakistani family in Luton, England feels like an outsider until a friend turns him on to the music of Bruce Springsteen, and it changes his life.
The film is co-written by journalist Sanfraz Manzoor, based on his memoir, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll. (The title is a play on Bruce’s debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, which has a spiritual connection to Bury Park, his neighborhood in Luton.) It’s 1987, Margaret Thatcher is the British Prime Minister, the economy is going south, the Pet Shop Boys are dominating the British charts, and there is churning anti-immigrant resentment (sound familiar?). Bruce speaks to Javed’s need to express himself as a writer, to escape from his provincial town, and to earn the approval of his rigid, unsympathetic father.
As the movie says, Blinded by the Light is inspired by a true story, but more than that, it’s inspired by Bruce’s music. The songs that populate the soundtrack (and the lyrics that sometimes appear onscreen) resonate universally. While there’s a nice camaraderie between Javed, his girlfriend, and his Bruce-loving Sikh friend, there are a couple of choreographed dance scenes, designed to convey the uplifting power of his music, which just seem out of place. And the climactic scene where Javed and his father reconcile at a school awards ceremony has some genuine feeling, but feels cheesy. A soundtrack containing a wealth of classics, may be enough to keep your interest, and as a bonus, there’s an unreleased song, “I’ll Stand by You” (in the mode of his Western Skies album) at the end of the credits.