Monday, August 5, 2019

Song and Dance, Part I: Wild Rose and Yesterday

Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose.

The review of Yesterday contains spoilers.
 
As Rose-Lynn, the young Glaswegian woman determined to make it as a country singer in Nashville in the new Wild Rose, Jessie Buckley has a fresh, totally unaffected camera presence and the instinct to hold the camera, sometimes for medium-long, pensive reaction takes that transport us directly into the character’s complicated feelings. Rose-Lynn is raucous and uncensored, and though in her early twenties she doesn’t initially show much more practicality or awareness of responsibility than she probably did at sixteen, she has a life-embracing personality that naturally draws people to her, and it captivates us too. When the movie starts, she has just been released from prison, where she served a short sentence for being the middleman in a drug deal. Her two young children – Wynonna and Lyle, both named for musical idols of hers – were both born before she was eighteen. During her absence, her widowed mother, Marion (the peerless Julie Walters, typically folding the character around her to make it a perfect fit), has been caring for them, but though she’s happy to continue helping out, she expects Rose-Lynn to take the lead – to land a job to support them and put them first, before her social life and the country-singer dreams Marion hasn’t much patience for – and figure out how to parent them wisely and thoughtfully. This last is a struggle for Rose-Lynn, who loves her kids but has never learned to settle down or think far beyond her own desires and impulses. (The first thing she does when she’s sprung from jail isn’t to rush home to Lyle and Wynonna but to get herself laid.) But she’s lucky. Her lawyer convinces a judge to lift her curfew – enforced by an ankle monitor – so that she can perform at a local club. And when she hires out as a house cleaner (“daily woman,” in Glasgow parlance), her employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), turns out to be a kind, sympathetic woman who is so encouraging of Rose-Lynn’s aspirations that she stages a big birthday party for herself and asks her guests, in lieu of gifts, to make donations to get her cleaner to Nashville. (Rose-Lynn conceals both her jailhouse past and the fact of her children from Susannah, who holds onto a romantic vision of her.)

The director, Tom Harper, has a weakness for artsy camera set-ups but he’s good at atmosphere and terrific with his actors, including those in tiny one- or two-scene roles and especially the two child actors: Adam Mitchell as five-year-old Lyle, whose response to his mother’s homecoming is to vent his fury at her by kicking a neighbor’s door, and Daisy Littlefield as laconic, watchful eight-year-old Wynonna. The screenwriter, Nicole Taylor, has underwritten both parts; because there are no markers to establish the children’s acceptance of their mother’s return and the shift in their relationship with her, Harper has to get the young actors to fill in. Littlefield is remarkable – we see how Wynonna keeps her own counsel and maintains her distance from Rose-Lynn until she feels she can trust her not to run off, and then we see her outpouring of affection when she’s ready to offer it.

The movie is underwritten in other ways too. It lumbers toward the big, showpiece scenes: the disastrous party at Susannah’s, where Rose-Lynn breaks down and tells her about her past, the scene where Marion unexpectedly gives her the money to go to Nashville, and the finale, where Rose-Lynn performs in a classy Glasgow venue for just about everyone we’ve met in the course of the picture. None of these scenes is plausible because Taylor doesn’t have much of a sense for narrative logic. That we’re able to accept them on any level is down to Jessie Buckley, whose performance grounds the movie. Buckley came second in the BBC TV talent-show series I’d Do Anything (a public search to find a singer-actress to play Nancy in a West End revival of Oliver!) and was tapped to play the ingénue role, Anne, in Trevor Nunn’s mounting of A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I haven’t seen her before but she’s appeared in a couple of notable British miniseries, War and Peace and Chernobyl. She’s a very fine actress, and when she sings she’s a star.

Himesh Patel in Yesterday.

The same cannot be said for Himesh Patel. Patel plays the protagonist, Jack Malik, in Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, who, like Rose-Lynn, is struggling to forge a career as a pop – in Jack’s case, folk-rock – singer. Still based in Suffolk, where he grew up, he’s been at it for nearly twenty years, with the help of his admiring agent, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who is a schoolteacher most of the time but has continued to find gigs for him because they’ve been best of friends since high school and she happens to be hopelessly in love with him. The movie’s premise is built on a sci-fi device: one night the entire planet plunges into a blackout, and when power is restored whole chunks of pop culture history have vanished, including the existence of The Beatles. But Jack was hit by a bus during the blackout, and when he recovers consciousness at the hospital his memory is unaffected. So when he casually strums and sings “Yesterday” at a get-together with Ellie and their friends, they all assume he wrote it. When he Googles The Beatles and can’t find any reference to them, he can’t resist the temptation to perform their tunes and take the credit. Soon he’s a star, with a highly anticipated solo album.

Yesterday is a sterling example of what happens when a mediocre writer – Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, Notting Hill) gets hold of a semi-clever idea and doesn’t have a clue how to follow through. (The story is by an English TV writer named Jack Barth.) I’m willing to buy the device, even though Curtis never bothers to come up with an explanation for the mysterious blackout. But Patel is a so-so singer, and that’s part of the point; what turns him into a star is that he’s a genius songwriter. That’s a new one on me. Popular music has certainly had its share of celebrities whose talent for writing great music and great lyrics eclipsed their skills at performing them, but they did more on stage than simply present them. This movie’s storyline implies that what made The Beatles a phenomenon was their songs, while we all know different – that the world responded to their charisma and their charm, their originality and the irresistible pop power of their sound; the praise for their songs came later, when they started turning out albums like Revolver and Rubber Soul and, importantly, when the first generation of rock critics got hold of their work. Along with The Rolling Stones, they pioneered the age of pop bands that performed their own compositions and then, after they’d conquered the world, were recognized as brilliant writers.

Curtis’s script makes nonsense of the history of popular music. The “idea” of Yesterday, which begins as a running gag and then asks us to take it seriously, is that because he’s (almost) the only person in the world after the blackout who remembers the music of The Beatles, Jack is able to put it back into the popular culture by pulling it out of his memory, writing it down and performing it willy-nilly, coming up with “Hey Jude” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in the order in which they occur to him. It’s as if Curtis had never heard of an artist’s trajectory – the way great artists develop and build on their earlier work, not to mention the way they train their audiences. Shakespeare could hardly have written The Winter’s Tale and followed it up with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It would make some sense if the response to Jack’s songs was bafflement and dismissal. And since The Beatles had an indelible influence on the musicians who came after them, if some weird alien event wiped them out of history, the pop music of the last half-century would be radically changed. Isn’t that the cause-and-effect principle at the heart of all time-travel sci-fi – that if you go back and alter one element of the past, you inevitably shift the sands of time in other ways?

Yesterday is idiotic, but I’d sit through the whole damn thing over again just to watch Lily James, a lovely actress whose performances – as anyone knows who has seen her in Downton Abbey or in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella – is more than the sum of her (considerable) skills. She’s ethereal, as Audrey Hepburn was; you fall in love with her. And your heart breaks in the scene where she gets drunk enough to confess her love for Jack. This happens somewhere in the middle of the film; Jack has to spend the rest of it waking up and realizing what a fool he’s been and stumbling and fumbling on the path to winning her back after she’s finally given up on him and started dating someone else. (Ellie’s swain is played by Alexander Arnold, a far more likable performer than Patel, stuck in what is surely the definition of the thankless part.) But why should we root for anyone who has been close to James’s Ellie most of his life and hasn’t worked out for himself what a jewel she is? It doesn’t help that when he does decide she’s worth getting, he doesn’t consider her happiness, only his own. The movie fudges the happy romantic ending by staging one of those phony set pieces where the hero makes a big public declaration of his love, which is supposed to paint over all his past mistakes. (God, I hate those.)

Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon shows up as the high-powered, solipsistic agent who takes Jack on after Ed Sheeran (playing himself) helps to showcase Jack’s alleged songs. She seems to be in some other movie, a satire of the music industry that Curtis and Boyle turn to whenever they need to bring in the conflict between the authentic, down-home Jack’s values and the insidious, fake values of the world he enters when he becomes famous – as if that were the problem and not the fact that he’s plagiarizing somebody else’s music. (The way the filmmakers “solve” the plagiarism issue is about as satisfying as the way it resolves the romance.) Curtis even throws in a scene where Jack tracks down John Lennon (or someone does it for him), who, of course, is still alive because he never got famous enough to be the target of a psychotic’s bullet. Lennon turns out to be a sweet, sage codger who has figured out the secret of living a happy life. This sequence is the most outrageous thing in Yesterday, as well as the cheapest and most obnoxious: Curtis and Boyle trade on not only our love of his music but also our sadness over his untimely demise, but why should we care about this old dude whose name happens to be John Lennon? He didn’t write “Yesterday.” I found it tougher to sit through other recent pop musicals – Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, A Star Is Born – whose perpetrators didn’t know what the hell they’re doing. But none of them is as stupid as Yesterday, or in so many basic ways.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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