BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

by Alan Yudman

Bruce Springsteen, throughout his career has been seen as the voice of the working man. But in his one man show SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY he admits it is all based on a lie, saying he’s never worked a day in his life. He admits the characters in his songs are people he grew up with, friends and family. But that doesn’t make his voice less authentic. Springsteen, like many great artists is an observer and chronicler. Maybe that’s why the main character in BLINDED BY THE LIGHT connects so intimately with him once he discovers Springsteen’s music.

Javed Khan is not an observer by choice. It is a role life has saddled him as Pakistani living in Britain in the 1980’s. He is not comfortable. He has reason not to be. He has but one close friend, the aspiring musician Matt. Javed is too shy to even ask a girl out. His strict Pakistani family wouldn’t allow it anyhow. His father takes all the money Javed earns in his summer job for the family. Family and following Pakistani tradition are everything to his father. But Javed sees his peers living a modern life and he observes and chronicles that in the form of journals he has kept for 7 years. He writes songs for Matt’s band but they are political, observing the injustices of Margaret Thatcher’s government and the bigotry of the New Fascist movement. Matt wants love songs, but Javed cannot write them honestly.

When Javed is handed two Springsteen tapes (Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A.) by a Sikh friend he takes them but doesn’t listen to them right away. Later that night, alone in his room Javed begins listening and it awakens something inside of him. It is revelatory. He wonders where this voice has been all his life. Director Gurinder Chadha surrounds Javed with the lyrics from Springsteen’s songs. It is a great visual representation of the moment when you discover a band and fall into the rabbit hole of their music.

That begins a journey of discovery for Javed. Discovery of Springsteen, but also a discovery of what he really wants out of life. He doesn’t want to follow his father’s rules or plans. He becomes the rebel he is hearing about in the music. The movie celebrates that in a couple of set pieces where Javed sings and dances with his friends through the streets of Luton. That theme and style fills about half the movie.

Then,Chadha abandons that in favor a more traditional telling of a family and political drama. Javed rebels and it costs him. Violence erupts when a wedding celebration runs into a march by the British Ne-Nazis. That costs him too when he misses the confrontation that leaves his father bloody because he is off buying tickets to a Springsteen concert.

That shift in tone of the movie feels real and necessary, but it also means the film is inconsistent. The first half feels a little corny and that makes the seriousness of the latter half a bit jarring. There is once sequence where Javed wins a writing contest and flies to Monmouth College in New Jersey for a conference. That is very close to Springsteen’s home town, so he visits a bunch of locations that are iconic in Springsteen lore. It is weird and fells like fan service that is dropped into the movie. Didn’t work at all.

The characters are all thoughtful and well drawn. Javed’s internal conflict is obvious even if it is a bit of a movie trope about rebelliousness. His father isn’t simply an authoritarian figure. He feels like he’s failing his family when he loses his factory job and cannot pay for Javed’s sister’s wedding. Matt is a caricature of ‘80’s Brit-pop, complete with the hair and clothes (think Flock of Seagulls), but he is hurt when his tastes are questioned. Javed’s younger sister seems like the good daughter, but secrets away with friends to cut school and go to a “daytimer” (a party where they literally let down their hair). That is what saves this movie from being ridiculous. You care about the characters, what they want and how they are going to get it.

I am a huge Springsteen fan. I have seen him in concert 10 times, yet that is nothing compared to some of his rabid fans. I would show up for any movie that features his music. The fact that this is based on the real life of Safraz Manzoor made it all the more interesting to me. While it mostly works, there are stylistic choices that take you out of the story. This could have been much better. Bruce sings in The River, “is a dream alive that don’t come true, or is it something worse”. This is a dream that came true, yet it doesn’t feel fully alive. And that is something worse.

YESTERDAY

yesterday

yesterday

By Alan Yudman

YESTERDAY is the definition of suspension of disbelief. The story is about a struggling musician living in Suffolk, England. He’s about ready to give up when he is hit by a bus while riding his bicycle home from a gig one night. When he wakes up, he slowly realizes he’s the only person in the world who has ever heard of The Beatles. He decides to capitalize on this by performing the Lennon/McCartney songs as his own. And when he does, he becomes a wildly successful, overnight sensation.

So, there are two things going on here. A romantic comedy where the struggling Jack (Himesh Patel) and his manager/friend Ellie (Lily James) can’t seem to figure out they are in love… or at least can’t close the deal. The other is how Jack is basically stealing the iconic Beatles songs to make a career for himself. At first, he’s dumbstruck no one knows the songs. Eventually he feels guilty for doing it. I think his motivation is artistic on some level, but that’s not clear in Richard Curtis’ muddled story.

Other things have disappeared with the Beatles. Coca Cola and cigarettes are two examples. But some things still exist that maybe shouldn’t in a world without the Beatles. For example, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran (who is in the movie as himself in a completely forgettable performance). But Curtis has erased Oasis, yet Ellie first falls for Jack when he plays “Wonderwall” when he’s a kid. Huh? How does that work? Like I said, suspension of disbelief.

Both Patel and James are very likeable. Patel does excellent covers of all the songs. He and James are a believable couple, something important in a romantic comedy. Kate McKinnon appears as an agent who signs Jack. I don’t know what movie she was in, but it wasn’t this one. Her performance completely blows everyone off screen when she shows up, and not in a good way. She’s loud, brash. slimy and annoying. I get that’s the agent stereotype, but it’s too over the top. ROCKETMAN did a similar thing in a much subtler and effective way.

YESTERDAY is a nice movie. Nice. Not wonderful. Not amazing. It’s enjoyable and it will renew your love for The Beatles, but it may frustrate you as much as makes you tap your toes to the songs.

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

once upon a time in hollywood

by Alan Yudman

If there are two things Quentin Tarantino loves, it’s movies and Hollywood. He wraps his arms around both and gives them a loving squeeze in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Tarantino’s attention to detail is a thing to behold. Living in Los Angeles, I know many of the locations he features in the film. From Musso & Frank’s Grill to the Spahn Ranch, to simple things like driving down Hollywood Boulevard or through the San Fernando Valley, Tarantino gets the look just right. Even if it isn’t 100% percent period accurate, it FEELS that way. That is very important in this movie. For someone who loves seeing old Hollywood depicted in film, this was full of delightful Easter eggs.

You may have heard this is about the Manson Family and to some extent it is. But it is more than that. It uses that plus the fictional story of Rick Dalton and his stuntman buddy Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) to show us the end of an era. The old studio system is gone. The innocence has been stripped away.

Dalton is a former TV star who made his name in the Western, BOUNTY LAW, who now can only find work as the heavy. He sees headlights of reality coming at him and it is freaking him out. Booth can’t get work as a stuntman because he’s either pissed off everyone, or people are afraid of the rumors that he killed his wife (a plot point that is sort of explained, but not in any satisfying fashion). Booth is now Dalton’s “man Friday” running errands, fixing things and driving him around town in Dalton’s yellow Cadillac Coupe Deville. Dalton is panicked by his situation, drowning himself in booze and anxiety. He meets an agent played by Al Pacino who advises him to go to Italy to make movies. Dalton feels that is giving up. Before giving in to that advice, he takes a guest starring role on the TV pilot for the western LANCER, as yet another bad guy.

Meantime lurking on the fringes of all this is the Manson Family. Dalton lives on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. His neighbors are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Booth crosses paths with a Manson follower and goes out to Spahn ranch where he meets Tex Watson, Squeaky Fromme, Gypsy Share and others. Manson even shows up at the Tate/Polanski house looking for his old acquaintance, music producer Terry Melcher. Tate (Margot Robbie) almost literally flits through the film, an apparent angelic figure who has one incredibly vulnerable scene where she goes to watch herself in the Dean Martin movie, THE WRECKING CREW.

All these different plot threads could have wound up being a mess, but Tarantino expertly weaves them together into a completely enthralling story. The acting is sublime. DiCaprio is fantastic, better than his Oscar winning performance in THE REVENANT. Some say only a great singer can intentionally sing badly. Apply that here. When he Rick Dalton is acting in various TV shows, he’s not terrible, merely average. That takes real ability. Julia Butters plays a young girl who is in the LANCER pilot. She has one extended scene with DiCaprio that is truly special. Pitt is at his shaggy best. Robbie is wonderful even in the limited time she is on screen.

Tarantino pays as much loving attention to the soundtrack as he does to the rest of the film. The music adds to the story. And the drop-ins of actual radio DJ’s from the 1960’s just adds to the mood. If you are going to purchase a sountrack album, buy this one. Get in your car, turn it on and drive down the highway. It has the feel of listening to the radio in 1969.

This is one of Tarantino’s most heartfelt films. It feels like a movie that could have been made in 1969. It mostly doesn’t rely on his usual blend of uber violence and weirdness. The Dalton and Manson plots come together in an over the top, bloody ending that was somehow satisfying. Can’t say more because it would be a huge spoiler. Some may see ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD as Tarantino’s revenge fantasy against Manson and a commentary on the end of an era. That is not a far-flung assessment. But it is also among his best work and the Academy will probably notice that come Oscar time.