What's so funny about peace, love, understanding and making a really good rock movie that's not just another easy biography?
The former three are matters for higher authorities than me to consider. But the latter has been as elusive as David Bowie's onstage personas. Sure, you have good bios of great musicians -- Rocketman and Sir Elton, Walk the Line and the Man in Black, I'm Not There and Dylan's many disguises, Ray, to name four alone from the aughts (and don't get me started on Bohemian Rhapsody, which doesn't sniff that same pantheon except for Rami Malek's impressive overbite).
These are good movies but they almost can't fail: They are covering the lives of very colorful characters, putting them one step ahead at the start.
And, admittedly, we do have some a host of older, pretty cool flicks about those in bands who want to be rock stars or breathe the air around them -- the ever- great School of Rock, Sing Street, Almost Famous, the Commitments, even Tom Hanks' underrated That Thing You Do!. There are even great movies with rock so embedded in the soundtrack as to have played a role itself in the movie -- Richard Linklater's films, especially Dazed and Confused, are the gold standard.
But what about films featuring a normal fan, someone who just loves the music and uses it to guide his or her life? Those that aren't either about rock bands or hagiographies of the stars are much harder to find. And you'd think that, with all of us just dying to play guitar like Jimi, possess the sleek moves of Bowie, sneer like Elvis or get the girls like Jagger, there'd be more cinema dealing with those of us without the talent level to ascend the stairway to heaven or have a ticket to ride -- sorry, I'll stop with the corny rock puns right now! Tape my mouth with a guitar string if I fail.
You'd say why would anyone care about a regular schlub who doesn't sit in the company of kings? Well, two recent movies, both staples on HBO at the moment, have tried that formula recently and failed miserably. You can say at least they tried, sort of like almost any film starring Elvis.
Both films -- Blinded by the Light and Yesterday -- have great roots. Who doesn't way to see a movie featuring the music of Bruce Springsteen or the Beatles? That should be a box-office draw in itself. If only the movies themselves could have been as unconventionally glam as a preening musician instead of by-the-numbers, didactic bores. Who wants to hear a "message movie" that could have been delivered by your granny to a group of fist-pumping music lovers.
Blinded by the Light had the most potential to be a good film. It takes place in the depressing, Thatcher-era England of the late 80s, when seemingly everyone was out of work and on the dole. The titular teenager is Pakistani, part of large immigrant class that is blamed for bad economic times (no ties to modern day, right?). There are faux Nazis marching in the streets and daily beatdowns of Paki's by those who want them out of "their" country. Truly, this is a great foundation for a good movie.
The teen, Javek (Viveik Kalra), is glum about his own prospects, unpopular in school and without a social life. But, man, can he write. His confidence gets a hit of adrenaline when his Sikh friend introduces him to the music of The Boss, whom he plays on his cassette endlessly. With the words to Springsteen songs such as "Thunder Road" and "I'm on Fire" burning up the movie screen, Javek is transformed into a confidant man who does it all -- finds a girlfriend, submits essays and poetry that win contests, considers going away from his gray hometown to an art school.
Of course, reality bites hard. His immigrant parents just don't understand and want Javek to stay home and support the family with a local job. He breaks up with his girlfriend as he grows more insufferably self-centered, he insults a close friend who prefers dance-y New Wave music to "Dancing in the Dark." He sleeps on a friend's sofa after fighting with his conservative father who just wants him to stay home and help the family.
At this point, the movie is interesting enough as a tale of too much hubris when revering the air that a rock star breathes. But then it quickly devolves into a sort-of parable of self-congratulatory condescension. The father eventually breaks out a Bruce tape and realizes that The Boss is rad and that his values of working-class heroes and factory towns speak to him, man. Javek apologies to his girlfriend for being such a dickweed, and she's ecstatic with him for expressing his emotions, man. He rides off to the art college of his dreams, after winning an essay contest that includes a trip to America for a summer conference.
And where is said conference. New Jersey, of course, home to Bruce. Oh man. Are you getting teary-eyed yet? I was more than ready to show my appreciation at such a pat, milquetoast ending that I wanted to take Springsteen's promised land he sings about and toss it into the nearest N.J. swamp.
Yesterday is a different animal. Another schlub, this time a struggling singer in England (home to these kind of movies, I suppose) gets bonked on the head and wakes to find out that no one has heard of The Beatles. It's quite a long and winding road to get to that stretch in the movie road, but you have to throw reason out the window in this film and just go with it.
Of course, the schlub musician becomes a star by playing the Lennon/McCartney catalog to millions of adoring fans, who somehow still find this music current and unbelievably sexy when played by a folksy nobody in the year 2019, when the film came out. And as in Blinded by the Light, the protagonist is another outsider, this time of Indian origin, named Jack Malik. He even travels to Abbey Road and Penny Lane for inspiration, breathing the Liverpudlian air and trading it in for a song.
Even stretching logic, the movie has a fatal flaw: it is dull. Once one gets behind the stares of those who can't believe Jack wrote this great stuff (including Ed Sheeran, playing himself as one of those who, baby, is amazed), there isn't much movie there. He plays to thousands, he then realizes how shallow and sterile his life is on the road, he tells all about where the music came from, he settles down with his sexy friend who of course becomes his lover, played by the singer Lily James. Ho-hum, just another stroll down the baleful Penny Lane.
We can all use a great rock movie that speaks to us today, as we sit at home. We need something to dream about, something to fantasize about, a place to venture into the sky with diamonds (yikes, another corny rock joke!). We need a nice uplift, a good story that doesn't bog down in Hollywood convention. I'll take it from anywhere at the moment.
I'd love to see 2020's version of School of Rock or Almost Famous or a This is Spinal Tap to wake us out of our stay-at-home malaise. But if we keep getting watered-down pints of warm beer, we can't drink the elixir that is the magic of music and be elevated eight miles high. Or at least out of our own houses.