Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Moment of Shit, by Larry Buttrose


I remember seeing the first Star Wars film soon after its release. It was a daytime screening, and the mid city cinema was packed. I loved the science fiction of Wells and Olaf Stapledon, Asimov and Phillip K. Dick, and was interested to see what the fuss was about with this new scifi movie. But as I sat in the dark the thought soon dawned, hang on, this is… matinee Flash Gordon. It seemed childish and formulaic - the brash and handsome hero, the callow unready young man and the wise elder, the slick-tongued princess in white, and the arch villain in not just a black hat, but full black armour and a full-face black helmet too, with the doom voice of a stern uncle. The big battle eventually came to its predictable climax, and the coda with the Roman-style Triumph seemed absurd icing on a silly confection. I expected everyone in the cinema to yawn and stretch and wander out… but to my surprise, they applauded. And I thought, “Oh, shit.”


To me, the release of Star Wars – later renamed A New Hope in the eternally expanding universe of Star Wars chapters – represents the defining point when mainstream cinema began to decline. (My remarks here are confined to the mainstream, as of course all kinds of wonderful and exotic species flourish in the indy shadows.) Up until the release of Star Wars in 1977, mainstream and near-mainstream and “foreign” cinema of the late 60s and early-mid 70s had been full of interesting work, from Day For Night and The Last Metro, to Fellini Satyricon and Roma, Pasolini’s Decameron, The Go-Between, If, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Cool Hand Luke, The Three Days of the Condor and Dog Day Afternoon, to 2001, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, to Network and Apocalypse Now, and the beautifully-crafted light fare, The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There was no such thing as a movie “franchise”; films didn’t come in numbered multiples and boxed sets with collectable figurines. (Yes there had already been The Godfather 2, and Jaws (1975) would go on to spawn a brood, but both of these were authentic movies, first and foremost.)   


I didn’t know it then, but Star Wars heralded a new brand of cinema, a mass marketed, franchised product that was a rocket engine of commerce. Of course film had always been about making money – money is the pumping blood of film – but artists had found a way to balance their art with the financial demands of studios and producers. 


Another thing changed around that time – film writing. Theory and “structural screenwriting” had already made its presence felt, and story was already being broken down into acts and beats, and producers already spoke knowingly of “character arcs”. Those had always been there of course… you can break down almost any film or indeed any story into three acts… but now screenwriters were starting to write with these actively in mind, instead of letting the story tell itself, and in the end naturally resolve into them. Books and courses on screenwriting were proliferating, and while there is a part to any art form that can be taught, just as there is part that can’t, the view seemed to grow, almost a kind of relief it felt in some quarters, that screenwriting didn’t require an artist. It was architectural, it was scientific. It could all be planned and plotted out on charts and such, end in the car chase and the kiss, and the job was done. 


This seemed to reach a new level with the rebirth of animation, firstly through The Little Mermaid and then Toy Story (which to me are good films), to a plethora of animations from the big studios that now lay siege to the cineplexes every summer, and soon all year round. Kids entertainment has become the Colorado Lode of the studios, and while some of the better ones do deviate, most stick to an almost DNA-like patterning of story. And sometimes it feels the film is more a means to the merch.


But far worse was to come.


The seemingly endless rise of the Christopher Vogler-Joseph Campbell storytelling paradigm from the 80s-90s is another reason so much contemporary cinema is so bad, dull and infantile. The so-called "hero's journey" – exemplified par excellence in Star Wars but now evidenced in so much cineplex fare - means every film has a "hero" or "heroine", or someone funkily “outsiderish” but "relatable" and "likeable", and their "journey" (ugh) to their “goal” is the film. Any deviation from this model is heresy, or indy fringe. Yes, most films are about people interesting in one way or another, but must films really all yield up our human complexity and inner life to the three act "journey" (ugh) of goals, objectives and ends? Most of us in real life barely muddle through our beginnings and middles, much less seek some "goal" end. And when something definable and goal-like appears on our horizon, often we barely recognise it at first, and our path towards it is more often likely to be a meander of potholed accident. 


Mainstream cinema is now so goal-orientated in its plotting and paint-by-numbers in its characterisation that it might as well have been created by those who ultimately sell it, the marketeers. And with the architectural-scientific model, we now dwell in a world not only inhabited by legions of Star Wars pictures and the like, but even greater horrors, the Marvel and DC “franchises”. These could readily be created by AI, and who knows, the worst nightmares of Orwell and Roald Dahl with machine manufacture of story and song could well come true… indeed, it often feels they already have. 


It’s a truism to say that in the last decade or two, television has used the long form to great discursive use and explore the real and telling crannies of our human experience, and create compelling adult drama, while mainstream cinema plangently clangs on with the major chords to the point we can see the beat points of the screenplay as the actors are saying (usually yelling) their lines. But why must film, the great art form of the last century, now be confined to nonsense created for adolescent boys of all ages, and the small screen do the good stuff? In the process we lose sitting in a cinema with strangers, and the shared experience of finding what we have in common (for instance, the jokes we might laugh at, or things we are moved by), and what we don’t – such as my surprise at the end of Star Wars. 


Having two children more than ten years apart, I ended up seeing pretty well all the Star Wars chapters at least once, and at least one spin-off. My initial impression never changed – except that the second lot, the prequels, were particularly dreadful, despite a creepy Chancellor with Hitlerian overtones, and some Shakespearean-attempted dilemma making.  


From my POV, mainstream film can only be saved if we remember screenwriting is an art, and writers write the stories they want to tell for a mass audience, as truthfully and devotedly and well as they can. The textbooks may be useful when a draft is down and has its inevitable problems to solve… but from the outset screenwriters need to think of themselves as more like novelists and playwrights – only writing in a different medium – and let the art, not the science, not the books, not the architecture, not the theory – create the story. It’s time writers for the screen forgot everything they’ve been taught, and remembered they’re writers, and their job is simply to write.

Thursday, April 1, 2021


 I realise it is profoundly foolhardy to wade into this, it being among the oldest contested territory known to humanity. But what are long weekends for if not stupidity?

** Interest declared. Our family recently took delivery of a nice pedigreed puppy. The kind that everyone's first question on seeing it is "oooh, so cute, what breed is it?" As a lifelong cat lover, this has led to some challenging introspection, leavened only by re-reading that grand farce "A Confederacy of Dunces". 

** These are my opinions only. No other person or organisation can be blamed for them. Just me.**


The Nice Part

Favourite Authors

CAT: Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Joan Didion.

DOG: Ayn Rand, Dale Carnegie, Jack London

Favourite Music

CAT: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Philip Glass, Pink Floyd

DOG: AC/DC, Kenny Loggins, The Wiggles

Favourite Screen

CAT: The Life of Pi, Born Free, Cat Ballou, Cats! (LOL) 

DOG: Red Dog, Bluey, 101 Dalmatians, A Dog's Journey, Reservoir Dogs


CAT:  Noble, independent, may be misinterpreted as aloof

DOG: Loyal, may be misinterpreted at servile


CAT:  Cool

DOG: Waggy Daggy


CAT: Elegant

DOG: Cute


CAT:  Food

DOG:  Anything 


CAT: Champagne

DOG: Fourex


CAT: Purr, purr, purr, the occasional yowl, screeches during mating

DOG: Yap, yap, bark, bark, bark, bark, bark, bark, bark.


CAT:   Discreetly buried

DOG:  Anywhere and left


CAT: Pungent

DOG: Pungent

** Toss-up which is worse

Affection with humans

CAT:  Reciprocal

DOG:  Salival

The Not So Nice Part

Threat to Australian Native Wildlife

CAT: Extreme. Cats should only ideally be allowed in inner and middle suburbs of major cities only and banned from city fringes unless owners make a written legally binding undertaking to keep them indoors at night. All cat owners should be licensed and have to respond annually to the wherabouts of their cat. Dumping of cats on city perimeters should be a serious offence. There should be a concerted national campaign to exterminate feral cats (as well as goats, rabbits and other pests).

DOG: Serious. Dogs are known to frighten, chase and attack native wildlife but are not considered to constitute the risk level of cats. Feral dogs are thought to be very few in number. There should be background checks on anyone who wishes to own an attack dog or mastiff and a licensing system requiring annual updates. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

FISK reviewed by Larry Buttrose

I was working at Comics In The Park at the Harold Park when Kitty Flanagan started out in comedy in the early 1990s. She has worked at her craft in the decades since, and fine-tuned it to the point where she is now is a comedy powerhouse, brilliantly wry and superb with irony. 

But (and it does pain me to write the awful "But" here) if you're going to do a sitcom, I think she's just proved you need more of a detailed situation than "slightly offbeat woman goes to work for a suburban solicitor doing probate". 

For example (I know comparisons are odious, but here goes...) Frayed has a woman with two spoilt kids forced to leave the high life in London after her husband dies in a compromising position and seems to leave her nothing but debts, and she struggles to survive back in the snakepit of her old home town in regional Aust. A lot at stake instantly - money, truth and justice, the kids' futures, her own - and her distress and that of her kids was manifest from the first frame and made for brilliant scenes and great comedy (and a degree of pathos too). 

And yes, re sitcoms, there were two US comedies with no more of a premise than "friends negotiating love and life in New York in the 1990s", but they found great angles in every ep (well, Seinfeld did, and often very boldly, striking out in a direction we didn't think possible and going with it all the way). 

The problems with last night's first ep of Fisk were there from the start. The exposition was handled poorly, and in lumps. Better for her to be a mystery creature who somehow wheedles her way back into working for a law firm after something went wrong in her life, and we learn more along the way, through drama. At present we're simply told she's returning to Melb after a divorce and she's a Supreme Court judge's daughter... there's no mystery for someone presented as an oddball. We know from the outset she's a (formerly) presumably privileged person who's in a jam in life. So? 

The script overall was just not interesting and engaging enough, which is weird for Kitty, who always is. The thing about the vasectomy and sausage rolls didn't even make sense. Having a vasectomy is not nor even akin to having your dick cut in two. It's an internal procedure. How would this stop him making art with his dick? It wouldn't. No sense. (If indeed that was the problem... I wasn't even sure if it was that, or that he had a lot of kids with different mothers, propagating being an issue that a vasectomy would at least address if not by excision, but the whole deal seemed to be about his shall we say rather stretched art form). There were also just simply very few laughs. 

I read she and her sister wrote it... my feeling watching was she would have been better advised having the first series written by seasoned writers (the Utopia team would be ideal for her) and join in later, once the characters have settled in and she's more used to the form. Writing for the screen beyond standup or sketch is another world after all. The reviews I've seen so far have been kind, which is fine, but it's really not great. Julia Zemiro looks positively uncomfortable, like she's trying to get away from a bad dinner party or has just trodden on a rake. The two lead blokes are fine but for me the only real saving graces in the opening ep were Alison Whyte and Glenn Robbins. Robbins was particularly good (well, he always is), even if the character he had to play he could have sketched with his knob.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Mank and the Trial of the Chicago 7


Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are both being touted as leading contenders for the coming awards season... I enjoyed both films immensely, but while the Chicago 7 seems to have enjoyed almost universal approval, quite a lot of people seem to have thought Mank wank. 

The interesting thing for me was they were both about the American Left, which has existed in name only since it was crushed by McCarthy (and rising postwar prosperity) nearly seven decades ago. The Democrats now are accused of "Socialism!!" for proposing universal health care, action on black rights, fairer pay and conditions, and laws to mitigate the worst of climate change and other measures that are part of the landscape out in the civilised world. It is a centrist party, and the Republicans are Right and Extreme Right. 

Now here are two big, glossy, mainstream feature films based on US leftist movements. Mank proposes Kane as bitter revenge by HM on Randolph Hearst (and belittling Marion Davies in the process) for using his media power to defeat a bid for office by socialist Upton Sinclair... a bid that was one of the last times the US Left still actually existed as a force... Chicago 7 meanwhile looks at the brief uprising of the counterculture aligned with student activists coalescing around opposition to the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War). 

That brief uprising was crushed not so much by this trial and other oppressive acts and murders (Malcolm X, MLK RFK et al), as by the inexorable rise of a new brand of more aggressive and rapacious capitalism, Reaganomics, that's been with us the past forty years. I really enjoyed the intellect, drama and internal conflict of both films... but as I say, my straw poll numbers on social media seem to favour The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Sunday, April 19, 2020


 Julian Assange in 2010 and 2019


The revelation Julian Assange has a partner and they have two young children conceived during his time in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London raised the world’s eyebrows on Easter Sunday. The Assange saga was already akin to a spicy casserole, but this latest twist was like tossing in a handful of chopped chillie. 

South African-born lawyer Stella Morris says she joined Assange’s legal team and met him in 2011, and they began a relationship four years later. She says she posted the online Easter video revealing the relationship because UK authorities were about to reveal it anyway. She describes Julian Assange as generous, tender and loving, nothing like the figure we've seen routinely demonised by politicians and elements of the media for years. The closeness of their bond is apparent in the video, and as their young sons play in the room she tearfully recounts how she feels he’s been subjected to ten years of measures to break him down and try to destroy his life. She says she also posted the video because she’s worried that in his poor state of health he could contract COVID-19 in Belmarsh Prison in London, where he’s being held during US extradition proceedings, and wants him temporarily released on humanitarian grounds.

The contentious cat, in the Embassy window

Before Belmarsh his address was the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He spent seven years in refuge there, but that ended a year ago with his protection being lifted and Assange being hauled out by British police. Not long before the embassy let the police in, an Ecuadorian minister claimed Assange was smearing human excrement on the walls. The media, well, lapped it up. London’s Daily Mail published pictures of a few dirty items in a kitchen sink and a tiny bathroom with, yes, the toilet seat up, in a story headed “Assange inside his fetid lair: Revealed, the full squalid horror that drove embassy staff to finally kick him out.” Presumably the Ecuadorian pronouncement was intended to justify the action to come, and the police arrived for him soon after.

Stella Morris says the world has failed Julian Assange. Over the years Australian politicians appear to have had little inclination to do much to help him, although the rather odd couple of Andrew Wilkie and George Christiansen did visit him in Belmarsh earlier this year, raised serious concerns about his health and urged the UK to block the US request to extradite him to face espionage charges in an American court. But other Australian politicians have seemingly done little. When she was prime minister, Julia Gillard called him a lawbreaker, but couldn’t say whose and which laws. He certainly hasn’t been charged with any breaches of Australian laws, which one would have thought the primary concern of our politicians. Some in the Australian media have branded him a braggart and a narcissist. Some have said he isn’t a “real journalist”. But his failure to serve a cadetship with the Woop-Woop Bugle does seem beside the point. Stella Morris called him a whistle-blower – and that he certainly is. He’s also certainly a citizen-journalist, an activist and a publisher. 

Whatever you call him, he’s long blown the whistle on powerful forces in our world. That he sometimes published unredacted material that may have posed threats to vulnerable individuals is a criticism that can legitimately be levelled at him. But Assange and his team at Wikileaks, as well as the self-exiled Edward Snowden, can be seen in their own way as carrying on the work of the likes 
of Daniel Ellsberg and Woodward & Bernstein into the 21st Century – holding authority to account by exposing dirty linen that otherwise would have remained stashed under “state secrets”. Yes, fine journalists from the world’s media did band together for the Panama Papers – but despite the scandalous nature of the commercial dealings they exposed, in the end that ebbed and subsided quickly. Releasing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents that show how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have really been conducted is another matter entirely. 

We must remember the Vietnam of Michael Herr’s Dispatches was the last war in which the press had some freedom of movement to witness and report. Journalists could hop board military helicopters and report on what they saw in battle. Now coverage is tightly controlled, the reality of war hidden from public view, which made these troves all the more important. Perhaps the most famous item, a video titled “Collateral Murder”, showed at least 18 unarmed people including two journalists being gunned down by an Apache helicopter in Iraq in 2007. But by bringing material like this to light, Julian Assange was exposed to the full wrath of those he threatened. 

He first ran afoul of the law over sexual misconduct allegations by two women in Sweden. This part of the story is now so muddied and complicated that possibly many people can’t remember much about it. The claims put forward by Swedish prosecutors a decade ago seem largely - but not exclusively - to pertain to his not using a condom during intercourse. What actually happened in those encounters we may never know. He’s never faced a court on the allegations and in all likelihood won’t. Assange has always denied any criminal wrongdoing. One of his lawyers later suggested the women were “honey pots”, for what we’re told is known in the spook trade as “honey traps”. But one thing is certain – those sexual encounters marked the beginning of the end of Julian Assange’s liberty, health, youth, and ability to continue doing the investigative work he had been. 

After the complaints were lodged he was questioned by Swedish police, after which he returned to the UK, apparently unhindered. But then Sweden issued an international warrant, and he gave himself up to British police for questioning, and was granted bail. Sweden applied for and in May 2012 was granted his extradition. At that point Assange fled into refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, saying he feared the US would try to extradite him from Sweden to face espionage charges over the troves of leaked documents. This was lambasted as outlandishly conspiracist by much of the world’s media - but it later turned out they were all wrong, and he was right.

The media attacks continued nonetheless, seemingly intensifying as his years in the embassy wore on. When he was forcibly removed in April last year, the liberal US magazine The Atlantic published an excoriating piece by Michael Weiss headlined “Julian Assange Got What He Deserved”. The sub-heading accused him of being a “megalomaniac” and of “promiscuity with the facts” (whatever that means, but yes we do get the implication). 

In it Weiss opened not with prim facts of his own regarding Assange’s work, but a slew of ad hominem slurs, even contriving an image link between the activist and a hanged dictator.

 “In the end, the man who reportedly smeared feces on the walls of his lodgings, mistreated his kitten, and variously blamed the ills of the world on feminists and bespectacled Jewish writers was pulled from the Ecuadorian embassy looking every inch like a powdered-sugar Saddam Hussein plucked straight from his spider hole.”

I followed the links in Weiss's story and found the kitten reference amounted to little more than a claim he needed to take better care of his cat (although it does appear rather untormented in photographs from the embassy, and if it is indeed the same cat in the video with Stella Morris it looks anything but a mistreated animal); that an LA Times review of a film about Assange quotes him calling the Swedish allegations a “radical feminist conspiracy”, but no mention of blaming the ills of the world on feminists; and that the tweet regarding Jewish writers was a deleted one from a Wikileaks source and its author is not verified. Assange has emphatically denied any allegation of anti-semitism.

But if Weiss’s intention was to smear his subject with ordure, he couldn’t have got off to a more pungent start, even if in a later paragraph he does acknowledge a former Ecuadorian minister denied the excrement claim, and said it might just have been an eviction pretext. Weiss goes on to mention the tentacles of Russia and the 2016 Clinton email disclosure and whether Assange was a possibly unwitting pawn in a geopolitical play. That may or may not be the case. Some people might think those emails got Donald Trump over the line. Given what seems to have been in them – in the end not much – and that the sharpest point of attack was Hillary Clinton using a private server for official emails, it’s hard to gauge if voters in Ohio and Indiana or elsewhere voted for Trump because of them, or because of Cambridge Analytica’s laser-sights targeting of swayable voters, or that they wanted a “disruptor” billionaire TV star for a president, or some other reason such as their jobs disappearing. 

Weiss goes on to label Assange “the Bakunin of bullshit”. The Russian anarchist may just have enjoyed that, but even if it were the case, is that enough to support Assange being shackled and dragged to the US to face those (once ridiculed) spying charges, and potentially spend the rest of his life in an American jail for being a whistle-blower and doing what journalists are meant to do - report the truth? Did members of the US liberal media say Daniel Ellsberg “got what he deserved” when he was charged with espionage and theft over the Pentagon Papers? Or did they think perhaps he was a nice person who bathed regularly and minded his pets, to be supported rather than verbally eviscerated? Ellsberg was not a career journalist either – he was a former Defense Department official and worked for the Rand Corporation. And like Assange he blew the whistle on secrets about how the US was conducting a war, in his case Vietnam.

Reading Weiss’s year-old article now is an unsettling reminder of how much vitriol Assange has faced, from all sides. He’s been called a narcissist by judges and journalists, and a “seedy ego-maniac” by the Telegraph in London. 

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly has consistently argued for his right to a fair trial, and to avoid extradition to the US as she fears he won’t get a fair trial there. But she’s also written that nearly everyone she knows – including people one might suppose would support him – is “bored” with him (she’s not among them). If that is how seeming progressives in Australia see him, it strikes me as exceptionally odd and callous. And is he somehow meant to be entertaining? A few weeks ago she wrote about the start of the extradition proceedings in the UK, and how much is already stacked against him. And as she noted: “Everyone has a view on Assange. But, frankly, our views should be irrelevant. We, the public, are not in the know. We’re easily manipulated. We can be wrong.”

For what it’s worth I’m going to have a crack at it anyway, even if unlike Elizabeth Farrelly I haven’t met him. My take is he’s a social justice activist who got in far, far over his depth, who learned the tools of the e-trade early on and saw their power and potential to crack vaults and divulge secrets he believed people have a right to know but their governments don’t want told. Has he always behaved perfectly? Well, have his critics? Has anyone? Are his personal habits scrupulously hygienic? Who can say? But one can only imagine what seven years hiding out in a cubby hole might do to your head and habits. But has he revealed important information that’s enhanced our understanding of power and realpolitik in the 21st century? Definitely. Has he pursued that goal, even if to his personal loss? He has. Has he become famous, notorious even, in the process? Definitely. Did he set out with the goal of gaining personal attention and fame, as one might expect from a “narcissist” and “megalomanic”? My own sense is no. He’s clearly highly intelligent and would have realised what and who he was taking on was a risk to all at Wikileaks, but as its chief to him in particular. But he went on with it. For personal fame? No - that would seem collateral damage.

A few more questions then. 

Does Michael Weiss, or the Daily Mail, or anyone else now believe Julian Assange was smearing excrement around and not bathing while he was involved in an ongoing intimate relationship? Smearing shit round your pad for time with a lover? Really? OK, but did he neglect cleaning his bathroom? Well, possibly. Line up ye guilty millions.

Will the media say they were wrong to pour scorn on him when he said the US wanted to extradite him, all those years ago? Where are the retractions and apologies?

Why did the Ecuadorians really want to get rid of him? Stella Morris says he was being spied on, and this has been reported by others in his legal team. Does this mean officials, and possibly those of other governments, may have been able to monitor intimate acts? And might it have just been that Assange began coping better having love in his life, and that a decision was made somewhere to tighten the screws even harder? That’s not a conspiracy theory - just a question.

His fate now largely rests with the British judiciary. If it agrees to his extradition, it would seem his US trial (and his future and that of his new family) will turn on whether it can be proved he encouraged and/or aided Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning to access the Iraqi trove. Daniel Ellsberg himself was charged with theft as well as espionage, but his case didn’t proceed because of “gross governmental misconduct” – viz, dirty tricks by Nixon’s men. 

Ellsberg became a hero for liberals: Assange gets the opposite treatment, vilified for his alleged “character flaws”. But both essentially did the same thing, draw back the veil on how the US conducted itself in the world’s last three major conflicts - Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. That is the fact, and the work, of both men. For the record, Ellsberg has called the charges against Assange the most significant attack on press freedom since the Pentagon Papers and has hailed Manning as an “American hero”.

Last year the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer said Julian Assange has been psychologically tortured. He said his mental and physical state have shown an alarming deterioration, and that Britain, Sweden and the United States were responsible. He also said he should not be extradited to the US. 

Stella Morris says her partner is in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in Belmarsh Prison. She fears his life might be coming to an end. She says the world has failed him. She’s right. And as an Australian I feel we have failed him in particular, as one of us.

Larry Buttrose, 20 April 2020.
The views expressed here are my own only.

Monday, July 22, 2019

YESTERDAY reviewed by Larry Buttrose


Written by Richard Curtis 
Directed by Danny Boyle

reviewed by Larry Buttrose
image: badgreeb pictures

Possibly a barometer for how the world is feeling is the quota of feelgood movies being released – which means the world must be feeling rather crap now. A maestro of feelgood is British writer Richard Curtis, with movie credits including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill andLove Actually.Curtis does feelgood very well - and in the words of the great and tragically mortal Ian Dury, he’s doing very well. 

Musicalfeelgood films are the current thing: Bohemian RhapsodyRocketman, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis project, the forthcoming Blinded By The Light- about how Bruce Springsteen saves a nonconforming young South Asian Brit - and today there’s Yesterday, written by Curtis, about how the Beatles save a nonconforming young South Asian Brit.

The recipe for Yesterdayis house of Curtis to its sunny side of the valley, spiritually-nourishing, ethically-sourced roots. In this case, begin with a big dollop of unrequited love, simmer for a couple of hours with conflicted ambition, caramelise with comedy and garnish with sentiment. In this case, add the zest of some of the finest pop songs ever written (as well as a bunch by Ed Sheeran) and serve with a wink. And did I say concept is turned up high in this one? It’s sci-fi sky-high, so that from the start you might wonder if it isn’t perhaps overcooked and sticking to the bottom. 

Think on this – or as Richard Curtis might have put it, Imagine! (Okay, yes that was Lennon post-Beatles…). Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, Eastenders) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a greyscale English seaside town. Lily James (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!) is Ellie, longtime friend, fulltime school teacher, his more than fulltime manager and true believer. She’s loyal, fun, smart. She’s also in love with him (self-absorbed Jack doesn’t even notice), and being played by a movie starlet, she’s gorgeous. He somehow doesn’t notice that either. She’s dressed down for the part, but as with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, his being blind to her radiance is an arduous suspension of disbelief on our part. 

Young Jack’s career is going nowhere and he’s decided to chuck it when the high concept stuff literally strikes. Cycling home one night he’s hit by a bus just as the entire world gets blacked out for a few seconds. When the lights blink back on and Jack is extracted from the tarmac with black stumps for a couple of teeth, via some cosmic glitch no-one else it seems can remember the Beatles, Oasis, Harry Potter, Coca-Cola or cigarettes. In other words, not all bad news. Neither Jack’s friends nor Professor Google know of the songs nor even the existence of the Beatles – and, taking high concept right through the roof, even Jack’s Beatles vinyl LPs have vanished from his record rack. It’s as if the Beatles never were. Imagine! (Sorry.)

It doesn’t take long for a certain look to cross Jack’s ever-harried features, and he frantically plasters the titles of as many Beatles’ songs as he can remember on post-it notes on his bedroom wall, and racks his brain for the lyrics, especially to Eleanor Rigby(which even though he finally remembers it, he never actually sings). But he does know Yesterday and Let It Be straight off the bat, and his musical resurrection to friends and family - the latter an over-cheesy scene - proves the beginning of the world’s rebooted love affair with the songs of the Beatles… only now they’re known as the songs of Jack Malik.

Slowly at first, then with the inevitable, wrecking ball momentum of an elimination reality TV show, Jack’s voice is heard, or more precisely, his (Beatle) songs are. Jack is a strong enough performer, but the songs are stellar to any ear that can hear. Enter Ed Sheeran, portraying a nerdy pop star named Ed Sheeran, with a nice slice of generosity. Sheeran asks Jack to open for him in Moscow, but with her teaching job, manager Ellie can’t accompany him. So he goes with his good-hearted n’er do well roadie mate Rocky (Joel Fry), who’s a bit like the love-child of Roy and Moss from the IT Crowd. With the aid of a rollicking Back In The USSRto a heaving mob of pinkly hyperventilating young Russians, Jack’s momentum approaches critical mass: he’s approached by Sheeran’s shudderingly awful manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) and accepts the hemlock chalice of fame with its inevitable ticket to LA. Ellie takes her redundancy with profoundly good grace, and they part continents. 

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting,Slumdog Millionaire) has kept a steady enough hand on the tiller for the first act and a half, but Debra is an over the top pastiche of a yoga posing, preening, nasty corporate ogre, and her entry is a real downtick. Debra thinks it’s clever to say the ghastly things we know rock managers think: real ones keep that stuff to themselves. While the other roles are played for truth, this is written and played for knowing guffaws: it jars. 

Jack finds himself torn between the false life he’s careering into, and Ellie, who inevitably begins to drift away just as he realises what she means to him. The launch of his album - already being hailed as the greatest ever – takes place on the rooftop (big nod to the Beatles’ 1969 gig) of a pub near his old home in England. Ellie’s there with her new beau, the stork-like producer Gavin who did Jack’s first Sun Session-style recordings, and when Jack performs Help!he delivers it with a wallop, if anything an even more desperate crie de coeurthan the original. Disconsolate backstage afterwards, he agrees to see two people he suspects know the truth about him…one of whom has come armed with a toy yellow submarine. But he’s ready literally to face the music…

There’s a nice twist here, but unfortunately it’s also the point where the film really begins to unravel. Provided with an address, Jack travels to an isolated seaside home. There he meets someone who must not be named here, who tells us virtually nothing but gives Jack the sage advice we’ve been internally screaming for the entire movie – tell the girl you love her you twit, before she’s gone forever!

He plans to do so guesting at a Sheeran concert at Wembley, but first he confesses he’s a fraud, passing off the work of the Fab Four as his own. I won’t spoil the rest, but do warn it does involve possibly the Beatles’ most annoying-ever song, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da


Famed Hollywood script doctor Robert McKee has a simple maxim for screenwriters: Tell the truth. In script terms that means don’t try to paper over parts of your story that don’t add up or make sense just by saying “they’ll never notice it”. If that advice is ignored, after viewing a film like Yesterdaythe little things that might have nagged vaguely in the cinema become itches you must scratch. So when Jack Malik throws away his career – albeit for good, moral reasons – by naming to all of Wembley the four people who’d written “his” songs, it raises the question of is this a world in which those people never existed as the Beatles, or have they simply been forgotten as the pop phenomenon they were by nearly everyone alive? This is a decision that’s never properly made by the creative team, and it fuddles and undermines the narrative sandcastle.

I realise this may be a level of analysis some might say a film like this doesn’t require. It’s just a bit of fun, eh? But Yesterdayis about serious things: ambition, love, commitment, truth - and the answers and resolution are moral ones. The fudging of the central conceit refracts tellingly throughout the entire structure. 

The other problem with unanswered questions is you may start to think about other things, such as the choice of songs. There’s an FX nod to one of the Beatles’ greatest, A Day In The Life- but no song. The mysterious and beautiful Across The Universeis reduced to a post-it note, and what about the Pythonesque mad joy of I Am The Walrus? I was grateful at least for In My Life, but so much of the genius of the Beatles was their unique synergy, their velvety, intoxicating melodies and thrilling harmonies, as well as their courage in stripping a song down to something spare, stark and affecting. And then there’s their fellow genius, producer George Martin, rightly known as “the fifth Beatle”. 

The Beatles made great art as an organic whole. It wasn’t paint by numbers, packaging of components, and it was on the far side of the creative universe from the iPop of now. In trying to construct a worthy monument to them, Curtis and Boyle have stumbled over important story decisions – but they’ve shown too the genius of the Beatles can’t be deconstructed and reconstructed: their magic is there between the digits of the digital, it’s the unseen and ineffable, the air that swishes through this wildly cast narrative net.

And yet… I mostly enjoyed Yesterday- for its, yes, feelgood heart, its acting, direction, and wit. And its music – well, nearly of it. Life goes on, bra!…If only I could get that ear-worm out of my head, thanks a million Danny. 

©2019 Larry Buttrose

Monday, August 13, 2018

My apologies to all for my long absence in posting to this blog. I simply wasn't able to get access because of forgotten codes etc. Now it's good to be back, and I'll post more soon. - Larry