Beatles Music in the Movies

Danny Boyle’s film Yesterday asks a provocative question – how would the world be different if the Beatles had never existed for anyone else around you? Would playing them these songs elicit the same emotional response these tunes have had for decades, or would they be considered merely a bunch of twee melodies suitable for background enjoyment? Thankfully we don’t have to live the nightmare scenario of a world without these songs from Macca, Johnny, George and Ringo, graced with music that’s been the world’s shared soundtrack since the early 1960s.

Yesterday has some strong cover versions of the Fab’s tunes, with the performance of these “lost” songs central to Richard Curtis’ screenplay. Many other films have used reinterpretations of Beatles tunes in various ways, providing through reinterpretation a different look at what these songs fundamentally represent, using these themes and variation to celebrate the classical canon of Western pop music while making the works unique.

All This And World War II

On a personal basis, the collection of covers on the soundtrack to this 1976 film was immensely influential, providing for the first time some deep (and often radical) reinterpretations of the Beatles’ catalogue. Few have actually seen the film the songs were collected for – Tony Palmer’s experimental doc (distributed by the major studio 20th Century fox!) was slammed critically and closed after a few weeks. Palmer’s magnum opus, the 17-part All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music, is a remarkable document of the generational gap between the pop music of the early twentieth century and the leading figures of 60s and 70s music, presaging the Punk revolution that was about to occur. ATAWW2, on the other hand, is a strange smattering of vintage newsreel footage, pitting shots of Hitler and Stalin against Humprey Bogart and Milton Berle, all while a wide range of Beatles songs were anachronistically played against the nostalgia. 

Decades on, the experimentation works much better, as both the War and the origins of these songs are decades hence. The soundtrack has always been celebrated, with several of the collected covers rivaling the originals. Elton John’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was a b-side at the height of Reggie’s fame, but in context here (and with an uncredited John Lennon on  lead guitar and backing vox) the song shines bright. The Brother’s Johnson provide an excellent, soulful rendition of “Hey Jude,” Leo Sayer does a surprisingly sympathetic take on “Let It Be”, and Tina Turner’s “Come Together” is appropriately slammin’. Keith Moon always had a panache for music hall, and his “When I’m Sixty Four”, backed by symphony orchestra, implausibly elevates the tune. Rod Stewart’s aggressive version of “Get Back” is delightfully epic, and Peter Gabriel’s haunting, askew version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” emphasized the songs progressive weirdness.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

If Palmer’s misfit film juxtaposed early-century imagery with a baby boomer soundtrack, Michael Schultz’s garish musical upped the ante even further. Taking the characters from the 1967 album (along with a bunch of stuff cobbled from “Abbey Road”) and crafting a high concept musical, audiences saw the likes of George Burns as Mr. Kite, Peter Frampton as Billy Shears, the Bee Gees as The Hendersons and Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields galavanting around the town of Heartland where the titular marching band is celebrated like musical saints, their instruments serving as magical, musical icons. 

Released in 1978 to mostly negative reviews, the film does include a mix of cheesy and extraordinary covers of Beatles tunes. The Bee Gees had three tracks on Palmer’s doc, and they take central stage again here, providing on-screen performances that built upon the their enormous musical success with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from the year before. The music was produced by George Martin, and while it cost a fortune to record with all the artists involved, it went on to achieved multi-platinum status with millions sold, while the critics excoriated it as superfluous. For those less cynical one can find a special treat in Steve Martin’s take on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, its sadistic storyline a prelude to his dental dementia in Little Shop of Horrors a decade later. Alice Cooper, Billy Preston (the ostensible “fifth Beatle”) and West End legend Paul Nicholas all appear, yet it’s Aerosmith’s take on “Come Together”, and especially Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”, that provided the highlights, a couple of covers that continue to be appreciated long after the film has been forgotten.

Across The Universe

Julie Taymor’s Golden Globe-nominated jukebox jam uses Beatles tunes throughout, situating the songs into a story of love between a Liverpudlian shipworker named Jude (Jim Sturgess) and a pretty American named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). From Sturgess’ plaintive version of “Girl” that opens the film, it’s obvious that the tunes have been reworked and reimagined with the same kind of abandon that Taymor famously provides for her theatrical and visual creations. Like any musical, you kind of have to jump aboard or else you’re going to find the whole thing appalling, but thanks to committed performances and genuinely ambitious recontextualization of the songs and their arrangements, there’s a great deal to admire.

The Skiffle and girl-pop mashup in “Hold Me Tight” is a treat, showing how deeper cuts from the Beatles’ catalogue can entertain in surprising ways. Major songs like “Something” and “Let It Be” (performed with appropriately bombastic gospel flourish) are buttressed with tracks like “Flying”, “Because” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face” which, if any track from the band can be considered obscure, are at least not the obvious cuts. Aspects of the Beatle’s own journey, such as the “Don’t Let Me Down” rooftop concert, are mirrored, while other aspects of late-60s culture like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are evoked in several of the arrangements. It’s an ambitious rethinking of the catalogue, and while it didn’t connect with wide audiences it’s a film that’s deserving of more attention and appreciation than it receives.

I Am Sam

Jessie Nelson’s film I Am Sam stars Sean Penn, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Weist and Michelle Pfeiffer in a melodramatic tale of a father struggling with a disability while his bright and precocious daughter tries to help her dad cope. As a movie, it’s relatively forgettable, despite some committed performances and the type of Oscar-bait take by Penn that is suitable excoriated by Robert Downey Jr.’s character in the philosophically rich and profound drama Tropic Thunder. Critics hated the film, audiences loved the treacly nonsense, and almost two decades on it’s mostly cited as the breakthrough for Dakota Fanning.

The soundtrack was originally meant to contain original recordings by the Beatles, but when they couldn’t secure the rights Michael Penn (celebrated musician and brother of Sean) called in some favours. The result provides number of sympathetic if often straightforward takes on some classic songs. Penn and his partner Aimee Mann do a galloping version of “Two of Us”, while Sara McLachlan’s gentle version of “Blackbird” is warmly effective. Rufus Wainright’s stripped down yet suitably operatic “Across the Universe” works well, while most of the other tracks, like Eddie Vedder doing “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, Paul Westerberg’s howling “Nowhere Man” or Sheryl Crow’s banjo-infused “Mother Nature’s Son” are fine if unremarkable, “Unplugged”-like covers. Ben Harper’s swirling take on “Strawberry Fields Forever” is very much evocative of the original while making the song feel fresh, and Ben Folds seems to have been born to milk “Golden Sumbers” for all its worth. 

While the Black Crowes’ version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” isn’t a highlight of their career, it’s somehow less cloying than The Vines’ lifeless cover of “I’m Only Sleeping”. Chocolate Genius mix it up with a messy “Julia”, Grandaddy’s “Revolution” reminds that Millennial rock can make your teeth hurt, and Nick Cave sounds appropriately aloof singing “Let It Be”, a poor fit for his usual dreary shtick.

Give My Regards To Broad Street

Paul McCartney’s 1984 dramedy musical provides a “day in the life” of the ex-Beatle, using daydreams involving the heist of master tapes. We see Paul with his then-wife Linda and Ringo filming videos, recording takes and doing the usual stuff that music superstars did back then. The film’s soundtrack, naturally produced by George Martin, had some hits written exclusively for it, including “No More Lonely Nights” (with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour adding a guitar solo!). Yet it’s the covers of tunes from Paul’s old band, including “Yesterday”, “Here, There and Everywhere”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “The Long and Winding Road” that provide a different, more stripped-down look at the songs in their raw form. Paul would eventually do something similar with his “Let it Be…Naked” project, but here, a mere two decades from his start, he was already treading that line between resting on nostalgia while celebrating the glories of the past.

The Wonder Years (TV)

It’s a silly show entirely about nostalgia, taking the “Stand By Me” sensibility of looking back and providing a bit of warm, broadcast family drama glow, but it was the Joe Cocker version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” that served as theme song that truly evoked a particular era. Look to Woodstock for a mega live version by Joe and his incredible backing band, and look to Cocker’s many other covers, often arranged by the likes of Leon Russel, to find how to take what’s otherwise a passable, bouncy Ringo Star track and carve it into something truly incredible.

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