Before watching the movie:
I remember this being huge and then pretty much disappearing. I was actually a little confused for a while about whether this and Moulin Rouge were the same movie, because that is how little I knew about the story, and I know not much more now. I think I’ve seen one clip that has the romantic leads singing in a trippy cosmic setting that’s probably not diegetic, so I can rule out a space movie and probably a fantastical movie.
Essentially, all anyone will say about it is that it’s the musical that’s all Beatles music (though it seems it actually also includes Beatles-adjacent music, but I always thought Wings sounded like The Beatles anyway). Nobody really said much about what Mamma Mia was about either, and it’s not like the familiar music being the draw left it a disappointment, but this movie hasn’t had the impact that Mamma Mia did, so I’m not sure what I’m going to get, but it will probably look pretty and sound familiar.
After watching the movie:
In the late 60s, Jude Feeney, a Liverpool shipyard worker, leaves his mother and his girlfriend to go to meet his American father who came through England in WWII. While he doesn’t bond with Wes, who works as a janitor at Princeton, Jude befriends disillusioned student Max, who invites him to spend Thanksgiving with his family, where Jude meets Lucy, Max’s sister. Max drops out of school and he and Jude get rooms in a broken down apartment in Greenwich Village rented out by Sadie, a singer in the bohemian scene. Meanwhile, Jo-Jo, whose young brother was killed by the police in the Detroit riot, moves to New York and ends up joining Sadie’s band, and Prudence runs away from home in shame over her crush on another cheerleader and breaks into Sadie’s apartment through the bathroom window seeking shelter. Lucy receives word that her boyfriend was killed in Vietnam and comes to visit Jude and Max, trying to summon up the courage to tell Max that his draft letter came now that he’s lost his student exemption. Jude and Lucy fall in love, and despite every effort to get rejected by the draft office, Max receives 1-A status and gets shipped off. Lucy gets involved in anti-war demonstrations and gravitates toward the Students for a Democratic Republic, spending an increasing amount of time working closely with its leader Paco, who Jude is sure is trying to seduce her.
The principal impression I got from this movie is that it starts very slowly. The first hour or so seems to just be putting the pieces together so it can smash them up later. I found myself just wondering why I was watching flower children hang out in a fleabag apartment dreaming about revolution when Hair probably did that better. The musical numbers weren’t even all that engaging, often less engaging than the original Beatles versions. Then Max went to the draft office, and I felt like the movie people were talking about actually started. Songs were recontextualized in interesting ways, the visuals got imaginative, and things were happening that I actually cared about. At times it’s staged like a stage play but then does things that you couldn’t do on the stage with that setup.
Naming characters for existing songs is an incredibly obvious version of Chekhov’s Gun. When you learn that the protagonist’s name is Jude, you already know that “Hey Jude” is going to be a major turning point. Prudence seems to be a loose end of the story, largely being an ensemble player with the first act and a half of an arc, but she serves her purpose by shutting herself in her room in depression so her friends can sing “Dear Prudence” to coax her out. Thankfully, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is just the credits song. To be fair, I had to have it pointed out to me that Max is supposedly named for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, which doesn’t even get used in the movie.
I go back and forth on whether this movie wanted to say something or to reflect a culture in a moment in time. Both of those have been done much better and more clearly by other projects, and what does this have to set it apart? Beatles songs. Nor does it offer any happy solution to the problem that the kids realize the revolution they were counting on isn’t coming beyond just surrounding themselves with loved ones and not worrying about politics. This may be a high-level example of the system selling the revolution back to the people (or really nostalgia for the revolution that wasn’t), but I don’t think it’s even the most notable example of that.
I really enjoyed slightly more than half of this movie, but mostly it was just getting to the marks it needed to hit. It seems like maybe there was some idea of bringing the story of the 60s to a new generation, but mostly it’s just directly talking to the baby boomers who lived it. It ends up feeling stuck between being of a moment and being timeless and achieving neither. I think I’ll still stick to the original Beatles discography.