December 16, 2019

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Take a sad song and make it better

The best and worst covers of the Fab Four's discography on film

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

What’s that? You can’t, because the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds doesn’t exist?

That’s the quirky premise behind Yesterday, the new movie from acclaimed director Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting), which opens in theatres this weekend.

The 116-minute what-if flick introduces us to Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling English songwriter who, after losing consciousness due to a freak accident, awakens to a Beatles-less world. (If anybody knows how many times we have to crash our head into the curb to forget Starship’s We Built This City we’d really be in business, but we digress.)

Quickly realizing he’s the only person on the planet familiar with the Fab Four, Malik begins passing their vast catalogue off as his own, becoming an overnight, pop music sensation in the process. Yesterday is the latest in a long line of feature films to feature a Beatles-heavy soundtrack.

Who doesn’t love the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris (Matthew Broderick) hops onto a parade float to entertain thousands of onlookers with his hip-swinging rendition of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s Twist and Shout?

So, for all those moviegoers who’ll be cheerily humming the melody to Ob-La-Di-Da-Ob-La-Da on their way out of the theatre this weekend, here’s a list of other films that, you know, took a sad song and made it better, better, better, better, better, better...

All This and World War II

(1976, directed by Tony Palmer)

It probably sounded like a good idea at the time: All This and World War II is an 88-minute documentary that mixes covers of Beatles tunes with black and white clips obtained from Nazi Germany newsreels, circa the Second World War. Savaged by critics — one film reviewer referred to its PG rating as standing for "positively ghastly" — the movie was yanked out of theatres by its production company two weeks after its release. The accompanying, double-album soundtrack fared somewhat better, reaching No. 48 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

Hits: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, performed by Elton John; Get Back, performed by Rod Stewart; Strawberry Fields Forever, performed by Peter Gabriel

Misses: The Fool on the Hill, performed by Helen Reddy; A Day in the Life, performed by Frankie Valli; Let it Be, performed by Leo Sayer

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

(1978, directed by Michael Schultz)

With a shabby, 12 per cent approval score on Rotten Tomatoes, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees as the film’s titular characters, has been universally panned since it hit theatres 41 summers ago. Even the late George Harrison, oft-referred to as "the quiet Beatle," couldn’t remain silent, remarking at the time, "I think it’s damaged their images, their careers..." in reference to the brothers Gibb and Frampton’s on-screen performances.

The soundtrack, produced by long-time Beatles guru George Martin, hit No. 5 on the American Billboard album charts, thanks in large part to Earth, Wind & Fire’s funky overhaul of Got to Get You into My Life, a million-selling single in its own right.

Hits: Come Together, performed by Aerosmith; Got to Get You into My Life, performed by Earth, Wind & Fire

Misses: Fixing a Hole, performed by George Burns (yes, that George Burns); Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, performed by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin)

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

(1978, directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Before delivering such celluloid classics as Romancing the Stone and the Back to the Future trilogy, Hollywood heavyweight Robert Zemeckis co-wrote and directed I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a light, breezy comedy set on Feb. 9, 1964, the day the Beatles made their debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Although not a theatrical success by any measure — the movie failed to recoup its near US$3 million budget — viewers continue to enjoy it to this day, granting it a heady 88 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The accompanying soundtrack consists of 17 Beatles tunes recorded in 1963 and 1964.

Hits: I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There

Misses: Till There Was You, Boys

Give My Regards to Broad Street

(1984, directed by Peter Webb)

Give My Regards to Broad Street is a fictional glimpse into a day in the life of Paul McCartney, starring Macca as himself. The quasi-crime drama, about a hardened criminal who pilfers the master-tapes of McCartney’s latest compositions, met with less than positive reviews: Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "about as close as you can get to a non-movie."

Besides reworked versions of songs from McCartney’s solo career, the soundtrack, a No. 1 smash in England, also includes new renditions — mostly overproduced — of six tunes he co-wrote with John Lennon. Added bonus: Ringo Starr, who appears in the film, drums on seven of the album’s 17 tracks.

Hits: Good Day Sunshine, For No One

Misses: Eleanor Rigby/Eleanor’s Dream

I Am Sam

(2002, directed by Jessie Nelson)

Sean Penn was nominated for best actor at the 2002 Academy Awards for his turn as Sam Dawson, a single father of one living with an intellectual disability.

The film’s plot revolves around Dawson, with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, trying to maintain custody of his daughter, Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning), with the help of his lawyer, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Because Dawson is a true, blue Beatlemaniac, the heart-wrenching drama is set against a backdrop of Beatles songs, re-recorded especially for the movie.

Hits: Two of Us, performed by Aimee Mann and Michael Penn; You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, performed by Eddie Vedder; Blackbird, performed by Sarah McLachlan

Misses: Mother Nature’s Son, performed by Sheryl Crow; We Can Work It Out, performed by Heather Nova

Across the Universe

(2007, directed by Julie Taymor)

Across the Universe is a jukebox musical featuring the Beatles canon, much in the same way the hugely popular Mamma Mia! movies revolve around songs written and originally performed by Abba.

Across the Universe is set in the turbulent, late 1960s. It tells the tale of Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), young lovers whose relationship is tested by the counterculture movements of their day.

The soundtrack is comprised of 33 reworked Beatles songs.

It was nominated for best compilation soundtrack album at the 2008 Grammy Awards, losing to — and how ironic is this? — Love, the soundtrack to a documentary focused on the collaboration between Beatles music and Cirque Du Soleil.

Hits: Girl, performed by Jim Sturgess; Why Don’t We Do It in the Road, performed by Dana Fuchs

Misses: I Am the Walrus, performed by Bono & Secret Machines; It Won’t Be Long, performed by Evan Rachel Wood

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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