Review by Megan Weireter
Posted on 15 December 2010
Source 20th Century Fox DVD
Categories Rock Follies
Meet the Paul McCartney of 1984: 42 years old. Happily married. Vegetarian. Non-smoking. Riding on the success of his latest big single, “Ebony and Ivory.” Sure, Paul’s a rock star, but he’s also a busy millionaire and chairman of an unnamed corporate entity that I’m just going to go ahead and refer to as Macca, Inc. He’s in the business of selling the product of himself, and though he seems to maintain a relaxed attitude, the staff clearly know who the boss is. Forget the adolescent shenanigans and playful jabs at authority we remember from A Hard Day’s Night: Paul is trying to run a business here, people!
When it’s revealed that Harry, a Macca, Inc. staffer, has disappeared along with the only copy of the masters of Paul’s latest album, everyone panics. If the album doesn’t release on time, what will become of the marketing budget, which has already been spent? What if the tapes are bootlegged – will this cut into sales? And how will all of this affect cash flow? Most upsetting is that the loss puts Macca, Inc. in such financial jeopardy that it’s at risk of falling prey to a vaguely defined sinister corporate takeover. (Clearly, this is a Rock Folly for the ’80s.) By midnight, Paul needs to figure out how to get the tapes back – at least in between his regular grueling schedule of recording, filming, performing, and having elaborate daydreams.
Give My Regards to Broad Street is the movie for you if you’re dying to see a rock-and-roll legend bicker with his accountant in a dressing room. It’s the movie for you if you think that Paul McCartney would look hot with mutton chops. It’s the movie for you if you have always wished to see someone robot-dance to “Silly Love Songs,” or if you’ve always wanted to hear the beautiful “Here, There, and Everywhere” repurposed into a medley with “Wanderlust,” a little-remembered overwrought ballad from the 1982 album Tug of War. In other words, I have no idea who this movie is for.
Ostensibly, Broad Street is for diehard McCartney fans. But speaking as one myself, the film is still rife with bizarre choices and missed opportunities. A movie about a day in the life of Paul, with a screenplay written by the man himself, seems like a can’t-miss premise for fans. Yet somehow the life of the one of the most talented and most powerful rock icons ever is portrayed here as alternately dull and nonsensical. Sadly, a large part of the problem is the star himself. In his public life, McCartney is typically gregarious and charming, cracking jokes and hamming it up for the fans, occasionally even decorating his album covers with family photos. It always feels as though he likes to give the audience what it wants. But at the same time he’s a deeply private person who’s managed his fame in such a way as to keep him largely protected from the outside. While his partner John Lennon tended to view his music and art as a means to publicly plumb the depths of his own psyche, McCartney does the opposite: his music might be heartfelt, but it’s always a performance.
Perhaps that’s why the McCartney of Give My Regards to Broad Street seems unsure how to play the character of “Paul McCartney.” His rapport with the escaped Harry and his girlfriend (played by an uncharacteristically weepy Tracey Ullman), as well as the various other employees of Macca, Inc., comes off as condescending, and his entire demeanor is one of sheer indifference to what’s going on around him. For some reason, I’m particularly amused by two separate instances in which Paul sees prostitutes on the street but jerks away in visual disgust at their bawdiness, as if he were some kind of prude and not a guy who used to have sex with groupies. Even Ringo Starr, who’s playing in the band, barely speaks to his old friend Paul, though of course a scene of Paul and Ringo palling around would have been exactly what moviegoers would have enjoyed seeing.
As Paul sulks his way through the movie’s thin plot (a couple of cops are looking for the missing tapes, but the film allows Paul little to do about this himself other than worry aimlessly), he goes about his business, which is being shuttled around between a recording studio, a film studio, and a BBC station. There’s a realistic drudgery to all of this that recalls the way A Hard Day’s Night broke through the glamorous veneer of the rock star lifestyle – in fact, a scene in the film studio canteen seems like a bona fide parody of the same set in the older film.
That realism is what makes some of the more ridiculous musical dream sequences so startling. Give My Regards to Broad Street suffers from an identity crisis: is McCartney going to actually hang out with us and see us through this not-very-interesting plot, or is he just going to make crazy videos to his songs? Doing both results in some awkward mood swings, which aren’t helped by the sheer insanity of some of the music videos in question. For the “Silly Love Songs” video, McCartney outfits himself and his band in all-white costumes and makeup that recall the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. They play this song – one of McCartney’s frothiest, most lighthearted tunes ever – with all the overserious expression you’d expect from an avant-garde play, while, yes, a guy robot-dances in front of them. But even that scene has nothing on the excruciatingly long dream sequence scored to an orchestral improvisation on “Eleanor Rigby,” in which Paul and most of the cast of the movie go on a picnic in some kind of Victorian nightmare in which everyone wears bad wigs and Linda is a ghost riding a horse for some reason. I think that this is supposed to be a dramatization of the lack of control Paul is feeling over his empire and his creativity, but it’s impossible not to just laugh as he treads sadly through the streets of Victorian London in his mutton chops.
And then there are moments when the film just seems hilariously out of touch. The song “Ballroom Dancing,” which was at the time a fairly new track from Tug of War, is filmed at the movie studio as a sort of theatrical adaptation of Paul’s history of rock. Elegantly dressed ballroom dancers execute some ’30s-esque choreography, until a few young kids break up the party with anarchic dance moves, sex, and violence. The problem, though, is that the kids are dressed as bobby-soxers straight out of the ’50s. They’re acting out Paul’s youth in what was already an old story by 1984. It’s as if Paul never noticed that a new generation of punk rockers had recently repeated the cycle, and that this time around, he was playing the part of the ballroom-dancing fuddy-duddy.
It shouldn’t have to be like this: McCartney has always had to defend himself from accusations of mawkishness, but the guy who wrote and recorded both “Helter Skelter” and “Yesterday” will always have a lifetime pass from legions of fans, no matter how old and out of touch he gets. That’s why it’s such a shame that even the musical performances in Broad Street are so lacking. In A Hard Day’s Night, McCartney’s natural earnestness as a performer sold songs like “And I Love Her” to even the most cynical critics. In Give My Regards to Broad Street, he’s making those trademark hangdog eyes at us again, but now there’s a steely resignation and world-weariness behind the look. Maybe to some extent he’s trying to pay deference to the plot of the missing tapes, affecting a concerned expression to remind us that there’s a shadow hanging over him. Instead, he just ends up looking bored.
The boredom actually makes sense, considering that much of the soundtrack consists of profoundly inessential new recordings of old songs. Here’s “Yesterday,” remarkably similar to the original recording except with a brass ensemble in place of strings, plus a noticeably aloof vocal from the man who has sung this song a thousand times before. Later, we get another version of “The Long and Winding Road.” McCartney has always complained that Phil Spector hideously overproduced the original recording of this song with lush choral effects, so he corrects the error in Broad Street by giving us a new recording hideously overproduced with saxophone solos, synthesized drumbeats, and – more lush choral effects. The big new song for the movie was “No More Lonely Nights,” a monster ballad in the style popular among those who frequent easy listening stations, made only marginally more interesting by the fact that he somehow got Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour to play the guitar solo. The other Beatles remakes include “For No One” and “Eleanor Rigby,” when what the movie could really have benefited from was a little “I Saw Her Standing There.” In an early scene in a recording session, Ringo picks up his drumsticks and gets ready to go, but Paul corrects him with a terse “Brushes!” With a sigh, Ringo puts down the drumsticks again and heads off to look for brushes, perhaps resigning himself to the fact that this is a Rock Folly that doesn’t actually condone Rocking.
The exception is “Not Such a Bad Boy.” This was the only other song that was new for the film, and it’s a pretty good one, the kind of classic, straightforward pop-rocker that Paul excels at writing when he wants to. They play this one at a rehearsal in what looks like a warehouse space, with no bells and whistles to distract from the song, and it’s fun to see Paul and Ringo, along with Linda and the rest of the band, throw themselves into jamming. We even get a genuine smile from Paul as he wails the chorus, “I’m not such a bad boy no more.” Unfortunately, though, that is precisely the problem. Give My Regards to Broad Street is a film that lacks ambition, direction, and meaning. And yet the whole thing could have been redeemed, at least for fans, if Paul were just a little badder, a little cooler – if he ever acted less like an aging millionaire and more like a rock star.
Sympathy for the Devil1968
Journey Through the Past1972
Renaldo and Clara1978
One Trick Pony1980
Give My Regards to Broad Street1984
The Man Who Fell to Earth1976