Friday, September 6, 2019

Beatles vs Stones: At the Movies

During a memorable sequence in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood an alternate version of The Rolling Stones song "Out of Time" plays at exactly the right time. The song captures the vibe of an era coming to an end, something the characters in the film are starting to come to terms with. It's worth noting The Beatles are noticeably absent from the Hollywood soundtrack. There could be a number of possible reasons: the cost of buying the rights, Tarantino and music supervisor Mary Ramos did not see the right moment for a Beatles song, or maybe, as I would argue, Stones music is simply more conducive to movies. 

Here are some possible reasons why:

1) Stones music is more frenetic, more into the darkness, making it better suited to modern cinema.
2) Beatles music is too sacrosanct and personal to be effective in a movie.
3) Stones music better captures the transition from the 1960s to 1970s.
4) Beatles are still viewed as symbolizing the 'innocent" side of the 60s.

There are notable examples Beatles music being used in clever ways, but usually in the form of cover versions. Fiona Apple's dreamy version of "Across the Universe" in Pleasantville brings the movie to a surreal conclusion. There's Robert De Niro wistfully reflecting in Once Upon A Time In America as a muzak version of "Yesterday" plays in the background. The Mutato Muzika Orchestra did a sublime version of "Hey Jude" over the opening credits of Wes Anderson's droll 2001 film The Royal TenenbaumsThe solo work of the band has tended to work better in film. When "Imagine" plays at the end of The Killing Fields it's unbelievably resonant.

Yesterday from earlier this year serves as a test case of Beatles music failing to carry a movie. The premise of Yesterday imagined an alternate reality where the Beatles never became famous. When a fledgling musician from our timeline introduces their music to the world, which he passes of as his own (until a change of heart), he's propelled to super-stardom. But in 2019 Beatles' music plays as middle of the road indie-folk rock, attracting crowds united by their consumerism and passion for what's popular. Without any context, there's something hollow about the music.

From the beginning cinema and the Stones were well suited for each other. Performance (1970) starring Mick Jagger as a decadent rock star featured "Memo From Turner", not a Stones song per se, but one with Jagger on vocals and some suggestive lyrics by he and Keith Richards. Martin Scorsese's breakout film Mean Streets used their music even more effectively. When Harvey Keitel enters the film "Tell Me" channels his ecstatic state of mind as he enters the club. "Jumpin Jack Flash" served as an appropriate introduction to De Niro's Johnny Boy. 

The Rolling Stones would be at the center of Scorsese's cycle of mob films running from Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. "Gimme Shelter" would be used in all three of them to potent effect. The apocalyptic lyrics with sexual undertones play well during the high points as the characters free fall to their fates. The use of "Monkey Man", "Let it Loose," and "Can't You Hear Me Knockin" enhance the dark themes of these films and the internal conflicts of the characters. 

Other directors have used The Rolling Stones to great effect. Stanley Kubrick ended Full Metal Jacket with "Paint it Black" as the sardonic end to his Vietnam War film. The Big Chill used "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (a song even more culturally loaded these days) to drive home a poignant moment. Wes Anderson has drawn from some of the quirkier cuts from their catalog to suit his distinct style. 

No doubt future films set in the 1960s and 1970s will continue to turn to The Rolling Stones. Part of the reason is also Mick Jagger's vocal style - employed more as an instrument to accompany the band instead of leading it. Never polished or melodic, Jagger's singing is always direct and on point. When The Beatles harmonized they made a beautiful sound, but the Stones had attitude. 

That's not to say The Beatles are a wash when it comes to movies. Go the Fab Four themselves: Do a triple feature of A Hard Day's Night, Help, and Yellow Submarine and you'll get great examples of using their music on film. Beatles' music tends to work best when it's inside their universe. For deeper cuts track down Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be (criminally not available in any format). 

People are so close to Beatles song, placing one in the middle of a movie borders on sacrilegious. Playing "Revolution" over a Nike commercial and the outrage it created was completely understandable. Placing "Start Me Up" over a Microsoft commercial appeared hip and cutting edge. 

The never ending Beatles vs Stones debate will go on indefinitely, but in terms of movies the Stones have a the advantage.

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