Two movies resonated with me in 2019. They were both about music, not law. And yet . . .
One was Yesterday, about a struggling British singer-songwriter who somehow becomes the only person who remembers the Beatles, my favorite rock band. The other was Blinded By the Light, about a working-class Pakistani kid in England whose world is shaken by the music of Bruce Springsteen, which I also like.
Britain, rock music, big life changes. I sense a theme.
Mind you, these are not my votes for the “best” films of 2019. I don’t see enough films to give an educated opinion on that. Plus, I go to “movies,” not films.
No, Yesterday and Blinded By the Light were not the best films of 2019, but they both touched a nerve with me. So I decided to ask why—what was it about these two movies?—and to see if the answer could teach me anything about being a lawyer.
But don’t worry, no spoilers.
It would be tempting to dismiss Yesterday as just a lightweight romantic comedy, but it’s more than that. For one thing, you have to admit the premise is pretty good.
The trailer sets it up well: struggling musician Jack Malik crashes his bike during a worldwide power outage. When he gets out of the hospital, his friend and manager—who just happens to be an attractive young woman who secretly loves him—gives him a new guitar. He starts strumming it and singing. “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay, oh I believe in yesterday.”
His manager is astonished. “Oh my . . . when did you write that?” she says.
“I didn’t write it, Paul McCartney wrote it, the Beatles,” he says, half annoyed.
Another friend replies, “who?”
The rest of the screenplay practically writes itself. Talk about “imposter syndrome.”
By the end, Jack learns two lessons: the “success” you crave isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and the love you really need is sometimes right in front of you.
The second lesson is of course standard rom-com fare, but Yesterday executes better than most. And of course, Jack singing various Beatles hits throughout doesn’t hurt.
But the “twist” in Yesterday elevates it from an ordinary Hollywood romantic comedy to something with real emotional pull. I won’t give it away.
I will say this. There is only one time in Yesterday when we hear the actual Beatles performing. The closing credits start, and we hear a familiar voice backed by piano. “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad . . .”
Standard Beatles lore says Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude” originally as “Hey Jules” for Julian Lennon, John’s son. John was leaving his first wife Cynthia for Yoko, and Paul was trying to comfort Julian. “Hey Jude” never mentions divorce, but I think the song resonates because it has that energy. On the surface, it’s a sing-along rock anthem, but it has a bittersweet edge. “Take a sad song, and make it better.”
“Hey Jude” is also deceptively simple in musical terms. Its secret weapon consists of two small harmonic turns. The first is the little descending piano riff that happens right before “so let it out and let it in.” The chord changes from F to F7, introducing a slight dissonance that naturally resolves to B flat in the next bar. I think of it as a musical way of saying, “ok, things are getting more complicated, but here’s a bright new chord!”
The second harmonic device happens in the “nah nah nah” chorus. In the second bar, Paul introduces a chord that never appeared up to that point: E flat. The song is in the key of F, so E flat is technically in a different—but closely related—key. (I know a little about harmony from playing in jazz band in high school and college; more about that later.) You may know nothing about music theory, but trust me, that E flat is the hook that brings you back.
As “Hey Jude” played at the end of Yesterday, I sat there in the theater with my ten-year-old son and listened to the whole thing, extended coda and all. He prodded me like “are we going now,” but I just had to soak it in.
Later, in the car, we were talking about how much we liked the movie. Then my son asked, “is John Lennon still alive?”
The childlike innocence of his question hit me like a ton of bricks. “Uh, no. No, buddy, he was killed,” I said. Then he said, “Daddy, are you crying?”
What was it about Yesterday that put me in that state? Sure, I’m a sucker for the Beatles angle. But I think the bigger thing is that I relate to Jack. He has some talent, but he’s never going to be a great singer or songwriter in his own right. By the end of the movie, he figures that out, and he’s ok with it. He learns what really matters.
I’m never going to be some famous trial lawyer, but I do a good job for my clients, and I have a loving family, so I’m ok with that.
Family plays more prominently in Blinded By the Light. And like Yesterday, it almost made me cry. But for a different reason.
Blinded By the Light
The strength of Blinded By the Light is that it works on many levels. High school student Javed Khan is a second-generation Pakistani immigrant living in Luton, England in the 1980s. He has multiple problems: evading racist bullies, his family struggling to make ends meet after his father is laid off, trying to make his tradition-bound father understand that he wants to be a writer, and of course, the age-old problem of adolescent boys everywhere: girls.
Different people can relate to these problems in different ways: immigrants facing racism, kids facing expectations of parents, parents trying to make a life for their kids, to name a few.
But Javed’s biggest problem is more philosophical. It’s a problem most adolescents experience in some way at some time: a yearning to understand what life is really about. A feeling that “there must be more to life than this.”
Enter Bruce Springsteen. Javed’s Sikh friend, Roops, loans Javed a Springsteen cassette at school, and it changes his life. The music simultaneously provides both an escape from his problems and inspiration for confronting them. These songs, born an ocean away in New Jersey, speak to teenage Javed like nothing else.
This got me thinking, what was my equivalent of Javed’s Bruce Springsteen as a teenager? The Beatles seemed like an obvious candidate. It was the first popular music I really listened to, on scratched-up albums my parents owned. Funny thing though, my parents had plenty of other albums. What is it about the Beatles that instantly grabs kids from a young age? There has to be some kind of magic in those songs.
But as much as I love the Beatles, that was a love born before I was a teenager. I will never experience the Beatles the way my parents did when they were in high school in 1964. There is no obsession quite like an adolescent obsession.
So what was mine? It wasn’t the Beatles, and it wasn’t Springsteen himself. I was three when Born to Run came out, 12 when Born in the U.S.A. was released. I liked Springsteen’s songs and still do, but I was a little on the young side to be swept away by tales of working-class angst and melancholy nostalgia for the glory days.
Was there anyone I loved as a teenager the way Javed loved Bruce? The closest thing I could think of was U2.
I was 12 when The Unforgettable Fire came out, with its signature songs “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Bad.” I bought the record, “Pride” was in heavy rotation on MTV, and then Live Aid happened when I was 13. Bono singing “Bad” at Live Aid was my Woodstock.
But things really exploded when a little album called The Joshua Tree came out in 1987. It swept through David Crockett High School and countless others like wildfire. It was political, spiritual, and unlike anything else at the time. Every song was memorable. It was almost like a group of record executives got together and said, how can we get this kid in suburban Texas hooked on this Irish rock band?
Of course, that sort of formulaic approach doesn’t actually work, as the movie Yesterday shows. Like the great Beatles albums, The Joshua Tree worked because it had great songs and it was real.
Still, as much as I loved U2—and some other rock bands in the 80s—they didn’t change my life. As I thought about it, I realized that U2 was just music I liked. It wasn’t what the Boss was for Javed.
Then it hit me. My “Bruce Springsteen” was not a particular artist at all. It was a genre of music. It was jazz. Jazz music was the thing that changed my teenage world.
This was the result of three fortuitous forces: a strong public school band program, my parents, and a young trumpeter from New Orleans who came on the scene at almost the precise moment I started 6th grade band.
Greetings From Garrison Park
I started learning the cornet at Cunningham Elementary School in middle-class south Austin in September 1983. The next month, Wynton Marsalis released his second jazz album for Columbia, Think of One, with its scorching opening track “Knozz-Moe-King” (“No Smoking”). Earlier that summer Marsalis had released an album playing the Haydn and Hummel concertos, which I would soon learn was the benchmark repertoire for classical trumpet.
Luckily, my parents were pretty hip about music. I mean, my dad used to listen to reggae on these old reel-to-reel tapes, and my mom was a Philip Glass fan. She quickly became aware of Marsalis and bought his two 1983 releases. She also bought the definitive jazz album, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.
From that point on, it was all over. I still loved the Beatles. I still loved my 80s rock bands. But jazz was it. Nothing could compete with jazz. It was serious, like classical music, but cool, like rock music wanted to be.
In the summer of 1985, I switched from cornet to trumpet when my parents, seeing I was serious about practicing, bought me a brand-new Yamaha trumpet from the Reitz Music store near Ben White Boulevard and Manchaca Road (the store is gone, but I still have the trumpet).
That same summer, before I started 8th grade at Roy Bedichek Junior High, Wynton Marsalis released Black Codes (From the Underground). Then the band on Think of One and Black Codes broke up when saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Kenny Kirkland decided to go on the road with some rock guy who had just left a band called the Police.
I later read that this was a trying time for Wynton. But his band was rejuvenated when he found a young piano player named Marcus Roberts, who was blind but could play the piano like nobody’s business. That led to the album that really solidified my fascination with jazz: J Mood.
The front and back cover of J Mood said it all. The front had a modern, abstract image of a trumpet player by African-American artist Romare Bearden. The back cover had liner notes by the incomparable and idiosyncratic Stanley Crouch, and black and white photos of each member of the quartet, in suits and ties.
Looking at that back cover, I had the same feeling Javed must have had when he saw Springsteen in his sleeveless denim jacket. These were the coolest men I had ever seen.
I remember my mom looking at it and saying, “those look like some serious jazz guys.” And the music. Oh man, the music. I wouldn’t start to understand the theory of it until later, but I knew it sounded good, and different.
You have to understand, this was unlike anything happening in pop culture in 1986. The number 1 song that year was “That’s What Friends Are For.”
And Wynton led me to past jazz greats: Miles, of course (who, ironically, feuded with Marsalis). But also other household names of jazz like Monk, Trane, Bird, Dizzy, Clifford Brown. Even much older ones that probably sounded corny to my teenage peers: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. But I loved the Hot Fives and Live at Newport.
At the same time that I was digging this music, I was learning to play it (sort of) through my high school jazz band and programs like All-City Jazz Band. I learned that jazz had its own secret language. “C major seven sharp 11.” “Mixolydian.” “Two-five-one.” I jammed on the chords on a cheesy Casio keyboard.
Just like the magnetic pull of Springsteen in Blinded By the Light, I think part of the attraction of jazz was that it was somehow alien and counter-cultural, despite really being so authentically American. The fact that other people didn’t get it was a plus. Appreciating jazz gave you admission to an exclusive club, one united not by race, nationality, age, or religion, but by love and understanding of the music. You could walk into an actual jazz club in Japan, and when the bass player starts in with the opening vamp of “Night In Tunisia,” you would know what to play without speaking a word of Japanese.
The change this new club brought for me was mostly internal. It’s not like I started wearing a beret, smoking cigarettes, and calling people “cats.”
And just as Javed didn’t decide to join a rock band, I didn’t decide to become a professional jazz musician. Jazz didn’t alter my career path, but it did open up a whole new world.
So I get Javed and his obsession with Bruce Springsteen.
I’m Not Half the Man I Used to Be
But Javed is not the character I really related to in Blinded By the Light. No, it was Javed’s father, Mr. Khan.
With a character like Mr. Khan, there is a risk of stereotyping to the point of caricature. He’s the familiar first-generation immigrant patriarch. He is mainly concerned with making money. He enforces traditional values within his family. He wants his daughters to marry well. He wants his son to “follow the Jews,” stay at the top at school, and pursue a practical, lucrative career. He doesn’t understand why his son would want to be a penniless writer, and he certainly doesn’t appreciate American rock and roll.
But one scene in particular gives Mr. Khan some depth. After losing his factory job, he’s in the kitchen of his modest row house with his wife. The children are not present. He breaks down and tells his wife he has failed their family. As the outwardly submissive Mrs. Khan comforts him, we see who the real pillar of the family is. And we finally see Mr. Khan’s vulnerability.
Any parent who has lost a job or faced a career setback can relate.
And that, I think, holds the key to the elusive lesson of these movies for my profession. If you want to reach people with your story, they have to relate to the story. This is something good trial lawyers know.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. Different parts of a story will resonate with different people. If you’re not that into the Beatles, the scene where Jack’s friends think he wrote “Yesterday” won’t mean as much. You may get it, but you won’t feel it.
And if you’re like me—a white guy who was born in the USA—you may understand Mr. Khan’s feeling of failure and find it moving. But you may not feel it as deeply as an immigrant who faced racism and poverty while struggling to provide a better life for his children.
This means you’ve got to adjust for your audience. That’s the lesson.
On the other hand, Yesterday and Blinded By the Light show that some themes are universal. Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but all you need is love.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. His wife claims that scene in Blinded By the Light made him cry, not “almost cry,” but he does not recall that.
This post is dedicated to Mr. Z and Mr. Wylie.