When Did Sam Mendes Earn the Right to Direct Four Beatles Biopics? newsbhunt

If you told me there was a plan in place to make four Beatles biopics — one each about John, Paul, George, and Ringo — and that they were going to be directed by Richard Linklater, I’d be suffused with curiosity and excitement. If you told me that those same four movies were going to be directed by Martin Scorsese, I’d be suffused with curiosity and excitement. If you told me that a quartet of Beatles biopics were going to be directed (one apiece) by Linklater, Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, and Todd Haynes, I’d be suffused with curiosity and excitement — and, in fact, that last option would make a beautiful kind of sense. (Offhand, I’d say Linklater should do Paul, Haynes should do John, Scorsese should do George, and Gerwig should do Ringo.) When you think about it, why would anyone — even Scorsese, the poet of rock-operatic drama — want to direct all four Beatles biopics? Talk about hogging the spoils.

But Sam Mendes does. According to a master plan handed down on stone tablets by…I’m not sure who, but the plan is in place, there will indeed be a quartet of Beatles biopics, and all four will be made by the director of “American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Revolutionary Road,” “1917,” “Empire of Light,” and several other films that I’m far from alone in not being all that crazy about. I’m not out to dump on Mendes; he’s unquestionably a talented filmmaker. “American Beauty” was stunningly crafted (though I thought its script was thin). And though I belong to a very small minority in not being a major fan of “Skyfall,” the first of two Bond movies that Mendes directed (almost no one likes “Spectre,” his follow-up), I recognize that it’s a beloved entry in the 007 canon.

Mendes is good with actors, and there’s no denying that he’s got chops. Yet I’d argue that in the 24 years since he swept the Oscars with “American Beauty,” he has not exactly lived up to the promise of that awards night. There’s something earnest and sodden and too thematically self-aware about Mendes’s filmmaking. He knows how to stage things, but he’s overly in thrall to second-rate ideas. To me, he simply has not established a track record that says: Here’s the filmmaker you want to hand the Beatles’ story over to. All eight to 10 hours of it.

Consider the following scenario. Sam Mendes releases his first Beatles movie, and no one much cares for it. Are we then stuck, irrevocably, with three more Mendes Beatles movies? Who gave him the keys to the Fab Four kingdom anyway? Didn’t Sam Mendes learn to share as a child?

The Beatles, taken individually or as a group, might seem to be the ultimate tricky subject for a biopic, since their story is so wrapped up in mythology. Yet the truth is that there have been several very good Beatles biopics. The daring independent filmmaker Christopher Munch got the ball rolling in 1991 with “The Hours and Times,” an hour-long speculative dramatization of what might have transpired during the holiday trip to Spain that John Lennon and Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, took together in 1963. It’s known that Epstein was attracted to John, and the film had a gay theme. But mostly it was about portraying one Beatle with an unusual intimacy, and Ian Hart’s performance as Lennon was a revelation.

Hart was tapped to play John once again in “Backbeat,” Iain Softley’s superb 1994 drama that portrayed the Beatles’ time in Hamburg just before they became famous. It’s one of the most authentic music biopics ever made. And though this isn’t in that league, I got swept up in “Nowhere Boy” (2009), an early Lennon biopic directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (it’s the film on which she met her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who played the adolescent John). It’s a movie that understood, from the inside out, Lennon’s formative relationships with his mother, Julia, and his Aunt Mimi, who raised him. It’s no coincidence that all three of these movies deal with the Beatles before the onset of Beatlemania. They were just people then; they hadn’t yet become bigger than Jesus. But how do you dramatize the lives of the Beatles once they’re larger-than-life?

That’s a daunting challenge, one that I would imagine any filmmaker alive would feel intimidated by. That’s one of the reasons I think dividing up the four Beatles biopics among four different directors makes sense. But what the Mendes project tell you is that Sam Mendes already has his own all-encompassing vision of the Beatles’ story. And though we should, of course, not judge a movie before it’s made, I don’t think I’m being reckless or unfair when I say that right now, I don’t trust Sam Mendes to have a vision of the Beatles profound enough to be worthy of the Beatles. My fear is that in signing on to make all four of these films, Mendes seems to have devised a way to turn the lives and the music of the Beatles into a grand form of IP.

And here’s a far from irrelevant question. In 25 years of moviemaking, has Mendes ever utilized a notable needle drop? It’s not as if I want to see the Beatles’ story packaged by a music-video hype artist. But directors like Scorsese and Linklater have used pop music with the expressiveness of action painters. I guess with Mendes you could say: There’s always a first time. But is that, as a culture, what we really want to say?

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