Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pixar and Paul?: A Ramble

With hints of Inside Out being an awesome film leaking out, I am hearing what I thought I would have heard from the ever-so-predictable Internet...

"Pixar has made their comeback!"

Of course, I always rejected this notion, thinking that Brave and Monsters University are pretty good films. Are they perfect? No. Are they up to the level of Pixar's best? Not really, but I still think that they are *gasp* very good! This blog is loaded with defenses of those two films, so if you haven't been here before, I'll reiterate: I like Brave and Monsters University very much.

Lately, I think I've been seeing parallels between a studio that I love and a musician that I love.

Who is the musician, you ask? Paul McCartney!

I've been on a Paul McCartney kick lately. Out of all the former Beatles, his solo work is my favorite. Now when I say favorite, I mean it's the stuff I personally go to first. I have high respect for the solo work of John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr too...

The Beatles officially broke up in 1970, shocking the world. Powerhouse isn't a word you simply wouldn't use to describe The Beatles at the time, or any time. "They were the bloody Beatles!" is probably the best term to use to describe just how significant The Beatles were and are. I think they're one of the greatest bands ever, I'm in that camp. I feel they deserve all the respect they get.

I think the same about Pixar, too. Pixar, like The Beatles, has given us a smorgasbord of timeless, excellent, influential animated films. They've been praised out the wazoo, much like The Beatles' albums and songs.

What will follow is probably hogwash that I ultimately shouldn't have posted here, but I don't know... I felt I'd get it off my chest... You've been warned, though.

Okay... Abridged quasi-history time!

As everyone knows and should know, The Beatles break-up can't be narrowed down to one thing. It was a combination of negative things affecting the band that ultimately lead to the split, however, the sessions for an album called Get Back, later redone and retitled Let It Be, was a time of trouble for the band.

The Beatles had already embarked on outside projects before the break-up. Paul McCartney sorta-kinda contributed to the score for the 1966 film The Family Way, the LP of said score was released in 1967. George Harrison was the first Beatle to do what observers call a true solo project, a project he would be in more control of: A score for a 1968 film called Wonderwall. It was released on their label, too, Apple Records... Just a mere few weeks before the release of The Beatles, better known as The White Album. Maybe a throwaway, maybe not. Not too long afterwards, John Lennon released an LP of weird recordings he did with Yoko Ono at his house back in the spring of 1968. That album was titled Two Virgins, a follow-up album arrived in spring 1969, titled Life with the Lions. Harrison knocked out an avant-garde LP of his around the same time, titled Electronic Music.

John Lennon then did Wedding Album, another avant-garde experiment not really meant for the masses. He finally released a proper album in the form of a live document called Live Peace in Toronto 1969, which did well in sales and seemed to be well-received. This was recorded in September of that year, when the last recorded Beatles album was coming out... The much-revered Abbey Road.

Even though Let It Be, a collection of music that was mostly recorded in early 1969 and left unfinished for a while, would be the last Beatles album to be released, Abbey Road was truly the last album. It even ends with a song called 'The End', if you don't count the hidden track. You can feel a sort of burning for closure when listening it, a sort of "let's just do this one last album and get it the **** over with!" attitude. Let It Be began life as Get Back, an album that would find the Beatles returning to their raw, rock n' roll roots. Not a bad concept, the problem was, the previous album sessions - which were fraught with arguments and disagreements - left everyone tired. Paul wanted to soldier on, and in no time everyone was back in the studio... Maybe the four lads needed a break.

You can feel a "who cares?" sort of mood when listening to the sessions and even the finished album, and ultimately, all four Beatles rejected the work. An acetate of what could've been a released album was compiled in mid 1969, all four of them said no to it. They moved on to Abbey Road. Another acetate was prepared in early 1970, it too was rejected. Finally, in March 1970, renowned producer Phil Spector was brought in by their then-controversial manager Allen Klein. He "finished" the album, and a divisive mess was released to the world in May of 1970... It was agreed that this was no ending, it was more of a whimper than a bang...

Let It Be, however, is strong on its own. It's intentionally messy and underproduced... While also sounding overproduced. It's a weird album through and through, but it's The Beatles. The songwriting and playing is really good, even if it's from The Beatles in "not caring" mode. It just shouldn't have been produced and released last...

It was also a bone of contention for Paul himself, as he particularly hated how Spector produced the record. Nasty legal stuff and band politics followed, Paul announced before the album hit that he was officially leaving the band, legal issues ensued. The drama is for another story, anyways...

It was believed by some, if not a lot of people, at the time that Paul was the cause of all the turmoil within the Beatles in the final years and that he ultimately broke them up. At least that's what it seemed like, given the flack he got...

Perhaps this pre-existing bias was what lead to the harsh criticism his early solo albums would get...

For context, what kind of achievements did Paul make in the late 1960s? Songs like 'Penny Lane', 'Hey Jude', 'Martha My Dear', the climactic medley on Abbey Road, and 'Let It Be' were monolithic. They were some of the greatest songs ever composed and written... A lot was riding on him, alongside John Lennon and George Harrison. Ringo Starr? Not so much. The critics gave him a pass for his first solo album, a collection of show tune/classic pop covers called Sentimental Journey. They also gave good marks to his second album, an album of country covers titled Beaucoups of Blues. Critics didn't expect much from Ringo, so that's why they were positive towards those two albums. I reckon they would've gotten on Paul for making such a move.

Paul McCartney released his first solo album, McCartney, in April 1970. It's a homemade effort, he plays every instrument, and a lot of it was recorded on his farm up in rural Scotland. The songs have a loose, ramshackle feel to them. The album as a whole feels very unfinished, it's the ultimate antithesis to The Beatles and especially his compositions. Some songs are fragments, no different from Brian Wilson's fragment recordings. There's charm and great melodies in those little pieces that hint at bigger, perhaps more complete compositions.

All of this turned off the critics, big time. Critics were expecting "Beatle Paul" brilliance, but Paul didn't want to do "Beatle Paul" stuff. He had a new MO, he was all about simplicity, domesticity, and overall lightheartedness. Nothing on McCartney has anything "important" to say, it's not political, it didn't comment on Vietnam or Richard Nixon or hippies or anything that was topical. The songs certainly weren't 'Hey Jude' and 'Let It Be', either. The epic scale wasn't there, except for the beautiful 'Maybe I'm Amazed'.

So you would think McCartney is a throwaway album, right? No, it's anything but. The songs are all very enjoyable and have that McCartney charm, the melodies themselves are impeccable, so what if the songs themselves aren't topical? The lyrics are strong in several of the songs, 'Maybe I'm Amazed' is pretty much a thank you note to Linda McCartney for whipping him out of his post-breakup depression. 'Every Night' is also a stealth depression song, despite its poppier coating. 'Man We Was Lonely' seems like it's commenting on the break-up and Paul's satisfaction with his new life and love for Linda. Well, how many songs has John written about his love for Yoko?

A lot of the tunes on here are very akin to some of Paul's White Album stuff, like 'Martha My Dear' and 'Honey Pie'. 'Maybe I'm Amazed' is the only song on the collection that goes to 'Hey Jude' levels, but 'Hey Jude' is one kind of song, while 'Honey Pie' is another. Both brilliant for different reasons. Paul is basically doing the lighter stuff from his career, and with finesse. But I guess this wasn't acceptable after the break-up.

So Paul had some things going against him: He wasn't using the soaring production values that defined some of The Beatles' best work, he wasn't writing 'Hey Jude'-esque songs, and he was also on his own - not buffered by John, George, and Ringo. He was allowed to flourish and put his weirder stuff on here, stuff that perhaps wouldn't have made it onto a Beatles album. 'Kreen-Akrore' is quasi-tribal music psychedelic stuff, many found fault with it. 'The Lovely Linda' is akin to The White Album's 'Wild Honey Pie', a few seconds of fun noodling. If anything, this album is very close to the minimalism of The Beatles. It's not like Abbey Road, though there are sheds of that album's energy in the more rocking cuts, like 'Oo You' and 'Momma Miss America'. The album goes some other weird directions, such as the 'Glasses' track, which Paul performs using... Glassware! A fragment of another song cuts in at the last minute, too.

The more conventional stuff is on par with his Beatles work, plus it had two Beatle leftovers in the form of 'Junk' and 'Teddy Boy'... So what wasn't to like?

McCartney, fortunately, has been reevaluated over the years. It's now considered a classic, some people have even called it a proto-indie album given its stripped feel and minimalistic songs. People recognize now that it didn't need to be a Beatles album, it was a Paul album... And Paul's quite good on his own!

Meanwhile, critics gushed over John and George's albums that came out later that year, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass respectively. Those albums, however, are excellent. It's just too bad that they were biased against Paul. All three albums make for a fine trinity. John and George weren't to thrilled with Paul's album, though. John especially.

The critics weren't on his side, but the buyers were. McCartney was a sales monster, hitting #1 in the US and #2 in the UK. It went platinum, so listeners obviously didn't give too damns about what the self-righteous Rolling Stone crowd thought. They probably didn't care about the band politics either.

The bias would continue, though...

Paul was struck by the criticism McCartney received. He took note of how some felt that it was very underproduced. So the next album would be much more produced, much glossier. The result was Ram, which had the same mood as McCartney but it would - production-wise - feel closer to his Beatle albums. Most of the songs were fully-realized compositions, with some fragments in-between. It even got a little edgy, with rockers like 'Eat At Home', and jabs at John Lennon like some of the lyrics in 'Too Many People'.

The critics loathed it. Rolling Stone's critic who wrote the review was particularly brutal, the others ripped it a new one. The former Beatles all disliked it, John especially. John thought the whole album was an attack on him, even though there are few passages on it that are criticisms of him. Even Ringo said it wasn't good, there was not one memorable tune on the album for him.

Wow, it must be an awful album, right?

No, it actually wasn't. Actually, it was pretty damn brilliant!

The critics were once again letting crappy politics and ridiculous expectations dictate what they felt. Paul had finally made something Beatle-esque, what more did they want? They didn't know... They had specific expectations for Paul, Paul obviously wasn't keen on meeting them, and he got ripped to shreds for it. Whimsical songs like 'Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey' and 'Heart of the Country', no different from the creativity of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, were are no-no. 'Heart of the Country', Paul's reminder that he found a great new life, was particularly torn apart. The whole album was regarded as an absolute low point, not only for McCartney, but for rock music... Period.

Again, all of this venom towards an album that was actually great.

A big bone of contention was Linda McCartney. The album is credited to both Paul and Linda. Linda's contributions to the album were slammed. She sings back-up on many songs and co-wrote many of them too. How dare Paul bring his lady in on serious music work?! I remember reading one review that complained "Mick Jagger wouldn't have let his wife on stage!" So letting your wife work with you is wrong, eh? John Lennon himself did it too, but Yoko Ono was edgy, artsy and avant-garde. She was socially conscious, so it was totally alright for Lennon to do it. Lennon wrote some attack songs on McCartney afterwards, which appeared on the great Imagine album. Critics ate that album up and continued to stab the McCartneys. They sided with Lennon, big time. They were brutal.

Ram was reevaluated in the 1980s and it was called a great album. Nowadays, it's huge. Many tribute albums have been recorded for it, it's often called McCartney's greatest and one of the best solo Beatles albums better. It's recognized as another "proto-indie" rock masterpiece. Its love for domesticity, fun, whimsy, and humor - things that weren't cool in 1971 - is appreciated now.

Paul was happy with Ram, but the criticism hurt his feelings, big time. So what else was there to do? His former bandmates hated his stuff, the critics ripped his stuff to shreds, Lennon (and Yoko Ono, too) openly attacked him in interviews... You would've thought Paul was on the decline. Does that sound familiar to you, animation fans?

So Paul decided to throw together a band. Ram was arguably a band effort, as musicians Denny Seiwell, Hugh McCracken, and Dave Spinozza all contributed to the tracks. Paul kept Denny around, and found another Denny - Denny Laine of pre-progressive The Moody Blues. He already had Linda by his side, so he put-together a four-piece band called Wings in the summer of 1971!

I'm guessing people expected Wings to be the next Beatles...

Wings' first album was perhaps not a very wise one, business-wise. Paul had heard that Bob Dylan banged out an album in a week, so Paul thought, "Hey, why don't we do that?" Wild Life was hastily conceived and recorded over the course of three weeks, and released in December of the year... Critics once again stomped on it.

Wild Life was more like McCartney, very stripped down, underproduced, and ramshackle. This time around, a few weak tunes sat alongside little gems. It's not sequenced very well, and it doesn't seem to have a strong core. Some songs on it are truly great, like 'Tomorrow'. Other songs like 'Love Is Strange', 'Wild Life', and 'Some People Never Know' are good, but they are too long (the latter two are 6 1/2 minutes long) and overstay their welcome a bit. They work better as 3 1/2-minute pop songs, as their contents don't warrant such lengths. 'Dear Friend' is a Ram outtake and is probably the strongest track on the album. 'I Am Your Singer' is stuff that isn't upsetting today, but in 1971? A sweet, extremely sugar-coated song - with Linda singing solo on, no less! - like that was criminal.

Unlike McCartney and Ram, Wild Life wasn't the greatest seller. It went gold, but it fell off the charts quickly. It was not a strong start for the new band, either. Soon, the press got really nasty. The stuff they said about Linda McCartney was particularly cruel and sexist, it's embarrassing stuff now that any sane person would regret years later.

Before the next album was released, Paul tried to reinvent the band right off the bat. He added a guitarist named Henry McCullough, whose background consisted of Joe Cocker's Grease Band and progressive rock band Spooky Tooth, and went on tour... Of British universities. Unexpected, too. However, the tour was a success. He couldn't really play Beatle tunes at the time, probably due to legal problems, but that gave him a reason to really plug his band and his post-Beatles efforts.

Plans to boost Wild Life's sales with a single went awry, because Paul focused efforts on a response to the Bloody Sunday massacre that occurred in Ireland in late January 1972. The result was 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish', a full-blown political song. It got good marks, because it was... Well... A political song. It was topical, relevant, and it was eaten up just because of that. You know, forget that Paul was honestly angered by the massacred like any sane person. It was even banned by the BBC... WHOA! Paul was badass now! That was acceptable in the eyes of critics. But it was also at the right time, and it is a good rocker with a strong message.

Recording of the new album began, something that would be bigger and much more experimental than Wild Life. While this was going on, Paul put out a new single, a take on the nursery rhyme 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'. The move confused the press, as he had went from a political song to a children's song. Some say he released it as a response to the BBC banning 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish', Paul himself said he wanted to make a rock song for children, as he felt they were overlooked by the music industry. Whatever the intention, it was successful but it was ripped apart. Others were just confused by his decision to release such a song, especially after releasing something acceptable.

After that, the band embarked on a legitimate tour... But the tour took place throughout continental Europe, no UK or US performances. Perhaps those audiences would be more receptive of his new material? The Wings Over Europe Tour set lists consisted of Ram and Wild Life tunes, some McCartney tunes, the recent singles, covers of classics, and stuff that was intended for the upcoming album. The tour was a success. Work on the new album continued, concluding in October.

The next single would be the rocker 'Hi, Hi, Hi', which was well-received because it was a sex-n-drugs rocker. That was cool, hip, relevant. The BBC banned it for lyrics they felt were obscene. Paul and Wings were once again badass, but only temporarily.

The upcoming album, titled Red Rose Speedway, was to be a double-album with contributions from the other Wings. A very democratic effort, but he was coaxed by EMI to pare it down to one disc, make something more commercial and perhaps acceptable to critics. For instance, some songs from the planned 2-LP set were going to be sung by Linda and Denny Laine. Linda supplies backing vocals on the tracks they ultimately chose, she doesn't sing lead on any of them. Denny Laine has some spotlight on one of the final album's songs. Live recordings from the European tour were going to be on the album too, but those were nixed as well. A double-album coming off of Wild Life certainly would've been very risky, and this is coming from someone who actually prefers the work-in-progress double-album track-listings.

The single from that album debuted a month before the record hit the racks, spring 1973. It was a tender love ballad called 'My Love', it wasn't the rocking energy of 'Hi, Hi, Hi'. It was like the "schmaltzy" or "silly" love songs on the previous three albums, but it had slick, timely early 70s production values. Buyers ate it up, critics ripped it apart. The subsequent LP was met with mixed reviews this time around. Some liked that it was a more catchy, produced record, others hated the songwriting and feel of it. The album included two Ram outtakes, the rocker 'Get On The Right Thing' and the sorrow 'Little Lamb Dragonfly', along with pleasant ditties like 'One More Kiss' and 'When The Night'. It closed with a medley of four unfinished songs/fragments, no different from the Abbey Road medley. It was either fine or awful. No middle ground there. Unlike Wild Life, it was a big commercial success... But I think that was all thanks to 'My Love'. Wild Life probably would've sold well had it had a strong single preceding it. A tour of the UK followed, and 'Live and Let Die' was released that following summer. Paul's bombastic song for the James Bond film of the same name was met with much-needed universal acclaim.

So you had four albums in a row that got mixed or negative reviews. What was Paul thinking, then? Well, Paul wanted to make what he wanted to make. None of this "equal The Beatles' music" business, he was all about his ideas. Where his mind was at, he was at, musically. Paul's early work, to me, is mostly quirky homespun fun. The stuff from the European tour up until Red Rose Speedway feels like a slow transition between the homey stuff and the more professional, less sentimental and lovey-dovey stuff that we saw on the next album. I absolutely love the ideas behind those albums. Ram is perhaps my favorite album that he has ever done. Are the other ones perfect? No. Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway aren't sequenced well, there are some tracks on Wild Life that I think were just okay, would've made for better B-sides. McCartney, I have few problems with.

So finally, Paul whittled the band down to a trio. Denny Seiwell and Henry McCullough were out. The trio went to Lagos, Nigeria with a new set of songs and a new mindset. Wings was reinvented once again. The sessions produced Band on the Run, which was released during the holiday season of 1973. What did the critics think about it?

They loved it.

Some felt it was the best solo Beatles album. Or one of the best. The overall consensus was... It was a great album! It had few detractors.

What made it so much better than McCartney, Ram, Wild Life, and Red Rose Speedway?

It had everything the critics wanted... But then again, by late 1973/early 1974... The world was different. Tastes changed.

However, Band on the Run was a concept album, no different from the groundbreaking ones from the 1960s. The Golden Age! Each song has masterful songwriting, none of the songs ventured into what they thought was "schmaltzy" territory. The lightly jazzy 'Bluebird' wasn't 'My Love' to them, nor was the more rocking 'No Words'. The rest of the cuts are mostly experimental and out-there, such as the closing epics 'Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)' and 'Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five'. Those were more 'Hey Jude' in their eyes. 'Jet' and 'Mrs. Vandebilt' were strong, quirky rockers. 'Let Me Roll It' sounded Lennon-esque to critics as well.

It was the comeback, it was the proverbial "next Abbey Road" from Paul McCartney. Critics felt that John Lennon had already made his "next Abbey Road" with 1970's John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and they felt that George had his with All Things Must Pass in 1970. They thought Paul finally had his three years later...

Times have changed. Band on the Run is still regarded as a masterpiece, but McCartney is now considered a good, if not great album. Ram is beyond admired today, I can find very few who dislike it or think it's less than stellar... Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway are divisive. Some love Wild Life's raw and honest aesthetic, and the songs themselves are solid, melodic tunes. Others hate the lyrics, arrangements, and ideas. Red Rose Speedway? Some love how hodgepodge and catchy it is, others think it's a songwriting and production low for the man.

McCartney, Ram, and Band on the Run are heralded as classics. A lot of respect is also given to post-Band on the Run albums that got mixed reception, such as Venus and Mars, Back to the Egg, and several others.

So what does this all have to do with Pixar?

Let's just say Toy Story 3, the last Pixar film to get a coveted 90-something percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, is Abbey Road. It's universally loved, it's considered a high mark of the creator or creators' already-brilliant output. Critics and some writers are under the impression that Pixar is the greatest thing ever, gods of perfection, they can do no wrong, etc. etc.

Then they release Cars 2, a film that was fraught with behind-the-scenes drama, tension, and bad decision-making. The finished film is arguably a silly, lightweight little summer blockbuster. The story and storytelling aren't anything special, but it's still fun in the eyes of some. It certainly did good business at the box office too, maybe not the best, but still good. But how dare Pixar make something that's a little more commercial? Or something that doesn't shake the world inside and out? Just because a Cars sequel = more money doesn't mean the movie can't be good, and there was an attitude long before it came out that it was going to suck. Period.

Cars 2 isn't Toy Story 3, or Up, or Ratatouille, or WALL-E. It's certainly rife with story issues thanks to the production woes, but is it not a silly, fun little movie that's not worth getting bent out of shape over? Had Brave and Monsters University been universally acclaimed films, that paranoia of Pixar trading in their brilliance for bucks would vanish in a flash. But Brave and Monsters U not being perfect kept that fear brewing. People (not necessarily critics, more like bloggers/writers/snarkers/etc.) were now convinced that the studio "lost its touch".

Brave isn't Toy Story 3, Up, WALL-E, or Ratatouille either. It doesn't exactly aim as high as those films, it's not trying to be groundbreaking, it's not trying to rewrite the books. It's an intimate little mother-daughter story, but apparently that's "chick flick" garbage. I guess it needed to be wildly original or crazy or out-there. Brave is reserved, quiet, but it does have something to say. It's a rare American animated film that's a little less busy and noisy, it's got two female leads, the plot isn't huge or anything. It's very simple, but beneath the simplicity is heart, good themes, and ideas. No different from McCartney...

Monsters University? Same thing. It's not wildly inventive or crazy, and while it would've been great if it was just that, the film still works because of its strong character work, good humor, and its great central theme. These two films have cores and good ideas, and are entertaining. Their executions of such stories may not be the greatest, but they try to do something. They try to say something. They don't coast, they're not on the level of something like... I dunno... Hollow rental animated flicks like The Lorax or Hotel Transylvania or Epic.

To bloggerland, Inside Out is Band on the Run. The comeback! The film that'll restore the Pixar magic! Okay, maybe it'll be their first super-excellent-awesome film since Toy Story 3, but once again - as I've been saying for years - you have to be realistic.

Pixar can't make that film each time out. Paul McCartney couldn't make Abbey Road-level, or Ram/Band on the Run-level brilliance each time out. Heck, John Lennon failed to replicate the brilliance of Plastic Ono Band with a few albums, George had a lot of not-as-good-as-ATMP albums. Oh, and George did take a hit for a few not-so-great albums, and this was after Paul was finally getting respect. I don't expect Disney to make Snow White/Pinocchio-level brilliance, that's a high bar that most studios probably aren't content with reaching. Very few animated films made in this day and age in America, in my opinion, come close to Walt's best work. You might as well have expected The Beatles or Paul to be as great as Mozart!

Anyways, my main point is, what's wrong with a not-so-perfect film or album or book from a revered creator? Why does it call for such snark and anger?

I've said for years that I won't call Inside Out "Pixar's comeback". If it's their first film since Toy Story 3 that I give a 10 to, then I'll just say, "I think it's excellent!" I'll still like/love and respect Brave and Monsters University, and I'll still enjoy Cars 2 on a different level.

1 comment:

  1. The vast majority of people--including all of the better Beatles historians--do not believe Paul broke the Beatles up. The breakup was going to happen, but the sad case of yoko ono pushed the existing tensions overboard. If there would be one person to blame for the break up for the Beatles (and there isn't), it would most certainly be the talentless yoko ono.