How can anyone but the most hard-hearted cynic hate Yes? These prog-rock stalwarts have been cranking away for some 35 years now, and doing it with a lot more joy and invention than the Stones, just about the only band who’ve been around for longer. Frontman Jon Anderson’s mysticism and apparent lack of testosterone put a sweet face on Yes, which makes their happy fate vis-à-vis their prog contemporaries feel deserved. They took their share of blows when punk exploded in the late ’70s, but you weren’t rooting for their destruction as you might have for an arrogant wanker like Keith Emerson, and sure enough they endured and even flourished into the ’80s. Indeed, Yes were a special breed. They seemed like five gentlemen who cared much more about making sophisticated rock music than for the trappings of rock star life (with the exception of Rick Wakeman, who cared for both). Though the band has a notoriously long list of members who’ve come and gone in the group’s three-plus decades, something has kept the flame alight. This same something brought the classic lineup of Anderson, Wakeman, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, and Alan White together years after their initial breakup, eventually taking a victory lap throughout Europe in celebration of Yes’ 35th Anniversary in 2003.
So how can you hate Yes? By watching YESSPEAK.
A two-disc documentary clocking in at nearly three hours(!), YESSPEAK purports to tell the story of the band’s history from the five men who together gave life to its best years. The film, narrated by one-man-embarrassment-factory Roger Daltrey, intersperses lengthy interview segments with stage footage from the Anniversary Tour, as well as with brief passages of archival footage. The short shrift given to the last of these elements begins to get at the problems of this documentary. It’s so rooted in the present day that the basic hooks of any rock star story are left out: the chance encounters that set history in motion, the struggling young band trying to make it big, the dreams of fame born only to sour when they come true but later to be rekindled. Even the lowliest “Behind the Music” hack realizes the power these stories have to draw us in, so why does YESSPEAK start with a long intro detailing the posh lives of Yes’ aging members? In addition to being fantastically boring, this peek into the lavish and placid world of these elderly rockers is an instant turn-off. Unless you’re one of the beneficiaries of George Bush’s tax cuts, you probably can’t relate. And when the Yesstories do begin, they’re far too cursory and haphazard to be engaging. YESSPEAK barely sketches out a timeline, and there are hardly any old photographs or video clips to take you back to the “good old days”. Anderson talks about how “Your Move” was one of the first songs he ever wrote, but the anecdote, like all the others here, is left stranded with no real context. It’s full of sound and slurry, signifying nothing.
What all of this means is that anyone who goes into YESSPEAK expecting to be convinced of Yes’ greatness will be sorely disappointed. YESSPEAK takes for granted — to a painful degree — the fact that anyone watching is already so sure of Yes’ greatness that they will love simply basking in their minutiae for an incredible stretch of time. If you remember that you need to spend as large a fraction of your life watching this as you do, say, Schindler’s List, the experience of learning that Wakeman thinks the band sounds as good now as ever, that Howe buys a plane ticket for his guitar when he travels, or that White loves living in Seattle won’t leave many viewers clamoring for YESSPEAK to get an Oscar. Perhaps a gripping story simply couldn’t have been wrought from this quintet’s mild mannered seriousness, but if that were the case, it’s a fair question to ask why anyone ever thought to make a documentary about them in the first place.
But as Al Gore could tell you, valuing personality over substance is a bad habit, one that sometimes costs lives and the respect of our European allies. So maybe personality isn’t such a bad thing for a documentary to avoid. The thing is, YESSPEAK doesn’t really avoid it at all; it only feels that way because the accumulated effect of these bulky interviews is so small that it seems as if the film must be about something else. But it isn’t. Yes’ music, the natural choice to take center stage, is shunted aside in favor of the members’ personal blandness. With Yes’ back catalogue and three hours of space in which to stretch out, you’d think that what made the group special as musicians would come across, but you’d be wrong. If it weren’t for Daltrey’s oft-repeated claim that Anderson, Wakeman, Howe, Squire, and White are all considered to be at or near the top of their respective fields, the layman viewer might just get the impression that they were a bunch of aimless noodlers. Surely, there was more impressive footage available than White playing an endless two-note pattern on one of his percussive toys, so it’s a wonder why the filmmakers chose to show it not once but twice. In fact, most if not all of YESSPEAK is cause for head scratching unto scalp bleeding. Those wanting to get into Yes should look elsewhere. Those already into Yes should look away.