Cast: Hamish Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Richard Curtis
In all of these years I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie that showed such little interest in such a promising concept. The premise is the actualisation of a fantasy that most of us have had at one time or another. A man wakes up one day to find that that the music of a phenomenally popular band has been erased and that he alone in the entire world remembers them. Armed with that sacred knowledge and a decent enough singing voice to make a go of it as a musician, he resolves to pass the songs off as his own and reap the benefits. It’s a terrific idea for a movie that opens itself up to countless possibilities just begging to be explored. But you see, there’s this girl; she’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. It’s probably to be expected that Richard Curtis, the patron saint of British rom-coms, should want a quaint romance at the heart of this light-hearted fantasy. Why he felt that such a conventional and familiar story should totally supplant the endless potential of this alternate dimension he created however escapes me. Nearly every opportunity that the premise invites goes woefully unfulfilled to the point that the whole thing feels like nothing more than an afterthought. Instead of being taken away on the magical mystery tour that the movie promises, all we get in the end is a mediocre love story.
At the centre of it all is Jack Malik (Hamish Patel), a struggling musician whose career is going nowhere and who has no other direction or passion in life (he’s a bit of a nowhere man, if you will). For the last ten years since leaving his teaching job, he’s been busking on the same old streets, playing gigs in the same old pubs, and sharing his music with the same old group of friends. After one lousy gig too many, he’s ready to hang his guitar and walk away and it doesn’t look even his best friend, manager and biggest fan Ellie (Lily James) will be able talk him out of it. That is until one fateful night when a worldwide power cut ensues for twelve seconds, causing Jack to be hit by a bus. He wakes up the following morning in the hospital where the ever so winsome Ellie is waiting by his side with a brand new guitar as a get well present. Together they leave to meet their friends and Jack treats them to a rendition of an old favourite, ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. Only it’s the first time any of them have heard what they assume to be one of his own songs, by far his best one yet. A quick google search reveals to Jack that no such band as The Beatles exists anymore and that he appears to be the only one with any recollection of their music. Thus he finds himself faced with a singular opportunity to become the musician he’s always aspired to be.
You would be hard-pressed to find a group who have done more to influence the course and evolution of popular music in the last half century than The Beatles. They launched the British Invasion, set the template for boy bands, pioneered a movement of sonic and psychedelic experimentation, spoke to a younger, more enlightened generation on radical and taboo topics, and wrote more amazing songs than I can even begin to count. Therefore the idea that The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran could exist in a sans-Beatles world (as they all do in this film) is completely unbelievable to me. That might sound a bit pedantic but what it comes down to is the total lack of curiosity the movie has for contemplating a contemporary cultural landscape in a world where The Beatles never existed. The movie makes a couple of token gestures, the best of which is a tour around a Liverpool that never became a European Capital of Culture and the worst of which is a deeply uncomfortable scene in the third act, but for the most part the movie treats its Twilight Zone premise as little more than an obstacle in the rom-com love story it really wants to tell. The question of whether The Beatles would still be The Beatles in a modern world without their legacy is a fascinating one that I wish the movie had done more to explore.
In its presentation of the Fab Four’s songs, all of which are performed as closely to their original forms as a single tenor with an electric guitar can get, the movie is inviting us to listen to them as if for the first time and there are some moments when it works. What bothers me though is how uninterested the film really is in trying to understand what makes the music as great as it is and why it resonates with listeners as strongly as it does. The assumption seems to more or less be that the songs are great because they’re by The Beatles, whom we all love. It appears the film believes (wrongly) that the greatness of any work of art has little bearing on the time and place in which it was made or to its creator. A tune like ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, with its Buddy-Holly-style rhythm and Everly-Brothers-inspired harmonies, doesn’t really work as a new song in 2019 without a modern update of some kind because its electrifying pop sound is no longer as fresh and dynamic as it was in 1963. Yesterday also seems just as unconcerned with what kind of personal connection Jack himself has with these songs. In a scene where he plays ‘In My Life’ on a talk show, Ellie is moved because she thinks the song is about her. Jack in contrast seems to have put almost no thought in what these songs are supposed to mean coming from him (that he doesn’t even stop to think about how weird it is for a man in his late twenties to sing “Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean” should at least be worth a raised eyebrow).
But enough about the film I wish they’d made, what about the film I actually saw? Well, aside from its sci-fi concept that it only occasionally addresses, Yesterday is at its core a love story and a pretty weak one at that. The two leads are charming enough that they are able to generate some little spark between them, he as the sensitive but self-centred artist and she as his kind-hearted and infinitely giving supporter. She carries a torch for him but not only is he entirely clueless about her affections, he doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in sex or romance in general. It’s not until Ellie confronts him about her unrequited crush at the most awkward moment possible that it even occurs to him to look at this beautiful woman who continuously beckons to his call and worships the ground he walks on with in any kind of romantic light. When Jack makes it big, she falls out of his life partly out of her justified frustration for having been taken for granted for so long and partly because of her commitments as a schoolteacher. When the two reunite and Jack reveals that he does fancy her after all, the most conflict Curtis can conjure to prolong their will-they-won’t-they rapport is the fact that neither one did anything about their feelings before. The lack of any convincing obstacle to keep them apart gets so tiresome and the constant miserable state Jack is in is so off-putting that it didn’t take me long to wonder what it was she even saw in him and to conclude that she’s better off without him anyway.
On the comedy side of things, the movie fares a little better. The premise allows for some humorous moments as when Jack tries to play ‘Let It Be’ for his parents, expecting them to be wowed by one of the most moving songs in the Beatles canon, only for them to keep interrupting him with one distraction after another. There’s also a running joke throughout about Jack discovering that some other facet of modern culture has disappeared including Coca Cola (which presumably required him to reword ‘Come Together’ slightly) and Harry Potter. Ed Sheeran has an unexpectedly amusing role as an exaggerated version of himself who lifts Jack to fame only to be eclipsed by him. I’d have liked to see more of Sheeran as the self-described Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, but he would have had to play a much less affable version of himself to really sell it. I also enjoyed Kate McKinnon’s role as the greedy, soulless music executive intent on signing Jack to her record label, moulding him into the most generic singer/songwriter brand they can possibly market and milking the Beatles’ music for every cent it’s worth. Their satirical take of the music industry is pretty broad (not least because it has to make room for the love story) but McKinnon’s over-the-top expressions and comical line deliveries are always good for some reliable laughs.
It’s a shame to see a film take on such a surreal and inspired concept only to end up with something that feels so sadly generic. The movie leans so heavily on a crutch of clichés that by the time we get to the end and see the romantic payoff it’s all been leading to, Curtis cannot even summon a fraction of the tenderness and feel-good warmth that might have made the hackneyed journey feel worth it. Even with a crap film like Love Actually, he can normally add enough charm and sentimentality that you can go along with the ride and enjoy it for the piece of schmaltz that it is. Whatever vision or style Danny Boyle might have brought as a director is so passive or absent that there is no doubt about Yesterday being a Richard Curtis movie. The movie doesn’t even work as a tribute to The Beatles since, apparently, the world as we know it would have remained virtually the same as it is today, if ever so slightly more melancholic, had they not existed. There are so many more questions I want to ask of this Beatles-less world (Who sang the theme song to Live and Let Die? What stage name did Reginald Dwight end up adopting? Did Eric Clapton ever write ‘Layla’?), but the movie has no interest in so much as entertaining such queries. I could go on but, in the end, I think The Beatles said it best so, to paraphrase: “Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where it’s going to, making all it’s nowhere plans for nobody”.