Richard Curtis envisions a world without The Beatles, then promptly ignores it for yet another treacly love story.
What if you woke up one day and The Beatles never existed? What would pop music culture look like? Hell, what would society look like in a world that wasn’t affected by the universality of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr’s infectiously influential pop experimentation? But for Richard Curtis and filmmaker Danny Boyle‘s Yesterday, the answer to these questions is, “Pretty much the same, except no Oasis.”
The vehicle for this high-concept dramedy is Jack Malik (Hamish Patel), a struggling musician who can’t seem to get his career off the ground, despite the efforts of his childhood best friend Ellie (Lily James). However, fate intervenes one night as Jack gets into a bike accident the same moment the whole world experiences a global electronics blackout: by the time Jack awakes, he soon realizes he’s the only one who remembers the music of The Beatles. Out of a combination of wanting to preserve such indelible, classic songs, and a desire to experience the rock star success he was previously denied, he passes the songs off as his own. Soon, the world is clamoring for more songs from the ‘writer’ of “Yesterday” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” catapulting to music stardom and leaving Ellie, who (surprise!) carries a torch for Jack, behind.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Yesterday is how unconcerned it is about its very premise. Curtis, who’s made his bones on all number of quirky British rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually, is much less interested in the mechanics of the Beatle-less world he’s created than he is with cultivating yet another treacly tale of unrequited love between Jack and Ellie. Granted, Patel and James are charming on screen and manage some decent chemistry. But at the end of the day, it’s another formulaic tale of finding love right under your nose.
In attempting to work as a love letter to The Beatles, Yesterday is actually sneakily disrespectful to The Beatles themselves.
If the rom-com at its center were as compelling as Curtis thought it was, maybe we wouldn’t spend so much time noticing the copious cracks in his script’s self-imposed universe. Simply put, the framework upon which Yesterday rests is so flimsy it falls apart under the slightest scrutiny: Curtis essentially asks you to believe that a) a world without The Beatles would be essentially the same as it is now, especially when it comes to the pop music landscape, and b) The Beatles’ music would be so absolutely universal that you could just plop it in 2019, independent of its cultural context, and they would be adopted as instant classics. Sure, Jack sticks to the hits, avoiding some of the more explicitly political and experimental stuff (he doesn’t try to make “Revolution 9” work in 2019, for instance), but at the end of the day it’s still the kind of music that was popular in the early-to-mid ’60s for a reason.
Imagine someone dropping “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in a world where Billie Eilish and Lizzo are popular, and expecting it to land with the same cultural impact. Audiences are different, tastes are different, and — it must be stressed – the Sixties just up and happened without The Beatles, and everything was fine. Imagine how Vietnam would have gone without a counterculture movement largely fueled by The Beatles’ late-60s work, for instance, or the way they and George Martin revolutionized the way pop music sounded, from innovative production techniques to the incorporation of world music instruments. Sure, they weren’t the only people in the game, but it surely can’t all fall on Brian Wilson and Mick Jagger’s shoulders, could it?
In attempting to work as a love letter to The Beatles, Yesterday actually ends up being sneakily disrespectful to the Fab Four. Curtis’s script argues that anyone could have written and performed these songs, at any time, and they’d be just as popular. Yesterday is a film that heavily implies that Ed Sheeran (who appears in a major role in this motion picture) is of roughly equivalent songwriting talent as Lennon and McCartney. One scene late in the film, in which Jack discovers the fate of one of the Beatles in this mirror universe, is downright morbid, and borderline offensive in its presentation. The whole scene feels like stepping over someone’s grave, bone-chilling where it should be sentimental. Yesterday throws out the kind of thin thought experiment you’d hear from your stoner friend at three in the morning and gives it just as little consideration.
Even then, the film itself has far less Beatles in it than you’d think; I’m hard-pressed to think of more than two or three songs that are played in their entirety. Patel belts out acoustic covers of these songs with remarkable alacrity, and it’s hard to lay any of the criticisms of the film at his feet. As a character, Jack’s mostly along for the ride, giving Patel little to do but smile nervously while Kate McKinnon‘s off-the-wall American music agent blusters around him (she’s fun, but thankfully only present in small doses). Occasionally, he wrestles with the ethics of what he’s done — passing another person’s work off as his own, losing himself to the trappings of fame — but what few obstacles he encounters are buried as soon as they arrive.
Boyle is usually a fun, visually dynamic director, but here he’s given little to work with. He only occasionally gets to pepper in a few of his techno-thriller flourishes, like a montage in which Jack stands in front of several large screens showing his ballooning follower and download count. Otherwise, it’s drop-dead boring English rom-com filmmaking, which presumably matches the tepid tenor of Curtis’ overly sentimental script.
Yesterday‘s not a terrible movie by any means, but its missed opportunities are enough to make you gently weep. It’s one thing to have so little regard for your own premise that you don’t flesh it out with anything resembling complexity; it’s quite another to hang your movie instead on an uninteresting girl-next-door romance.
Yesterday fills theaters everywhere with recycled hits this Friday, June 28.
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