At The Movies - Carrying That Weight
By Jordan Bosch
The idea behind Yesterday is perfectly on-brand for Richard Curtis, its’ producer and screenwriter.
A movie set in a world without The Beatles and the one guy remembering them gaining fame off of their songs is exactly in his wheelhouse of retro-themed, charmingly satirical, and music obsessed sensibility. That it’s also very distinctly British and unapologetically romantic only accentuates his calling card on the project.
Yet it’s directed by Danny Boyle, which is hard to believe given how restrained it is.
There’s not much of Boyle’s character on the film, it’s remarkably light compared to his other movies, entirely based around a simple curiosity. But simplicity is underrated, and perhaps the unusual combination of creative forces on this film could yield something more than just another in a long long line of Beatles love letters.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling singer-songwriter in Suffolk is hit by a bus during a mass global blackout and awakens to discover that nobody has heard of the Beatles (along with a handful of other cultural markers that make up a running joke of the film).
He starts playing their songs and taking credit for them, gradually becoming an international musical superstar in the process, but at the expense of his relationship with his long-time friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) whom he harbours romantic feelings towards.
The film invites a whole host of nitpicky logistical issues by its very premise, probably most notably a transparently identical music industry in a world without the Beatles.
For a movie that spends so much time praising the band and deifying their music, it seems to forget just how monumental an impact they had on popular music as we know it. And though these kinds of considerations don’t actually matter, the movies’ disinterest in even attempting to address them doesn’t go unnoticed, and speaks to a confidence in the strength of its idea that it doesn’t fully earn.
The movies’ biggest oversight in this regard is that it assumes the Beatles’ songs would garner the same response if written now as they did in the 1960’s. But those songs weren’t created in a vacuum -there were cultural, political, sociological contexts that gave them their power in the moment in history they were a part of.
It’s arguably impossible for instance to detach “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” from the casual drug-addled counter-culture that spawned it; or “A Day in the Life”, which references a number of then current news headlines. And then of course there are the implications behind songs like “Getting Better” and “You Can’t Do That” that are too casually misogynistic to work as products of a progressive age.
In stripping these contexts away the film becomes a Death of the Author fantasy, insinuating that the Beatles’ songs carry the same resonance divorced from the time, place, and people that created them -which is a fascinating conceit, but one that runs counter with the text of the film itself, which is quite openly a celebration of the identity of the Beatles as much as their music.
Of course the filmmakers most likely didn’t think about this conflicted statement Yesterday makes on the nature of the Beatles’ art.
As much as the premise provokes speculation of the deeper implications of its world, it’s actually a character piece first and foremost about a man desperate for success finding an avenue to it through plagiarism.
Jack is a fairly average Richard Curtis protagonist, as a down-on-his-luck, witty, pathetic yet amiable guy with a big heart and high aspirations. His dishonesty and moments of egotism play nicely and aren’t off-putting due to Himesh Patel’s relentless relatability. He’s quite a good singer as well.
The heart of the film is the sweetly endearing love story between Jack and Ellie, and Lily James is wonderfully charming and down-to-earth herself. Yet again it’s a typical Curtis romance, with all the awkwardness, tenderness, sentimentality, and gesturing that entails, but it’s also the movies’ premier strength, even if it ends on a resolution that’s far too convenient.
The gimmick framework of the story aside, Yesterday is structured like a conventional music biopic, only without the drug use and a more satirical take on the industry.
And the films’ sense of humour does make the journey more interesting, even with a couple misfires in the performances of Joel Fry and Kate McKinnon (though Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal are great as Jacks’ parents).
It is quite funny and clever and even mildly self-aware, though its adulation of the Beatles’ music is consistently played straight, which does at times border on the excessive -even for the Beatles.
One scene recreates part of the iconic opening to A Hard Days’ Night to the degree the movies’ own line of homage and rip-off is blurred.
The film also relies a little too frequently on daydreams stemming from Jack’s guilty conscience, and connected to them is a subplot that doesn’t ultimately go anywhere. And as in Mary Poppins Returns there’s one part that was definitely meant to be played by a surviving Beatle (most likely Paul McCartney), but the film had to settle for a substitute.
For a movie about a guy getting rich and famous off of someone else’s work, Yesterday is surprisingly modest. It’s an entertaining enough whimsical fantasy, a pleasant and harmless romantic comedy; but it is perhaps too harmless. It has an obvious cousin in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, which is more admirable for its ambition and imagination, if not quite a great movie itself.
Yesterday presents a curious hypothesis, but doesn’t go much beneath the surface with it, resulting in a movie that feels somewhat shallow despite its best efforts. That said, it carries a warm, loving, and spirited levity more movies could benefit from.