YesterdayReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/25/19 15:44:19
While the musical legacy of the Beatles continues to dominate and influence the pop culture firmament almost a half-century down the road since their dissolution, filmmakers have inexplicably had a difficult time grappling with that legacy in cinematic terms. I am not talking about the group’s own occasional big-screen forays—“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) remains one of the most joyful movie experiences that anyone will ever have, “Help” (1965) is a cheerfully surreal romp that is harmed today only by the fact that a plot involving fanatics attempting to kill a Beatle doesn’t seem as much of a laughing matter as it once did, “Yellow Submarine” (1968) is cute (though not entirely my cup of tea) and “Let It Be” (1970) was the harrowing flip side to “A Hard Day’s Night” that did not dwell on the group’s imminent breakup but nevertheless displayed the fraying group dynamics that would eventually lead to their split. However, when other filmmakers have tried to use the group—either the music, the mythos or both—as the launching pad for their own narratives, the results have often been disastrous. Of course, there was Robert Zemeckis’s brilliant 1978 debut “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” a great and sadly undersign comedy about a group of kids caught up in Beatlemania during the night that the group made their famous first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, and “All You Need is Cash” (1978), Eric Idle’s loving-yet-cutting mockumentary charting the rise and fall of a suspiciously familiar British pop group but those have proven to be the exceptions that otherwise prove the rule. For example, consider “All This and World War II” (1976), a bizarre documentary consisting entirely of documentary footage covering the whole of WW II set to a string of dubiously connected Beatle covers. Then there was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1978), the infamous critical and commercial disaster in which a couple dozen late-period Beatles songs were hammered into a narrative featuring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees battling the forces of darkness, represented here by the likes of Donald Pleasance, Aerosmith and Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison. Of course, who could forget—at least not without the aid of shock treatment—“Across the Universe” (2007), in which more than thirty songs were jammed together into the kind of overstuffed jukebox musical that left one wanting simply pull the plug and bring the whole lunatic thing to an end. (You know you are in trouble with a film when a cameo from Bono constitutes one of its subtler aspects.) And while I suppose that it doesn’t exactly count as a Beatles-related film per se, Paul McCartney’s 1984 egofest “Give My Regards to Broad Street” was perhaps the dumbest thing that he has ever done professionally and he did drag a few Beatles classics (along with Ringo Starr) down with it.With a track record like that, it would seem that any sensible person would need to regard any narrative film revolving around the Beatles with a healthy amount of suspicion. That said, even the most cynical of moviegoers might look at “Yesterday” and think to themselves “Hmmm. . . maybe.” After all, the basic conceit of the film—what would happen if the Beatles had never existed and someone tried to introduce their music into today’s world?—is intriguing in a late night dorm room bull session way. Screenwriter Richard Curtis has shown himself capable in the past of writing successful high concept comedies that have made intriguing use of popular culture (such as “Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio” and the Bill Nighy stuff in “Love Actually”) As for director Danny Boyle, his filmography is also more than a tad uneven but even his lesser films are usually more interesting and ambitious than the better works of a lot of other filmmakers we could mention. (“A Life Less Ordinary” is generally written off as a disaster but if you put it in front of me right now, I would watch it without hesitation.) That sense of “Hmmm. . . maybe” does not last for very long, however, because “Yesterday” is more than just a bad movie, it is a particularly infuriating one that squanders everything that it has going for it—the promising plot, the behind-the-scenes talents and the decades of goodwill engendered by the Beatles and their music over the past several decades—on an end result so silly and inconsequential (not to mention downright offensive at one extremely dubious point) that it would hardly be worthy as a celebration of the Bay City Rollers, let alone the Fab Four.
The film tells the story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a 27-year-old British-Indian singer-songwriter whose music is appealing enough in a low-key way but has not yet caught on with anyone outside of his immediate circle of friends—when he gets a gig playing one of the extremely side stages of a big music festival, maybe 15 people tops show up. After that show, the increasingly discouraged Jack considers giving it all up but is reassured by Ellie (Lily James), who is a triple threat in that she is Jack’s manager, his best friend since childhood and the one who has been plainly in love with him for years without him ever quite noticing. While riding his bike home later that night, he is hit by a bus and knocked unconscious and while this is going on, a mysterious phenomenon causes a 12-second-long blackout throughout the world. When Jack wakes up, he is none the worse for wear physically, save for a couple of missing teeth, but something weird does happen a little later one when he is hanging out with friends and presented with a new guitar as a get well present. He serenades them with “Yesterday” and they are astounded by it—not by his rendition but by the song itself, which they insist they have never heard before. Jack is incredulous and insists that it is one of the greatest songs ever written and one of his friends, assuming that the accident didn’t harm his ego, replies “It’s not Coldplay.”
It turns out that as a result of that blackout, the Beatles have been erased from the cultural record as if they had never existed and by being unconscious during it, Jack is now the only person left on Earth who remembers them and their music. (Of course, it would stand to reason that anyone else unconscious during that time should also remember them as well but playing the long game in regards to its fantasy conceit is just one of the film’s many not-so-strong points) After pondering it for a bit, he begins to write out and arrange the songs of the Beatles (though he cannot quote recall the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”) before presenting them as his own. There are a couple of hiccups—Jack’s parents are not particularly impressed by the “debut” of “Let It Be”—but his new music begins to win him a following and when he goes on a talk show and performs “In My Life,” he is then contacted by Ed Sheeran (playing himself), who loves the music and asks him to open up for him on an upcoming tour. This development leads to Jack playing before bigger and increasingly adoring crowds and earns him the dubious representation of Ed’s American manager, Debra (Kate McKinnon), who has vast plans to introduce his music to the world on a global scale—a few tracks debuting online followed by an all-killer, no-filler double album sensation—despite her misgivings over his ability to play the role of a convincing music sensation. (This is, I hasten to remind, the woman who supposedly represents the vaguely sentient Muppet that is Ed Sheeran.) All of Jack’s dreams seem to be coming true but he is still troubled by his knowledge that the music that everyone loves isn’t his (a fact underscored when he tries to slip in one of his own compositions and it is swiftly rejected) and by Debra’s wild plans to commodify those tunes. And yes, there is also all the stuff with Ellie, who still yearns for him and despairs of getting him to notice her as anything other than a friend and whatnot.
“Yesterday” is problematic in so very many ways but one of its most insurmountable flaws is that it introduces a potentially interesting concept—what would happen if the music of the Beatles was literally introduced for the very first time to modern ears?—and then lacks the wit and nerve to do anything remotely interesting or challenging with it. Yes, the Beatles are about the closest thing to a universally beloved music group—even the Rolling Stones (who still exist in the film’s universe) are still raising hackles from people objecting to them performing the still-controversial “Brown Sugar” on their current concert tour—but the filmmakers, perhaps worried about not getting the all-important rights to their songs, never say or do anything that might challenge that opinion. As great as they were, the group was hardly infallible and there are certain aspects of their discography that might not pass muster today and which might have led to some inspired moments here. How, for example, would the opening lines of “I Saw Here Standing There” play in the #MeToo era? What if people were presented with the songs that comprised “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” without its reputation as the “Citizen Kane” of rock albums preceding it and came to the conclusion that it was all a bit silly? You and I could sit down for an hour and knock out an entire list of such ideas but none of them seem to have occurred to Boyle or Curtis, whose idea of cutting and incisive satire is to have Ed suggest that Jack change the title of one of his songs to “Hey Dude.” (The stuff involving McKinnon as the cynical music company weasel trying to market the most valuable music catalogue of all time show all the wit and cutting insight of a less-than-inspired “SNL” sketch.)
Another big problem with the film, quite frankly, is the music. Now I hasten to add that even though I am not a total Beatlemaniac (I always preferred the Stones myself), their best songs are genuine pop masterpieces that have more than withstood the test of time. No, my problem is that the filmmakers have selected the most obvious and overtly crowd-pleasing songs from their repertoire for inclusion here—you could ask 20 random people to name their 20 favorite Beatles songs and their answers would almost certainly her fairly closely to the film’s soundtrack. I mean, I get it but would it have killed them to include a couple of their less-celebrated tunes, if only to make the point that even a group whose discography is as well-known as the Beatles have a few songs ripe for rediscovery? (I don’t require a extended jam on “Revolution 9,” although that certainly would have livened things up.) Then, except for the occasional chord change, the movie doesn’t really do much of anything with the arrangements to give them the sense that they were conceived and performed in 2019. In essence, we are being asked to watch two hours of someone doing Beatles karaoke and while that can be fun for a little bit, it does grow tiresome after a while. Throughout the film, we are constantly being told how grand and transcendent the music is but those exclamations are clearly inspired by our own memories of the Beatles because there is never a time here where the music is presented in such a way that even suggests that. (The closest it comes to this is during an angry rendition of “Help” towards the end but that proves to be far too little far too late.)
As bad as all of this is—and it is quite bad—“Yesterday” does not hit its absolute nadir until the later innings with a move so spectacularly misconceived that it almost takes your breath away from its sheer stupidity and tastelessness. While watching the film, most viewers are likely to find themselves idly wondering at some point or another “So if the musical entity known as The Beatles does not existence in this world, what happened to John, Paul, George and Ringo in this timeline?” Do they even exist? If so, what do they do? Maybe they could be journalists covering Jack’s rise to fame and serving as the unwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in an ersatz retelling of their own story? Maybe they are a quartet of friends who yearned for stardom, couldn’t quite make it and now go around playing covers of Jack’s songs. It is a question that the film cannot really avoid—especially since two members of the group suffered violent attacks that were inspired in part by their own celebrity—but for most of the running time (other than a silly dream sequence made all the more painful by the presence of James Corden), it goes out of its way to keep viewers from thinking such thoughts. Then comes the scene in which it finally elects to touch on that very question and manages to do so in a manner so tacky and off-putting that it boggles the mind that no one apparently questioned the wisdom of utilizing it. I won’t spoil it for you but just imagine the tackiest and most shamelessly manipulative way of dealing with this particular question and that only scratches the surface of what Curtis and Boyle inflict on viewers here. What makes it even worse is that the entire scene has been done with an earnestness that soon becomes revolting as it becomes evident that Curtis and Boyle want us to consider this sequence to be the emotional center of the proceedings. Put it this way—even those who have actually liked this film up until this point (hey, I hear rumors that some people liked “Across the Universe”) are likely to be left with a bad taste in the mouth after trying to swallow this bit.Even if you factor out all of the Beatles-related material, “Yesterday” is still a weirdly terrible movie. The story shifts from whimsical farce to romantic comedy to earnest drama but neither Curtis’s screenplay nor Boyle’s direction are able to pull off those changes in tone with anything resembling the deftness displayed in their previous efforts. The leads are pleasant enough at first blush but never get beyond that. Patel demonstrates so little screen presence as Jack that when the record company goons talk about giving him an image makeover, you’ll find yourself agreeing with them while James marches through her nothing part demonstrating nothing but the kind of contentment that comes from knowing that many people will end up thinking that Lily Collins was actually in it.”Yesterday,” of course, takes its name from what may be the most famous Beatles song of all but once it finally and mercifully grinds to a halt, you may find yourself thinking of other song titles that might be a little more appropriat for properly evoking the godforsaken experience that is “Yesterday.” Alas, “Help” was already taken.
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