Everyone in the World Has Forgotten the Beatles. Everyone Except Jack …
Based on a nifty hypothetical, ‘what a world without The Beatles (the most influential and innovative band of all time) might look like,’ and with Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), an accomplished Oscar-nominated filmmaker at the helm, Yesterday seemed destined for greatness — I was instantly sold on its trailer. But even with a little help from some friends (John, Paul, George, and Ringo), Yesterday struggles to live up to its screwy potential, squandering a brilliant premise by focusing most of its attention on a generic feel-good romance plot — ‘All You Need Is Love’ … umm, maybe not!
Written by the great Richard Curtis, with story assist from telly scribe Jack Barth, Yesterday throws out one helluva nifty ‘what if’ but doesn’t commit to unpacking it in any depth or detail, using the quirky concept as nothing more than a mere plot device. So, while Yesterday is fuelled by the notion that The Fab Four — along with other pop culture staples like Harry Potter and Coca-Cola — have been expunged from existence, wiped from everyone’s memory except from that of our aspiring muso protagonist, it fails to explore the ramifications of this absence on the world at large — which could’ve been pretty neat. Instead, what we get is a generic romance-comedy storyline about a down-on-his-luck artist, which, of course, is sprinkled with upbeat Beatles covers and some good ol’ British humor to boot; honestly, the fact that this film is so standard-issue comes as a bit of a surprise, given that Curtis more or less redefined the schmaltzy rom-com genre with movies like Love Actually (2003), Notting Hill (1999), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) — I guess everyone’s allowed their off day, Curtis included.
Yesterday tells the story of Jack Malik (played by relative newcomer Himesh Patel) whose troubles, you see, are not so far away — in fact, they’re very here and now. It’s been a hard day’s night for Jack, an aspiring singer-songwriter who stacks shelves for a living at a superstore in the seaside UK county of Suffolk. But that hasn’t stopped Jack from trying to achieve musical glory, scoring small-time gigs thanks to his childhood best bud Ellie Appleton (the always fetching Lily James), who, when not molding young minds in the classroom, moonlights as his manager. Jack’s shows, however, aren’t exactly pulling in large crowds, and poor Ellie seems to be the only person that believes in his God-given gifts, having instantly stamped Jack as the ‘next big thing’ after hearing him sing Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ at a school talent contest some two decades back — and she’s been blindly devoted to him ever since. But after a string of feebly attended performances — including a little tent gig at the prestigious Latitude Music Festival in his hometown — Jack decides to hang up his dreams for good, claiming that it’d take a miracle to change his fate, despite Ellie’s pleas to keep pushing on.
Ask, and you shall receive, as a little miracle soon flips Jack’s world upside down. While riding home on his bicycle that very night, a freak 12-second global blackout leads Jack to get hit by a passing bus, which sends him soaring through the air before hitting the pavement below. Jack soon wakes up in the hospital with Ellie sitting by his side, visiting for support — sure, he looks a little silly, missing his two front teeth, but he’s happy to be alive.
Once discharged, Ellie tries to brighten up Jack’s spirits by taking him to their friends Nick (Harry Michell) and Carol’s (Sophia Di Martino) home for some R&R, which is where goofball slacker Rocky (Joel Fry), an old friend whom Jack bumped into at Latitude, is staying for the time being — the screw-up was fired from his roadie work at said festival. Anyway, Ellie surprises Jack with a gift, a spanking new guitar to replace his old one, which was shattered during the accident. Naturally, Jack christens it by gently strumming The Beatles’ 1965 ballad ‘Yesterday.’ But for some inexplicable reason, no one seems to remember it: ‘When did you write that?’ A stunned and speechless Ellie asks. Jack, however, feels like he’s the mark of a practical joke, labeling the tune ‘one of the greatest songs ever written’ — which, in fact, it is. His friends seem happy with his newfound confidence but are a little surprised and confused at how OTT he is acting.
After rushing home and doing a quick Google Search, Jack realizes that he’s in a ‘really, really, really complicated situation,’ trapped in a world that doesn’t remember The Beatles or their revolutionary music. In an effort to try and preserve the band’s legacy, Jack starts scribbling down the lyrics to as many of their songs as he can recall. This initially earnest gesture, though, soon spirals into a weighty moral dilemma when fame comes knocking on Jack’s front door, the absence of Beatlemania paving the way for his star to shine bright. Should he claim the songs as his own, or educate mankind on the musical legends that, through some weird cosmic intervention, have been totally forgotten?
While there are sprinkles of inspiration and a handful of hearty laughs — a scene where Jack attempts to play ‘Let It Be’ for his folks for the very first time hits all the right notes, comedically — Yesterday fails to carry the weight. Sure, it’s fun to watch pop sensation Ed Sheeran in a self-deprecating role, almost parodying himself — at one point, the ginger-haired artist suggests changing the lyrics of The Beatles’ 1968 chartbuster ‘Hey Jude’ to ‘Hey Dude’ — but instead of commenting on the state of today’s music scene, which it blatantly tries to satirize, Yesterday uses the contemporary landscape for cheap, irreverent humor. All its messages and ideas never come together (image is seen to be more bankable than talent, but this goes nowhere), and its scattered story beats amount to very little, thematically. The big question is, if erasing The Beatles seems to have no visible or significant impact on society or the music trade, then why bother having a story that celebrates their supposed value and influence?
Both Himesh Patel and Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), are charming in their respective roles and share genuine chemistry, but their characters are too thinly sketched to elevate the material, making it hard for audiences to invest in their perpetually stunted relationship. Admittedly, Patel does shine during many of his lively guitar-led renditions of classic Beatles tunes, but poor James hasn’t got a lot to do, and a ham-fisted love-triangle subplot wholly emphasizes this — Ellie almost feels defined by the men in her life and is given next to no personality. When it comes to the supporting cast, they’re generally all okay, with Game of Thrones (2011) alum Joel Fry being the real MVP, providing many of the flick’s laughs as Jack’s bumbling buddy Rocky, who follows him around on his globe-hopping tour. Oh, and Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters (2016), pops up too, playing a cutthroat, money-grubbing music industry bigwig, who replaces the more sincere Ellie as Jack’s agent.
With garden-variety direction by Danny Boyle, who usually excels at tackling stories about everyday people thrust into extraordinary situations — see A Life Less Ordinary (1997) or 127 Hours (2010) — Yesterday plays out like an overly mawkish music video mash-up honoring the Fab Four from Liverpool, Boyle’s artsy kinks and garnishes mostly absent from the proceedings.
While I appreciate the film’s overall sentiment, wanting to introduce the timeless tracks of The Beatles to a whole new generation, Yesterday could have been so much more. Even as a fantastical-romance, 2007’s Across the Universe, which also tributes and samples songs from the best-selling band in history, is far more fruitful, and a lot more inventive and entertaining. Ultimately, this is no magical mystery tour and scrapes by thanks to some spirited musical ditties and the rock and roll music of The Beatles. In short, Yesterday is not worth the ticket to ride.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner
Yesterday is released through Universal Pictures Australia