Yesterday

Posted: July 11, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Himesh Patel and Lily James.

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Jack Malik (Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter who’s reached the end of his rope, with no one interested in hearing him play, except for his manager and friend Ellie (James) he’s decided to quit music and give up his dreams.

But then, during a worldwide blackout, he’s hit by a car. He’s badly injured but make a full recovery. There’s just one problem, he now seems to be the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles. With a whole lot of classic songs rattling around inside his head, and in a world without John, Paul, George and Ringo, Jack becomes an overnight success, but is fame all it’s cracked up to be?

Yesterday has a lot of problems, which doesn’t mean it’s terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just incredibly lazy. A film that relies on a hackneyed plot that rarely scratches the surface of its high concept premise.

The plot collapses if you think about it for more than 5 seconds, and it undercuts its own point almost immediately. It wants us to believe the Beatles are important, that their music is special and makes the world a better place, yet the Beatles’less world is objectively no different to our own, even before you get to all the other things that no longer exist (mild spoiler; it’s not just the Beatles).

The whole point of a “what if” tale is that the world should be very different. What if Hitler died in World War 1? What if Penicillin was never invented? What if JFK survived Dallas? All of these things would make the world manifestly different, but we seem to be getting along just fine without the Fab Four, so what’s the point?

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The original script was by Jack Barth and Mackenzie Crook and was called Cover Version, but when they dropped out Richard Curtis took over and rewrote it. The original sounds more interesting, because the protagonist doesn’t become a worldwide hit, he archives only moderate success. It was also Curtis’ decision to make it a romcom, which I have no problem with, and I like a lot of Curtis films, but if you’re going to use a high concept like the Beatles ceasing to exist as mere window dressing for a love story, you could at least come up with something more than the by the numbers “He doesn’t know she exists” story we get here.

Back to the plot anyway. There’s a writing axiom that suggests you can get the audience to buy one contrivance, one fantastical moment, per film, but Yesterday just keeps piling them on. First the Beatles vanish, then we’re expected to believe that this ordinary young man becomes an overnight sensation playing random Beatles’ songs, never mind that the Beatles success was in part down to their place in time, four young lads from Liverpool who exploded onto the scene in the early 60s, a time very different from now, and never mind that their style evolved from rock and roll to folk, country and eventually psychedelia, apparently their songs are so good that the world will lap them up out of order and played by a nervous young man from Suffolk rather than four likely lads from Liverpool.

That Yesterday is inoffensively enjoyable is down to other factors. An engaging cast for starters. Patel makes for a likable lead, and I suspect the former EastEnders star will go on to bigger and better things. Lily James is a great actress, but her movie choices are a tad erratic at times. She does her best here with a drippy character, but she deserves better.

Joel Fry as Jack’s roadie Rocky is a hoot, and Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, are great as Jack’s parents.

Ed Sheeran as, er, Ed Sheeran, is nowhere near as annoying as you might expect him to be but his appearance is a trifle jarring (and the appearance of one particular character later on is a wince inducing misstep in my opinion).

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Finally we get Kate McKinnon. She’s a great comic actor, but her money obsessed music producer is straight out of central casting.

As well as the cast, we have Boyle who directs with enough verve and style that I was never bored, and finally we have the Beatles themselves, or rather their music, and the film leans heavily on their catchy tunes, even if it never tries to dig into what makes them so wonderful, it’s content to just love you do.

And Curtis’ script does have its moments, in particular as Jack struggles to remember as many lyrics as he can.

Maybe I’ve just thought about it too much rather than buying into the premise, but as enjoyable as this fluff is, with a cast like that, a top draw director, and the music of the Beatles to draw on, this could have been so much more than a predictable there’s more to life than fame rom com.

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