Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is a romantic comedy which also doubles as an ode to The Beatles. The premise may be science fiction, but the execution and focus is a pure situational comedy. Though your love for the fab four may affect the mileage you get out of the movie.
Yesterday imagines a world without The Beatles. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) gets hit by a bus just as the world experiences a twelve-second total blackout. Waking up, he finds himself the only person who remembers the band. The film isn’t really interesting in that science fiction aspect though.
Boyle and his screenwriter Richard Curtis are much more interested in Jack and his record manager, friend, roadie, and superfan Ellie (Lily James). Ellie is clearly in love with Jack. Jack is in love with being miserable. After ten years Jack’s finding the role of the starving artist isn’t as rewarding as he thought it would be.
Realizing he is the only one who remembers The Beatles, Jack begins to pass their songs off as his own. Soon, Ed Sheeran is visiting his house late at night and inviting him to be the opening act on his upcoming tour. It’s the old cliche of opening for Ed Sheeran and becoming a globalized cultural sensation after playing a dance hall in Russia by singing “Back in the USSR”.
Intellectually, Yesterday is shallow and borderline obtuse. If you had never seen a film directed by Boyle or written by Curtis you’d think these men had no concept of how art works. The Beatles are an era-defining band. But what does that era look like without them? If The Beatles are such a massively important cultural touchstone as the film argues, then why does the world look and behave much the same without them?
To be fair The Beatles are not the only thing which no longer exists. Part of the fun of Yesterday is watching Patel’s Jack talking with someone and gradually discovering another thing which has apparently vanished from reality. Late at night while trying desperately to remember the lyrics to “Elanor Rigby,” his mom Sheila (Meera Syal) brings him a Pepsi. “No thanks mom, I don’t want a coke.” “A what? I just thought you’d like a soda.”
A world without Coke is an almost nightmarish thought. It would be easy for me to rail against all the things Yesterday doesn’t do. It doesn’t interrogate it’s own premise beyond “Wouldn’t it be weird if X happened?” Jack’s fame comes from just doing acoustic covers of the band’s catalog. His only personal connection to the art is what it means to him oftentimes changing the words to better suit the demands of his record executive Debar Hammer (Kate McKinnon).
People love the lyrics because they are good. We see a dawning fanaticism for Jack’s song, but it’s never understood why all the world seems to be going mental over Jack. Or why the music is so popular or what it means to people. All we hear is people complimenting on how good it is but not why. But it’s because Yesterday doesn’t care about those things and isn’t asking us to think about in those terms.
Yesterday is a fairytale. It’s not built on logic and world building. The story runs on the simple faith of the suspension of disbelief. Cutis loves The Beatles. But he’s really interested in the simple desire to find happiness and love.
Jack wants to be happy and to find love. It’s only just as his fame starts to hit he finds out what everyone else has known for years, Ellie loves him. “How did I end up in the wrong column? Hmm? How did I end up in the best friend column and not the girl of your dreams?”
She’s a schoolteacher and Jack is apparently the greatest songwriter the world has ever known.
Jack and Ellie are like magnets. They can’t help but be drawn to each other no matter the situation. Jack goes to Liverpool to recharge his creative batteries, or so he tells Deborah. In reality, he still can’t remember the words to “Elanor Rigby” and is convinced visiting the sites will bring them back. While there, he runs into Ellie and soon the two find themselves drunk and walking down the streets of Liverpool at night.
In another director’s hand, Yesterday may have been tedious or insufferable. But Boyle infuses a giddiness into the heart of the film. Curtis and Boyle share an obvious love of The Beatles. Their love isn’t the love like we would find in the record store in High Fidelity. No these are men who would rather sit down and just marvel and revel in the beauty and joy of the songs.
Sometimes the lyrics, or a title of a song, will rush by on screen like a runaway freight train. A symbol for Jack being struck by another Beatles song. Yesterday isn’t a treatise on an art or how art is created. It’s a love letter to how it makes us feel.
The way a song can lift you up when you’re feeling down or feeling pissed. Music has a way of infecting us with the moods of the song and the artist. We develop strong personal relationships with songs. So much so, the actual intent of the songwriters, musicians, and performers, don’t even begin to influence our own interpretation of the song.
Boyle and Curtis could be accused of playing it safe. After all, no matter what genre, you put the film in the stakes are pretty low. The duo has a charming and invigorating faith in humanity though, and the decency of honesty of Jack’s final decision guards the film against my more cynical nature. For most of the film, the choices made are safe ones. Still, the times Yesterday does something daring or makes an inspired choice leaves us genuinely surprised and overjoyed.
One moment, which I won’t spoil, involves Jack meeting an old man. The moment has an audaciousness to it which left me more than a little stunned. What’s more, is that this old man was used to guide Jack onto a better path. For more than a century in film white characters have been seeking out wizened people of color and pilfering their life stories for inspiration. It was nice to see, intentional or not, the roles reversed.
Yesterday doesn’t remark on Patel’s look except when to mock how he doesn’t look like a typical “rock star”. Though when he stands next to Sheeran it’s hard to wonder why people are being so judgemental. Patel is charming as he grouses his way through the script’s hurdles.
He is made to suffer one fool after another. His Jack is a prickly but lovable downtrodden hero. A man who looks for happiness but gets lost along the way. As he’s trying to unveil his newest song “Let It Be” to his mom and dad, Jed (Sanjeev Bhaskar), he can’t help but explode at his parent’s dismissiveness of The Beatles.
“You don’t have to start at the beginning, I’ve heard it three times already.” Jed’s heard it three times because life doesn’t stop when you’re trying to rip off a world-famous band no one’s ever heard of before, and it’s not stopping for Jack either. What’s remarkable is how effortlessly Patel is able to get us on his side. He has a way of smiling and shouting for joy which is infectious.
Ellie is a mass of optimism and loyalty. It’s a foregone conclusion we will all but groan at Jack’s idiocy when he doesn’t choose Ellie over being famous. James is given the thankless role of “the girl”. Thankfully she fleshes it out. Ellie is a math schoolteacher who has no interest in fame and fortune. She loves the quiet serenity of the country. As much as she loves Jack, she’s not about to wait for him either.
Boyle gives us montages quick edits and a general economy of storytelling lacking in the average big studio release. Remarkably Boyle has us on the ground and running in a world without The Beatles in roughly ten minutes or so. At the same time, he’s in no rush to get Jack to the point of worldwide celebrity-dom. Refreshingly Jack discovers that just because he knows who The Beatles are and can remember most of their lyrics-no one knows who he is or cares.
Christopher Ross shot Yesterday and lends an air of effervescent joy to the film. He and Boyle create a polished jukebox musical dividing the screen up between Jack’s performances and the reactions of the fans. Despite all the fancy camera tricks Yesterday never feels as if Ross or Boyle or trying to overcompensate. Instead, it adds a layer of genuine playfulness to the film.
Of course, Ellie and Jack get together in the end. But the fact we root for them to be together and can’t help but smile in relief when they do is the key. Yesterday is a romantic fairy tale whose only aim is to leave us happy and smiling.