Back in April, I interviewed Daniel Hartwell, founder of the inaugural Beatles on the Beach Festival, which would soon descend on Delray Beach. I asked him to reflect on why the Beatles remain so perennially popular, with generation after generation. He answered, in part, “the music, if it were to come out today, would be a hit. It would be alternative rock.”
Yesterday, a winsome new fable from Danny Boyle, imagines such a scenario. Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a moderately tuneful but unsuccessful singer-songwriter in Essex, who plays mostly to drunken barflies, his mates and their bored offspring. His childhood best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) believes in him, but she’s a lone advocate in a wilderness of shrugged shoulders. Jack is ready to give up the dream he’s been pursuing since the middle-school talent show, a decade ago, when he performed Oasis’ “Wonderwall” to an audience size he has yet to recapture. He is, quite simply, in need of a miracle, so he vocalizes that need; it’s that kind of a movie.
Lo and behold, the miracle arrives that night in the form of a 12-second global blackout during which Jack pedals his bicycle into a moving bus and is thrown into the air, losing two teeth but, like a classic superhero’s origin story, gaining a special power no one else possesses. Apparently, the power outage caused a glitch in the matrix that removed the Beatles from history — except in Jack’s mind and musical muscle memory.
He’s flabbergasted when he stuns his friends with a standard rendition of “Yesterday” upon his recovery. They cannot believe he composed such a staggeringly beautiful song. Well, most of them, anyway; as one friend hedges, “well, it’s not Coldplay. It’s not ‘Fix You.’”
It needn’t take a Nostradamus scholar to predict the plot’s long and winding road toward a devil’s bargain of fame and fortune. Jack’s “original” compositions quickly reach the ears of local record producers, then celebrity musicians — Ed Sheeran gamely portrays a version of himself, one unworthy of Jack’s sudden genius — then a predatory American label executive played with pitch-perfect brutality by Kate McKinnon. He’s the next big thing, poised to change the course of popular music forever, but how far can he coast on a lie?
A better question is this: Would these songs actually be hits, sharing space on a radio dial with Cardi B and Kanye and Bruno Mars and Twentyone Pilots? I’m deeply skeptical of this premise, given the voluminous amount of brilliant singer-songwriters who have peeked, occasionally, from their burrows of underground obscurity over the past 50 years only to be largely ignored by the mainstream.
Nevertheless, the film’s most resonant conceit imagines a 21st-century iteration of Beatlemania. In one bubbly sequence, Jack is, in fact, chased by screaming Liverpudlians — he makes a pilgrimage to the now-anonymous city to trigger inspiration for “Penny Lane,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and other tracks he’s had a hard time fully remembering — but more often than not, the Beatles’ iconic concepts are watered down by more conservative minds.
Jack’s suggestion for the title of his debut album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is dismissed as too long, too weird, too indulgent. His alternate idea, the White Album, “has some diversity issues.” And what’s with “Hey Jude?” Who’s Jude? Wouldn’t “Hey Dude” connect better?
Yesterday is cute but slight, clever without being especially profound. Though directed with playful, shapely crackle by Boyle, the film’s authorship can be most accurately be credited to its screenwriter Richard Curtis, of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually fame. Yesterday bears much in common with Curtis’s crowd-pleasing, time-travel rom-com About Time, another love story inked with supernatural juju.
But it’s the romance, between Jack and Ellie, that is the most rote aspect of Yesterday. Time and again, Jack takes Ellie for granted, misses her cues, fails to see her as anything but a friend — a disconnection the movie exacerbates by providing Jack with false binaries between Ellie and his blooming career. It wallows in the transparent irony that the “writer” of pop music’s most transcendent love songs is, himself, inept in matters of the heart.
Yesterday is most worth seeing for the presentation of the music. For Beatles fans, which is to say for everybody, it’s hard to imagine a more joyous soundtrack, whether it’s “Help” performed as a discordant, 13th Floor Elevators-style garage rocker; the handclap percussion of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” replicated by the actors donning dishwashing gloves; “Back in the U.S.S.R.” premiering to an exultant audience in Moscow.
As a romantic comedy and a moral parable, Yesterday is a B-side at best. As a loving tribute to the Fab Four — a Beatles movie without the Beatles — it’s the illustrious jukebox musical Across the Universe could have been.
YESTERDAY. Director: Danny Boyle; Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran; Distributor: Universal; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Today at most area theaters