The idea of The Beatles having never existed in an otherwise contemporary 2019, Yesterday‘s central conceit, raises so many questions: could the music industry as it stands in 2019 even break a Beatles? Would their music — so full of 60s references and the optimism of early psychedelia — even rate? Would the marketers, the producers, the managers know what they had, and could they leave well enough alone? And what about the fact that the songs would be coming from an Indian-British guy instead of four white boys from Liverpool? Talk about the perfect vehicle for separating the message vs the messenger! Could this be the final evolution of the music biopic, with all the sing-along, reliving-the-hits appeal of the traditional biopic but none of the hoary, destined-for-stardom hagiography? Hell yes, I’d watch that!
With all of this to work with, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Curtis turn in… a full-on, running-through-the-airport rom-com snooze about two grown-up, heterosexual best friends who have been in love with each other since prepubescence but still take 55 minutes of screen time to even kiss. My God, what are we even doing here? Is true love always this excruciatingly dull?
Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling young singer/songwriter living with his parents in Suffolk. Like Oscar Isaac’s character in Inside Llewyn Davis, Jack is confident in his own talent but not in the larger world’s ability to recognize that talent. After years of sparsely attended pub gigs and opportunities that go nowhere, he’s about to pack it in. The only one trying to talk him out of it is his manager, Ellie (Lily James), who has been Jack’s biggest supporter ever since she saw him play “Wonderwall” at a youth talent show. Everyone in their lives rightly wonders why they aren’t boning and never is a convincing answer offered. One night during a power anomaly Jack gets hit by a bus and when he wakes up, you guessed it, no one has ever heard of the Beatles.
Now Jack, who does have a lovely singing voice, gets a kind of career mulligan. He gets an entire catalogue of songs that he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt are hits, and all he has to do is figure out how to get people to hear them. It’s like having the artist’s ultimate superpower, the ability not to doubt the material. He can know whose suggestions are good and whose are bad, who is actually hearing the songs for the genius they are and not pigeonholing them based on who he is, all while having to try to overcome the accompanying impostor syndrome. It’s a superhero origin story set to The Beatles, Spider-Man meets “Paperback Writer.”
In an early scene, Jack tries to play “Let It Be” for his family, the first time anyone in the world has ever heard this smash hit cultural touchstone, and they keep interrupting him. And he gets frustrated, knowing, for once, that his impatience is entirely justified. For about 25 minutes I thought I was watching the crowd-pleasing, multiplex-accessible, Spielbergian version of Inside Llewyn Davis. What a treat that would’ve been.
Now, imagine having that as a premise and then thinking that the most interesting part of it was the will-they-or-won’t-they story of two best friends everyone assumes were having sex already. As Ellie tells Jack, “I’ve been waiting half my life for you to wake up and love me. But I’m a teacher and you are the world’s greatest singer/songwriter.”
How… is that… even… a conflict? And didn’t anyone notice how not a conflict it was when the character just spoke it out loud?
Jack Barth has co- “story by” credit with Richard Curtis on Yesterday, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Barth handed Curtis this wonderful premise that Curtis had no idea what to do with. How else to explain why Yesterday is so full of disembodied, irrelevant Curtis-isms, like the boy showing up at the girl’s doorstep in the pouring rain, or the boy only being able to declare his love through grand embarrassing gestures? It’s like contrived romcom-ese is Curtis’s only language. As if handing Curtis this wonderfully promising premise was like taking a million dollars and spreading it in front of a tortoise, who sat there contentedly munching the bills like lettuce. Danny Boyle, meanwhile, once the rightly-acclaimed director of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, makes his presence known every five or ten minutes with another conspicuously canted camera angle that looks like a tripod fell on the floor. Yesterday is honestly worth seeing as the ultimate example of a good premise utterly squandered.
Over and over Boyle and Curtis prove themselves completely blind to the possibilities of their own story, such as when Jack fires up “I Saw Her Standing There” and not one person, not one, mentions the potential backlash for a statutory rape-themed banger in 2019. Meanwhile, Ed Sheeran convinces Jack to change “Hey, Jude” to “Hey, Dude.” Really? With all of the possibilities, that was the joke they chose?
Yesterday even steals a page from the Nicholas Sparks playbook, where a character has to choose between love and a career like it’s 1950 (weirdly insulting teachers along the way). It gets so caught up in this storyline that there’s barely time for Beatles music. A bunch of songs are just smooshed into a montage near the end of the film in which each song gets less than five seconds, as if they couldn’t afford the rights and had to use the preview versions.
But in the end, I suppose, Yesterday isn’t really about the Beatles. It isn’t about art, or career, or cultural context, or the music business, and it’s only about “love” inasmuch as Hallmark cards and McMansion word art are about love. It isn’t really about anything.