If The Beatles only formed today, would they become famous? Such a question is pretty much impossible to answer, but director Danny Boyle wants to have a go in this, his 13th feature. Boyle has struggled to replicate the glittering form of Slumdog Millionaire, his follow-ups being the grim 127 Hours, the forgettable Trance, the inaccurate to the point of being fiction Steve Jobs and the arguably unnecessary T2 Trainspotting. There has been plenty of critical praise in there, but it would be a brave person to argue that Boyle is on the same level of 2008 and before.
So, why not a wacky premise that seems like a set-up for a jukebox musical? Boyle has certainly made hay with lesser projects, and this one had a screenplay from British romcom darling Richard Curtis. A decent cast was assembled, the trailers were good, honestly this seemed like a fell-good slam-dunk in the making, provided that it all came together and didn’t take itself too seriously. So, was it a case of “Here Comes The Sun” or “Help!”?
Jack (Himesh Patel) is an unsuccessful singer/songwriter, close to quitting despite the support of best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James). After getting hit by a bus during a freak electrical outage, Jack awakes in a world where The Beatles never formed, but he can still remember them. On the back of their work he rockets to super-stardom, but feeling more like a fraud every day, and struggling to resolve his complex relationship with Ellie, Jack must decide whether he prefers global fame or a more personal happiness.
Yesterday is a film that does hit the feel-good beats of what is, essentially, a romcom crossed with a sort-of musical (I was only slightly joking about the “jukebox musical” comment, I could genuinely imagine this story on stage) and, like any of Boyle’s films, does come across as polished, reverentially made and emotive. But, to my great regret, it is not a film that makes the very most of its parts, with the human element of its story relegated to a frustrating extent.
The set-up is simple enough really. Jack clearly has talent, but in a day and age where getting “discovered” is more down to happenstance and connections than ever before, he’s understandably close to packing it in after years of empty dance floors and uninterested pub patrons. Boyle has always had a knack for quickly introducing likable protagonists, and his Jack is no different. He doesn’t berate Ellie for their common failings, as an American romcom would surely have depicted the two, he doesn’t begrudge other people their success, he doesn’t think he’s a misunderstood genius unfairly treated, he’s just quietly giving up on waiting for a miracle.
And then a weird incident (Boyle doesn’t spend too much time on it, with a newspaper headline blaming a solar flare for a 12 second worldwide blackout), a road accident and two missing teeth. Boyle doesn’t want us to consider what it actually would mean to live in a world without The Beatles (of the repercussions, the absence of Oasis seems to be the only musical one, along with Coca Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter for some reason) and Yesterday is not a film that cares even an iota about such plot-holes. Boyle speeds along to the reason we’re here quick enough, as within minutes Jack is playing “Yesterday” to Ellie and his friends, who are slackjawed at how he has come up with one of the greatest things they’ve ever heard.
I suppose it is in this that Yesterday becomes a love-letter to The Beatles. How could it not I suppose? Depicting a world where everyone is being re-introduced to “Yesterday”, “A Hard Days Night”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Let It Be” among many others allows the audience to, in a way, really appreciate these songs again, as if hearing them for the first time (though some of the words to “I Saw Her Standing There” seem a bit wrong in the mouth of a 30-year-old). The blending of such beautiful lyrics, guitar and voices is as powerful now as it was when these songs were first released, helped by Patel’s genuinely fantastic auditory performance.
But Yesterday loses itself a bit too much in this, dedicating too much of its time to a repeated joke of people either not appreciating or not understanding The Beatles’ back catalogue enough for Jack’s liking (in one scene, he keeps getting interrupted when trying to play “Let It Be”; Jack can’t make his family understand why it’s a big deal that they are the first people to ever hear it). In essence, Boyle and Curtis don’t really want you to care that The Beatles are gone and what this means for the world. The world isn’t really that different, in their depiction. Instead, they just want you to love The Beatles, as if the vast majority of us with functioning ears don’t.
In terms of band-based films that, as I mentioned earlier in the year, seem to be the current it-genre, Yesterday is a welcome change of pace, but it’s not saying anything really interesting or deep about The Beatles beyond “They were good, weren’t they?”. And by the end of the film’s overly-long running time – a good 15 to 20 minutes could have been trimmed off here – Yesterday has truly outworn the longevity of this message, and that’s without saying anything about a tremendous misfire in terms of a third act surprise cameo appearance from one of the last figures you would expect.
Yesterday gets by on a narrative of “Be careful what you wish for” when it comes to celebrity, a well-worn tale seen most memorably in recent times with A Star Is Born, that Boyle can’t enliven too much. The predictable beats are all present: tentative steps turning into opportunity for adulation; Jack getting overwhelmed from the media pressure and the album expectations; the greedy American manager who wants to hitch a ride to Jack’s rocket (a fun Kate McKinnon, pretty much playing a cartoon); realisations that it might be better to get out before you can’t go home again. Boyle tries to enliven some of these sequences with the likes of Joel Fry’s zany roadie character, and with the biting repartee of McKinnon (who, literally, refers to fame as “a poisoned chalice” she wants Jack to drink from, leading me to wonder if she was going to turn out to be a demonic figure inside a coma fantasy) but it doesn’t quite come together in the way that it should.
The film should really find something important to say in terms of Jack’s plagiarism. Instead of “Can a man get famous doing Beatles songs in a universe where they never existed?” the film should really be asking “If Paul McCartney isn’t there to dream up “Yesterday”, does it make a sound?” There is some time dedicated to this idea, spiced up by the ominous inclusion of a couple of bystanders who start following Jack around, clearly having remembered The Beatles as well.
But in the end it doesn’t amount to all that much, just some occasional hand-wringing over whether Jack deserves, or even wants, his fame. However, Boyle, and Curtis, should be commended for subverting some expectations all the same. The above duo’s (Sarah Lancashire and Justin Edwards) stalking of Jack doesn’t climax the way you would think, and if the Jack/Ellie relationship is rote to a fault, Boyle also dodges the pitfalls of making the woman an obstacle to Jack’s dreams as is so often the case in this sub-genre.
That nominally central human drama of is of Jack and Ellie, the two who obviously have feelings for each other, but are unable or unwilling to act upon them. That’s a fairly by-the-books rom-com plotline of course and for too much of the film Patel and James are apart, a shame as they have genuinely decent chemistry. Perhaps things may have been more engaging if they were written to be a band instead of a singer/manager duo (imagine Jack having to explain to his song-writing partner how he’s coming up with all this stuff, or maybe they both remember The Beatles but one isn’t comfortable pursuing the idea).
James makes the very most of her very secondary role, and should be getting more leading parts (she deserves more projects like Cinderella, and not her largely bit part in Baby Driver), unfortunately relegated here to staying in Suffolk. By the time we are past the halfway point Boyle has settled for something altogether mundane in the depiction of their relationship. It’s here that Richard Curtis’ part of the proceedings, he being King of the straightforward British rom-com couple, becomes very obvious, and not all that welcome. The larger issue may be that the film can’t properly balance this romance plot with the central Beatles-centric narrative, with the two appearing to intrude on the other whenever we switch gears, all while the supporting cast of characters are one-note and weak.
However, there is a really skillful use of music here. It would have been easy to just have Jack sing Beatles songs whenever the script called for one, but Boyle makes a point of picking and choosing the right song for the right moment, whether its the exuberant “Back In The USSR” for when Jack’s career kicks off, a truly eye-opening rendition of “Help!” when Jack is in the midst of an emotional maelstrom and a closing montage to the infectiously jaunty and tonally appropriate “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”.
Ed Sheeran’s much publicised part of proceedings amounts to some few extended cameos, including a notable nod when, having been shown up by Jack singing “The Long And Winding Road”, he admits he is a mere Salieri to Jack’s Mozart (later McKinnon goes further and, Lennon-like, declares Jack to be Jesus to Sheeran’s John the Baptist). Sheeran is a good-natured fulcrum for some shots at modern pop, in the form of criticism of his own rap, and his deadpan suggestion “Hey Jude” become the more marketable “Hey Dude”.
If Yesterday has shots to take, it is in that kind of direction, such as in a vacuous marketing meeting where modern PR men dismiss Jack’s Beatles inspired album art in favour of something much more individualistic and, ultimately, flavourless, the exact opposite of what The Beatles came to represent. McKinnon is frustrated that Jack’s down-to-earth look and dress sense is not appealing enough for the modern demographic, declaring him “skinny, yet somehow round”. There’s also an odder shot at Coldplay, and “Fix You”, which a character dares to compare favourably to “Yesterday”. This garners a horrified reaction from Jack, as if music post-Beatles is all trash, exacerbated by Jack’s later comment of “That figures” when Oasis have also vanished
It’s a testament to the continuing power of The Beatles that when, after much teasing, “Hey Jude” finally does get an airing during the credits, most of the people in my theatre stuck around to listen, all the way to the “Na, na, na, na” fade-out. That’s what Yesterday is best for really, as a two-hour showcase of why The Beatles were great at what they did, and why their music continues to hold great relevance to listeners today. Patel gives it socks as their auditory cipher, and there are parts, here and there, where Yesterday reaches the heights that we associate with the director and that some associate with the writer.
But James is relegated too much, the film can’t get a proper handle on the the serious or comedic possibilities of the premise, and its romantic plot is sadly underdeveloped. For me, Boyle is still on a downward trend, though I am, as of yet, in the minority on that opinion. Maybe not for much longer though. Yesterday isn’t a disaster, but it’s far from what it could have been. “A world without The Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse” says one character, and she’s right, but this world isn’t all that much better with Yesterday. The best I can do is partly recommend.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).