Yesterday (2019) Review
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Richard Cutis
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kate McKinnon, Alexander Arnold, Ed Sheeran
With just a quick glance at the trailer, one could easily assume that Yesterday is simply jumping on to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hollywood bandwagon. Coming hot off the heels of the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, it’s a fair assumption. Furthermore, with the obvious nostalgic theme, the more cynical of potential audience members may choose to ignore it as part of the film industry’s obsession with reboots, remakes and sequels. If you do happen to find yourself in one of these camps, please stop. You may be depriving yourself of one of the most bittersweet yet heart-warming movies of the year.
2013 was the last time we were able to enjoy a bonafide Richard Curtis British rom-com, in this case the Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams starrer About Time, so you could say we’re well overdue. However, this hiatus can be easily explained: legend of comedy he may be, Curtis does have an annoying penchant for the upper middle class who are woefully in love but still enjoy a roast guinea fowl at the weekend. This kind of caper arguably no longer sits well with post-recession Britain. I suspect this was anticipated by Yesterday’s producers if not Curtis himself, and by a stroke of genius Danny Boyle was hired to take up the Director’s chair. Awkward declarations of love in the rain, let me introduce you to diving head-first into a poo-filled toilet. Clearly, it’s a match made in heaven. In all seriousness, Curtis’ whimsy and Boyle’s grittiness are an enjoyable combination (whilst still very unusual), creating a rom-com that modern audiences will find relatable.
Jack Mallik (Himesh Patel) is an ordinary and rather humble guy trying to achieve the millennial dream of making a living from his passion – in this case music. Undoubtedly a talented musician, his self-penned efforts are sweet but are unfortunately pretty forgettable. After too many disappointing gigs and tedious part-time jobs, Jack is ready to hang up his guitar and go back to teaching, even despite his manager Ellie’s (Lily James) protests – we’ve all been there, sitting on the overcrowded bus to a crappy job, reading the posters promising 6 weeks of summer holiday. However, at this moment of resolution, the entire world’s electricity blinks out for a few seconds and poor Jack is run over by a bus. Bar a few missing teeth, he’s none the worse for wear (well, apart from now facing a lifetime of teaching [shudders]). That is until he realises he has somehow woken up in a world where The Beatles never existed. Yes, The Beatles. To a lover of music this revelation is devastating, but Jack soon realises the golden opportunity that has landed in his lap. If he can’t make it big with his own music, maybe the hits of The Beatles will be his ticket to fame.
Despite the parallels that can be drawn between Yesterday and recent musical and rom-com favourites, the movie remains somewhat unique. It’s not a fantastical musical biopic like Rocketman; it doesn’t simply use the songs as musical numbers like Mamma Mia and it’s more than just a tribute like Across the Universe. Instead of a mere running theme, the music of The Beatles is an actual plot device and an integral element of the story-telling, in a narrative that has never dared to be conceived up until today. Beyond this, the film’s idiosyncrasies lie in the fact that despite it being stuffed with the typical Curtis tropes (American culture is the worst; the big lie and the dreadful truth reveal), it is distinct from his other rom-coms. This can be attributed Boyle’s directorial influence.
The shy British protagonist with a perfect RP accent has proven to be a great source of witty comedy, but alongside their excellent credit scores, the Curtis comedies are now seen as works of aspiration: I mean Christ, if only I could own a second-hand travel book shop. With Boyle being the champion of the underdog, the plight of Jack and Ellie is truly heart-wrenching instead of plain melancholic, and despite the fantastical setting it is entirely relatable. This frank depiction of millennial struggle in relationships is refreshing and comforting; the accurate observation lends to truly heartfelt comedy.
Still, with the mastermind responsible for ‘Blackadder’ behind the script, Curtis deserves a fair share of the credit for many of the movie’s genuine belly laughs. Watching the film, you are taken back by its presumptuous nature with the expectation of the agreed consensus that The Beatles are one of the greatest bands to have ever existed. But indeed, the audiences that would be attracted to Yesterday do think The Beatles are one of the best bands ever. In fact, Curtis’ self-awareness in this regard allowed him to orchestrate very clever and satisfying fourth-wall humour, playfully mocking Beatles fans themselves. Personally, I often found myself shouting the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” at the cinema screen as Jack struggles to clobber the songs together through memory alone. It’s joyfully painful.
However, the actual idea behind the film’s story did earn a few murmured criticisms. The idea of The Beatles and their music disappearing from our universe does open up a lot of questions regarding the massive cultural and even sociological hole they would leave. I know some viewers felt that the opportunity wasn’t taken to fully explore this, but in all honesty such criticism is unfair – this is not a Masters thesis or an episode of ‘Doctor Who’, this is a rom-com! It’s almost exclusively light-hearted entertainment. Such a criticism ignores the fun exploration that is made and is played up for laughs. Showcasing the influence of The Beatles on more contemporary bands through ridiculous comparisons will have fans groaning and laughing from the daring sacrilege. On a more serious note, the story is used to examine the folly of fame. To quickly pass over the genuinely curious moments which contemplate whether The Beatles could actually become famous in this day and age, Yesterday takes a bold and totally unexpected turn to brutally show the true cost of fame. This single plot point stole the air from my body and made my eyes well up. Combined with the devastating pain portrayed by Patel and James at their characters’ separation, Yesterday achieves a phenomenal emotional weight and pathos which will stay with you long after the credits roll.
The picture does suffer from some of the common complaints of modern movies, most notably the funniest moments of the film being in the trailer. As a result, these gags lost much of their impact during the actual film; the most frustrating of which was the big reveal that The Beatles no longer existed – as it was a key selling point of the movie it was naturally plastered all over the promotional material, but when the moment actually came it was incredibly underwhelming. However, this was more than made up for with the multitude of red herrings that didn’t cheat the audiences but provided twists that would make spines tingle. This also atoned for a narrative that was quite often all over the shop.
One issue that could knock you out of your suspension of disbelief is the dialogue. It’s cheesy, especially during the romantic scenes. Even worse, it doesn’t really match with the movie’s overall tone, instead feeling like a remnant from the past. Thank God for Patel and James who acted their boots off, putting their very hearts into their work, even achieving some gravitas with these lines. In fact, the whole cast is brilliant, particularly the nation’s favourite comedy couple: Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal. Their comic timing is second to none, stealing the show in every scene they appear in. Kate McKinnon also does a great job of subverting her friendly reputation and, in a role she clearly very much enjoyed playing, finds huge success in portraying a massive bitch. It really was very kind of her to allow the British Film Industry to use her as a conduit to vent its frustrations with America. Even Ed Sheeran is worthy of praise, good-naturedly playing up to his reputed arrogance and blandness to serve as the butt of many a joke.
The only other gripe worth mentioning is that, ironically, the film could have done with a few more Beatles numbers. Those who are fans of the movies such as Help! and A Hard Day’s Night may be disappointed as we’re not treated to that many full tracks. The lofty cost of the rights alone would have had something to do with it, but lots of Beatles songs from a movie titled Yesterday is a fair enough expectation from potential audiences. We are however treated to some very nice rock covers of a few of the fan favourites; “Help!” and “Back in the USSR” are particular highlights of the whole movie. It’s produced very much in the mould of noughties indie rock, and is therefore in keeping with those who grew up with both The Beatles and The Killers; those of a similar age to the film’s protagonists.
All in all, Yesterday is a pleasing experience for both hardcore and casual fans of The Fab Four, allowing both to laugh at their own expense. The fantasy of the whole thing even captures the attention of those who claim they’re not even that keen on the band’s music, as they can appreciate the legend and even the Mythos surrounding The Beatles. For maximum enjoyment, you’re gonna have to put away your Cinema Sins glasses (leave that for ‘The Game of Thrones’ finale). This is a Richard Curtis rom-com, not a documentary, so prepare for heaps of fun – if you keep an open mind you may very well be surprised.
Amongst all the fantastic music and jokes are some truly magical moments that really bring home the message that a world without The Beatles would be just that much worse.
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