It may be the innate romantic within us, or perhaps the mark of countless sci-fi fables that allows us to wonder what all would change should something be plucked out from its ordained spot in history. You know, the same sorts of questions that phrases like space-time continuum thrive off of, and frightening images of our limbs fading away into de-conception derive from. Only a select few get to live that experience – thanks to movie magic – but for those who were wondering, Yesterday confirms: the Beatles will always rock.
That’s a fact of life Jack Malik (played with a flawless blend of wit and moodiness by Himesh Patel) learns the hard way. Sort of. To say he’s a nowhere man at the start of the film would be a bit cruel – if not fitting, given he’s the kind of guy who peppers Lennon/McCartney lyrics into regular conversation – but that’s the direction his music career seems to be taking him.
Trying to make do as a ripple in an ocean of acoustic-vocalist acts, his small gigs of original songs aren’t making any waves. On the verge of giving up, he requests a miracle, and fantastically, it’s granted: a global, 12-second blackout wipes out the lights, and apparently takes the memory of the Beatles, among other random things, along with them. When Jack asks his relentlessly supportive manager, Ellie (Lily James), “will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” she replies, puzzled, “Why 64?”
And that’s where director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis set sail. The guitarist, whether out of a sense of righteousness or selfishness – it’s never really made clear which one – makes it his purpose to restore the classics the world wants and needs. It’s a killer premise, one with the psychedelic makings of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but Curtis’ meek script goofs this film’s potential; in simple terms, Yesterday becomes just another romantic-comedy, with the known benefit of a head-banging soundtrack.
Unfortunately, only on occasion does it tap into the richness and complexities of Jack’s situation. One scene sees the thief face off against Ed Sheeran (playing himself) in a 10-minute battle of the songwriters. Sheeran comes back with a quick, more-than-catchy tune, one that’d stomp just about anybody else. But Jack pulls out “The Long And Winding Road,” an obvious winner. Sheeran, the true champion, humbly and woefully accepts defeat. Outside of that moment, the film hardly ever places Malik in the face of choice or the shadow of consequence.
Rather, his journey’s met with posh, modest obstacles that hardly ever interfere with the rags to riches story. It’s cute watching Jack decorate his room with post-it notes of every Beatles song he can remember. It’s amusing seeing him struggle with the tricky lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby.” And it stings when Jack debuts the titular McCartney ballad and his friend snootily states, “well, it’s not Coldplay.” Sequences like these make an examination of the Beatles’ repertoire all the more desirable. It’s easy to assume Beatlemania would strike down again if given the chance, but a more interesting question would be whether or not “Sgt. Pepper” and his Lonely Hearts Club Band are too out there for the here and now. We get the occasional sprinkled-in joke – such as The White Album’s lack of diversity – but a discussion would be more suitable.
For the most part, the adversity’s spent instead on Jack and Ellie’s romantic relationship, which Jack doesn’t see until it’s too late and his fame’s more than torn them apart. Nevertheless, Patel and James bring a fresh conviction to the worn-down love story. In their way from saving the by-the-numbers production, however, are a plethora of annoying sidekicks (such as pinhead roadie Rocky, played by Joel Fry, and Jack’s manager in the limelight Debra, played uninspiringly by Kate McKinnon), and a series of missed laughs and deliberately awkward situations where the charm comes far from crossing over.
With all that said, the Oscar-winning director lends his hand in bringing a tonality to Yesterday that’s more than welcome. Boyle reigns in the energy the script fumbles, the energy we desperately need and that which the Beatles’ music demands. Working with cinematographer Christopher Ross, the screen pops and is brought to life in a similar fashion as Yellow Submarine. The film makes some major mistakes – like practically never allowing the music to help tell the story – but it certainly takes some steps in the right direction.
I’ll say this. There’s a cameo appearance towards the end of Yesterday that’ll spark an enormous debate across the music-listening world. When it comes to the existence of the Fab Four, there’s only one considerable event that makes us wonder if it should’ve ever happened. Boyle and Curtis address it. It may be conspicuously sentimental, and super soggy, but just for a moment, a taste at what could’ve been brought a smile to this Beatlemaniac’s face.
Yesterday’s lackluster, underwritten script both births its golden egg concept, and also restrains it from ever reaching the next level of sophistication or interest.