Some people don’t think that The Beatles are the most important band of all time. Those people are wrong. They’re lovely, but they’re wrong. Now that’s out of the way, let’s consider ‘Yesterday’, which was released at the end of June this year (2019).
Directed by Danny Boyle, with a screenplay by Richard Curtis, and starring Himesh Patel and Lily James, the plot is that everyone apart from the protagonist, musician Jack Malik (Patel) forgets about The Beatles after a global power outage. Upon being given a new guitar as a gift, Jack plays ‘Yesterday’, no-one recognises it, and everyone assumes that he wrote it himself.
That puts him a tricky position. Global mega-stardom and untold riches beckon and he won’t need to make much effort to get them, other than plagiarising the work of geniuses he loves and being consumed by guilt as a result.
So, what is this, exactly? Well, as you’d expect from a Curtis script, on one level it’s a romance between the two engaging leads, but that’s quite heavily delineated from the main plot. James’ character, Ellie Appleton, has been holding a candle for Jack ever since he won a school Battle of the Bands contest at age seven and has gone on to become his manager, roadie and chauffeur twenty-years later. Oh, and she’s a teacher. That’s it, as far as her character goes. In a film about The Beatles, it would be nice if perhaps we learned more about her tastes in music. That would at least give her character another dimension and help us to explore her relationship with Jack a bit more, but no.
That’s not catastrophic, I’m not going to attack it with the Bechdel test, but it does mean that as a romance, all we really have is the performance of the actors to bring it to life. Those performances, as I said, are great. Both are relatable, likeable people that you enjoy spending time with. But it does bring us back to asking what this film is.
It doesn’t feel like a jukebox musical either, in the traditional sense (although Wikipedia disagrees with me). It does, initially, bring to life the experience of hearing The Beatles for the first time and the ‘Yesterday’ scene made me cry like a mum at a wedding. But with the jukebox musical (and I’m no expert here), the joy comes from the anticipation of hearing your favourite song. Well, maybe when you’re dealing with the best-selling band in history, there’s too much to choose from, you just can’t fit everything in. Once again, this isn’t necessarily a problem. If that’s all a jukebox musical has to recommend it, Yesterday does more and this does feel like a proper, fitting tribute to the band.
But… what is it? Well, it’s a Danny Boyle fairy tale.
In 1997, after the huge success of Trainspotting, Boyle released A Life Less Ordinary. Now, it seems, largely forgotten, this was a fantasy romance with angels, Claymation and people coming back from the dead. It was, ultimately, a fairy tale, and it was great. Boyle had an awesome start to his career. Shallow Grave is a wonderfully nasty thriller, which more than stands up today, Trainspotting is, of course, a zeitgeist capturing classic and A Life Less Ordinary is wild, funny and just the right amount of over the top. Things took a major dip after that, with his adaptation of The Beach, but when you’re the pre-eminent British filmmaker of your era it’s an entirely reasonable risk to film what was arguably the most popular book amongst his core audience at the time. And besides, swaggering back with the fantastic ‘28 Days Later…’ more than made up for it.
It seems though, that he never forgot the fun he had on Life… ‘Millions’, which was his follow up to 28 Days… in 2004 is arguably a fairy tale, and Slumdog Millionaire, for better or worse, has that quality in abundance. It is a quality of unreality. A kind of sheen which sits between the film and the viewer, never quite letting you in.
It’s all over Yesterday. The film never feels real, which should be fine because it’s clearly a fantasy. But this is also a Richard Curtis film, and Richard Curtis does two things very well: comedy and highly tuned emotion. You could say ‘sentimentality’, but think about the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, About Time, or that scene in Love Actually when Emma Thompson realises Alan Rickman is playing his most despicable screen villain (yeah, Hans Gruber, the Sherriff of Nottingham and Elliot Marston have nothing on Harry in that film. He’s a horrible little weakling). Curtis’ episode of Doctor Who, Vincent and the Doctor is similarly emotionally devastating. And so what if he uses sentimentality? That’s not inherently a bad thing.
While there’s one scene in Yesterday that uses this to powerful effect, the sheen does keep you from fully engaging with what ought to be a more unabashedly emotional experience. It does hit the heights sometimes, and if you love The Beatles, then you’ll like this film. But will you love it? Well, I didn’t.
While it’s chucklesome, it never seems to be as funny as a Curtis script can and should be, possibly because it’s constrained by its rating, he can’t fall back on his comedy swearing. No fuck-fuckety-fucks here.
So, there you have it. Yesterday. Not enough Beatles, not enough comedy and not enough emotion.
Ed Sheeran’s in it though, so there’s that.
It’s not a bad film by any means, but it feels like it’s trying to be all things to all people. By putting arguably, the most popular and successful modern British musician in the film (and he’s in it a lot), clearly the film wants to speak to younger people and introduce them to four Scousers who changed the world. That must be commended, but if you show this to your kids and they respond to it, show them A Hard Day’s Night as well, then maybe Yellow Submarine. Then, when they’re old enough, Nowhere Boy and Backbeat.
There’s a scene toward the end that really spoke to me, when Jack and Ellie lead some school kids in a sing-along of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. I was transported back to my own primary school then, standing around the piano in the hall, while Mrs Evans our music teacher had us singing Yellow Submarine, When I’m Sixty-Four and Penny Lane.
The scene reminded me that for some of us The Beatles aren’t a band, but a part of who we are.