YESTERDAY (2019), the new musical fantasy by Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), asks the question, what would life be like if the Beatles and their music never existed?
The answer it comes up isn’t very satisfying.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician who in spite of his enthusiastic manager and promoter Ellie Appleton (Lily James) just can’t seem to catch a break. As fate would have it, on the night he decides to call it quits, to hang up his guitar and return to teaching, a strange incident occurs: the entire world goes dark for a period of twelve seconds, as all electrical power disappears, and at this very instant, Jack is on his bicycle and in the dark gets hit by a bus.
He survives the accident, and shortly thereafter makes the unbelievable discovery that no one knows anything about the Beatles, and when he looks the iconic band up online, he cannot find any information about them at all. Jack sees this as his big break. As a huge Beatles fan, he knows most of their songs, and so he sets out to sing these songs and reintroduce them to the world. Since these are some of the best songs ever written, Jack becomes a global phenomenon.
While this is supposed to be a playful fun fantasy, I couldn’t get past the fact that Jack’s first impulse is to steal the Beatles’ songs and pass them off as his own. This plot point rubbed me the wrong way, and it’s something I never really got over throughout the film, largely because the movie doesn’t really do a good job handling it.
I mean, we get the impression throughout that this is bothering Jack, but he doesn’t come out and say it. He tries to tell Ellie, but he doesn’t. And when he becomes a songwriting superstar, he embraces his fame. Eventually, Jack comes to a point where he knows he has to stop doing this, but it takes the entire movie for him to make this realization.
The film leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, what the heck happened in the first place? Why did the planet lose power for those few seconds? The film never attempts to answer this question. Also, the Beatles aren’t the only thing now forgotten. Jack makes other discoveries along the way. Things like Coca Cola and cigarettes— they never existed either. The film offers no explanation.
Also, the Beatles’ songs scream of collaboration. There was just something completely unbelievable about one man, Jack, writing all these different types of songs.
And, as we find out later in the movie in a key scene, the fab four themselves existed, but they simply didn’t become the Beatles. I have a hard time swallowing the notion that artists especially writers— in this case, songwriters— wouldn’t have the urge to create and write, even in an alternate universe. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but I would want to know exactly how it was that these folks didn’t become the Beatles. That’s not discussed at all.
Richard Curtis wrote the screenplay, and it’s one that unfortunately doesn’t spend any time really delving into the fun parts of this story. That’s not to say the film isn’t fun. Everything is light and amiable, and of course you have Beatles’ songs peppered throughout, but this story could have been so much more. I wanted to know more about what life would be like if the Beatles never existed. The answer this story gives is that the one guy who remembers them steals their songs! Not my idea of creativity.
Curtis has written tons of screenplays and teleplays, from the TV series BLACK ADDER and MR. BEAN, to movies like FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994) and WAR HORSE (2011).
Himesh Patel is likable enough in the lead role as Jack, but it’s not like he knocked my socks off, a la Taron Egerton as Elton John in ROCKETMAN (2019). Likewise, while it was fun to see the Beatles songs performed in front of massive live audiences, the concert sequences paled in comparison to the electrifying scenes in ROCKETMAN.
Lily James is fine as Ellie, although strangely the two leads did not share a lot of chemistry. They’re supposed to be in love without really knowing it, in that neither one ever acts on their feelings, but other than their friends speaking to this, I never got the impression based on their performances that they were all that into each other. I like James and enjoyed her performances in DARKEST HOUR (2017) and BABY DRIVER (2017) more.
Joel Fry delivers one of the better performances in the movie in a supporting role as Rocky, Jack’s loser friend who becomes his road manager. It’s an honest performance, as Rocky is full of flaws but means well, and he’s one of the more realistic and believable characters in the movie.
I also enjoyed Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jack’s self-absorbed but well-meaning parents. The sequence where he tries to perform “Let It Be” for them, and they just can’t sit still long enough for Jack to get through even the first few notes is both one of the funniest and most frustrating scenes in the film. And yet they are not monster parents. Later in the film, they remind Jack that they were the first people to hear him perform “Let It Be,” something they said they never forgot.
Comedienne Kate McKinnon is effective as Debra Hammer, Jack’s agent and promoter once he becomes famous. It’s a biting cutthroat performance, and McKinnon handles it naturally.
YESTERDAY is supposed to be a light and fun musical fantasy, and that’s certainly the way it plays out. I have no problem with the feel of the film or the music, two things I enjoyed, but the plot point of a singer/songwriter taking the Beatles songs as his own rubbed me the wrong way and never allowed me to truly love this movie.
Simply put, there are better ways to restore lost art to the world than by stealing it.