(2019—Director: Danny Boyle)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
Ever since the summer of 2000, I have loved The Beatles. They were the only music I listened to up until I started to branch out late into my junior high years. Thanks especially to The Beatles Anthology documentary series on DVD (my First Communion gift!), the Ultimate Album-by-Album Guide by Rolling Stone, and All These Years: Vol. 1—Tune In by Beatles authority Mark Lewisohn (can’t wait for Vol. 2 and 3!), my fondness for these beloved and revolutionary artists has only matured throughout this past decade. That said, one area I’ll gladly acknowledge wasn’t one of The Beatles’ strong suits was in music publishing. Compared to record sales and live touring, music publishing is the true long-term revenue generator for rights owners ever since a market for music has existed. Being the best selling and most popular music act in history gives way to costly licensing for use in movies and TV shows, hence why that method has had such a minor hand in shaping the grand legacy of The Beatles’ music. Yesterday, scripted by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle (both also producing), is cinema’s latest attempt to channel that legacy and the result is sentimental and modest at best.
For his big-screen debut, Himesh Patel holds Yesterday together quite impressively, following small-screen tenures on BBC’s EastEnders (2007-2016) and Channel 4’s Damned (2016-2018). Quickly—perhaps too quickly—the film shows Patel as Jack strumming and singing, with manager Ellie (Lily James) and a steady clan of friends (Sophia Di Martino, Harry Michell, and Ellise Chappell—all disappointingly superfluous) present at every unpromising local gig. Once past his bike accident and everything from his sly references to Beatles lyrics to outright dropping their name in conversation draws confusing looks, Jack reacts as one would expect. Here, writer Curtis and director Boyle decelerate the pacing down to allow for the amusing yet realistic, initial absence of reception for Jack’s “new” songs. Then, when things finally get going, the plot doesn’t hold back from giving Jack a few more obstacles. Even when viewers know the outcome, Ed Sheeran challenging Jack while on tour in Russia to an impromptu songwriting challenge provides for a moment of rest that also continues to push Jack’s emotional trajectory forward.
Once Kate McKinnon enters the picture, followed by Lily James barging back in, Yesterday unfortunately loses the groove of its hook.
First, Ms. McKinnon: While she’s funny on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (debuting there in 2012), her big-screen performances have pretty much been duds for me. She always seems to be trying too hard to embody her characters and make them funny. Here, she takes on the clichéd sleazy music manager role, which continues to perfectly reflect the cruelty of the music industry without doing a single thing to improve it in real life. Ms. McKinnon’s try-hard approach not only makes her role’s chuckle moments awkward, but when she does have chuckle moments, it’s when she remarks on Jack’s unattractive look—a jab that comes across as tasteless.
Then there’s the story juncture where Ellie forwards Jack an ultimatum—loving her at home or leaving her behind for fame and fortune in America and the globe. Look, I don’t like it when romances have the “girl next door” type supporting and secretly pining for the main guy for many years, before forcing the guy to choose when it’s clear that their lives are now going to diverge in a major way. Everyone has their vocational callings and while many married couples may view themselves as longtime best friends, sometimes pushing romance in other strong male-female friendships only ends up damaging the friendship.
In Jack’s case, romance is the least of his worries, for he has entered into one of the craziest scenarios a struggling singer-songwriter could ever encounter. Writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle chose to waste this backdrop on realizing a basic romance rather than dig into the heart of what made The Beatles—the men themselves—special, beyond just “all you need is love”, selling billions of records, and inspiring legions of musical acts in their wake. Come to think of it, it seems utterly disproportionate that the world has to forget The Beatles (and a few other things I won’t spoil here), just to bring a struggling singer-songwriter and a modest school teacher together. Add to that a host of underused supporting roles—including Ed Sheeran’s slight discouragement at finding in Jack a superior songwriter and Joel Fry’s Rocky as the plot’s best attempt at scene-stealing comic relief—and the result carries much unrealized potential.
Shame. Richard Curtis is one of the UK’s great scriptwriters. Danny Boyle’s last two films—2015’s Steve Jobs and 2017’s T2 Trainspotting (which I’ve brought up before)—remain top 3 films in their respective years. And of course, The Beatles are my all-time favorite band. All three factors played it safe. Curtis continues his slight career lull, while Boyle has proven that his direction means little without great screenplays to start with. (Fortunately, he has directed plenty of those, while 2010’s 127 Hours is his one screenwriting credit).
As for The Beatles, it appears that only a relative faction recognize the elements that truly made them special. They didn’t rise to the top via just good looks, charm, and especially not the whims of the industry establishment (like many hotshot producers, managers, and any judge/promoter from any given pop singing contest show might suggest). No, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr became The Beatles because they put in the toil and sweat in the way they wanted to do it. To set themselves apart from their mostly-forgotten peers—the ones most can name are clear exceptions—The Beatles listened to and gained inspiration from diverse and even obscure work from the popular music landscape of their day, and synthesized their inspirations, first on stage and later in the studio, under the mentorship of producer George Martin. Moreover, they sought to surpass even their own work and to never hold back with their Liverpool-bred wit and cynicism towards the artifice rife in any popular art. Everything that shaped each of The Beatles brought them together and led them to their everlasting glory. So, while Yesterday shows that at least one artistic medium has made some ground in exploring The Beatles’ multi-layered uniqueness, a great distance still remains for other storytellers to cover in due time.
Parental Note: Yesterday has been rated…
• PG-13 by the MPAA “for suggestive content and language”;
• 12A by the BBFC for “infrequent strong language, drug references,” and “moderate sex references”;
• A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “implied premarital sexual activity, mature references, including to drug use and sexuality, numerous profanities, at least one rough term, and occasional crude and crass language”; and
• -1 (“Caution for teenagers and adults”) by Movieguide for being “moderate” on language (“several strong profanities”) and “light” on sex and nudity (“some emphasis on romantic love”).
Extended Premise: Lowestoft-based Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has spent much of his twenties as a struggling singer-songwriter, with manager and childhood friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James) by his side all the way. One evening following a sequestered gig at a local popular festival, Jack gets struck by a bus during a sudden global blackout. Upon waking up (sans two teeth) and after his recovery, he discovers that he may be the only person on Earth who remembers The Beatles. Invigorated by the opportunity of a lifetime, Jack starts performing and recording as many Beatles songs as he can remember, claiming them as his own. He soon tours with and befriends Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and gets signed by unscrupulous LA-based manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). However, Jack is also faced with leaving Ellie behind, on top of becoming increasingly guilty of plagiarism.
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.