Right before director Danny Boyle unveiled his new Beatles-inspired movie Yesterday at the Tribeca Film Festival back in May, he shared a quick anecdote about filming inside the Mersey Tunnel in the Fab Four’s native Liverpool. A local construction worker stopped him, he said, and gave him a stern warning about the project: “Don’t f—k it Up.”
He didn’t. Yesterday is a bright, big-hearted pop confection, serving as an amusing walk down memory lane (er, make that Penny Lane) while still conveying deep passion for its iconic subject. Oscar-winning Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love, Actually) have crafted a crowd-pleaser that aims to delight all the way up to the nosebleed seats. And when the musical rom-com fantasy is released to the masses on June 28, it will certainly be anointed as the feel-fantastic picture of the summer.
Thought a bunch of costumed Avengers saving the world thanks to time-travel quantum physics seemed far-fetched? Think again. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician and warehouse stock boy in England that gets by with a little help from his childhood friend and manager, Ellie (an under-utilized Lily James, who doesn’t use any of her Mamma Mia! singing chops). After a freak 12-second global blackout and a bus accident that landed Jack in the hospital and wrecked his guitar, he’s gifted a new instrument by his friends once he’s on the mend. He casually starts strumming and singing “Yesterday” to his friends, who are enamored by the tune and clamor to know how he created such a lovely ballad on the spot. Turns out Jack is the only human on Earth to have heard of the Beatles or their unparalleled repertoire following that unexpected, dimension-shifting blink.
No, really. A Google search turns up ugly insects. Nobody’s ever heard of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr. When Jack can’t believe that his friends don’t recognize their names, one person sniffs “They’re no Coldplay!” in response. And in a winking musical-lineage joke that drew big laughs from the premiere audience, Oasis doesn’t exist in this post-blackout world, either. (That’s a yes for the Rolling Stones and Childish Gambino, though.) A gob-smacked Jack doesn’t do very much soul-searching before he decides to take the Beatles’ catalog and pass off the classics as his own. Unethical? Sure. (This is not a movie that digs deep into complex or fascinating art-versus-commerce messages.)
“I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Back in the U.S.S.R” — Jack jots down as many lyrics as he can remember and goes public with all the above. (His visualization of the “Eleanor Rigby” characters is especially clever.) The songs connect with fans all over the world, prompting a humbled Ed Sheeran to knock on his door and ask him to go on tour with him. Soon, a big-time L.A. manager (an adeptly droll Kate McKinnon) signs him and orders a mandatory makeover. Jack-Mania ensues.
It’s a cynic that believes a simple pop ditty called “She Loves You” with its looping “yeah, yeah, yeah” chorus would never strike big in today’s fragmented music landscape. None of Jack’s songs are infused with hip-hop or a Cardi B sample or Swedish beat, a fact pointed out by a label executive in a staff meeting Jack can barely sit through. Maybe he’d be a B-list YouTube star at best, but that notion just underlines the point in Curtis’ screenplay: The Beatles’ songs are passed down through generations because their words and melodies continue to transcend any and all genres. “Hey Jude” is the “Fur Elise” of our era. Though, ahem, Sheeran suggests that Jack change the title to “Hey Dude.”
Besides, finding flaws in the logic dilutes from the joy. If you’ve seen Trainspotting, Trance and Slumdog Millionaire then you already know Boyle is a genius at incorporating glorious music in ways that force you to sit up straight and pay attention. In Yesterday, he allows us to re-experience the Beatles’ songs as if they’re brand-new. When Jack straps on an electric guitar and performs a sizzling rendition of “Help!” the feeling is exhilarating. It hardly matters that Patel’s solid-if-unremarkable vocals wouldn’t merit a red-chair turn-around on The Voice. The actor, a newcomer to feature films and previous cast member of BBC soap East Enders, exudes the excitement of a young rock star. That’s why the numerous performance scenes rarely play like cover versions.
There’s something satisfying, albeit predictable, about a narrative arc in which a hero ultimately learns the adage about being careful of what you wish for. Jack may have the riches and the success, but he has nightmares about his epic ruse. Sweet, supportive Ellie is slipping from his grasp. (As expected from any Curtis screenplay, the heart-to-hearts are too saccharine to be considered authentic.) As his popularity grows into Hard Day’s Night-levels, there’s a sense that sooner rather than later someone will and should figure out that “The Long and Winding Road” is not an original and Jack must face a serious reckoning.
All the nagging doubts culminate in what’s set up as a Big Moment in the third act. But what transpires is a twist so polarizing that it will be talked about with fervor long after the movie fades away. Some may find it a poignant reminder of our own mortality; the majority will likely think it’s shockingly offensive and distasteful. (At the premiere, Boyle begged the audience, twice, not to spoil it). Either way, the scene is so shoe-horned that it threatens to derail the entire film. That said, I know some people who adored it.
Big Moment aside, even the most casual of all Beatles fans know that the Fab Four traversed in peace and love, peace and love. The M.O. is keep things light and celebrate the music itself, whether it’s in the form of a nostalgic visit to the real Strawberry Fields or an homage to the Beatles’ landmark and bittersweet rooftop performance at Apple Corps HQ. Yesterday, today or tomorrow, it’s always time to remember the soundtrack of our lives — courtesy of the heralded band that made it all happen.
Yesterday opens in theaters on Friday, June 28.
Also published on Medium.