A film review by Craig J. Koban July 13, 2019

YESTERDAY jjj

2019, PG-13, 112 mins.

 

Himesh Patel as Jack Malik  /  Lily James as Ellie Appleton  /  Ed Sheeran as Ed Sheeran  /  Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer  /  Camille Chen as Wendy  /  Maryana Spivak as Alexa  /  Lamorne Morris as Head of Marketing  /  James Corden as James Corden

Directed by Danny Boyle  /  Written by Richard Curtis

YESTERDAY is a new musical dramatic fantasy that has one terrific hook: 

What if you woke up one day and discovered that The Beatles never existed. 

Now, just let that settle in for a second. 

Just imagine the musical landscape of the last several decades without the work of the Fab Four.  Their work was not just music, kind of like how STAR WARS was not just a movie.  If erased from history, the ripple effects of The Beatles' influence on multiple generations of musicians would have, in turn, never existed.  It's positively mind boggling to ponder, which is part of the insatiable allure of YESTERDAY, which is the brain child of the cinematic dream team of director Danny Boyle (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, TRAINSPOTTING), and writer Richard Curtis (FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, NOTTING HILL), and together they enthusiastically craft an undeniable crowd pleasing charmer with, yes, a huge bounty of music that is now legendary.  The central premise of the film has an endlessly compelling reach, and Boyle and Curtis have fun with it, even though the story starts running out of creative gas in the late stages.  Yet, YESTERDAY's alluring blend of romantic comedy, musical drama, and pure fantasy makes for a fairly enthralling cocktail that's awfully hard to hate, despite its missteps at times  

The film is made all the more delectably watchable because of its inordinately appealing lead actors as well, chief among them Himesh Patel, who plays Jack, a down on his luck musician that ekes out an existence in a very remote area of England that's been struggling for years to make it as a songwriter and singer.  He has talent and drive, just not a serious following, and when he's not working a soul crushing retail job he's desperately trying to get his name out there while playing one dog of a gig after another.  He's starting to hit absolute emotional rock bottom and is ready to give up on his dreams, but his lifelong BFF and manager in Ellie ( the absolutely luminous Lily James) has steadfastly stood by her man through every embarrassing career ordeal.  Even when Jack is playing to nearly empty venues, Ellie is always there for him to nurture his talents and ensure him that his time will eventually come. 

 

 

Depressingly, though, Jack has had enough of the constant stream of career rejection and is on the verge of quitting forever, but his life changes forever when, during a fateful bike ride home one evening, he's accidentally struck by a truck during a rather convenient worldwide power blackout that lasts exactly 12 seconds.  He manages to survive the hellish ordeal, but begins to notice that something is...well...off during his recovery stay in hospital.  He makes a pretty specific reference to a Beatles song to Ellie, which oddly eludes her.  Even stranger is when he meets up with her and a few of their friends after his hospital stay, which builds to him receiving a new guitar from them as a get well gift.  He plays Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" for them, which moves them nearly to tears. Jack is perplexed by their soulful reaction to his cover, but he becomes shocked when all of them reveal that they have never heard the song before, or - GASP! - The Beatles. 

Predictably, Jack learns to his dismay that The Beatles have been completely wiped from existence, which has something to do with that aforementioned worldwide power outage.  His fears are concerned when even very specific Google searches for the group only bares images of insects.  Even though the thought of a world without The Beatles and their music is impossibly awful to think about, Jack hatches a rather ingenious, if not fiendish, plan.  Going on pure memory, he decides to write down the lyrics to as many Beatles songs as possible and begins performing them to friends and family, and later begins testing them out in front of crowds.  Needlessly to say, Jack becomes an overnight sensation and one of the biggest acts in the world, but his work is an act of desperate forgery.  He even attracts the attention of a power and money hungry agent (Kate McKinnon), who promises to make him more powerful and richer than he can possibly imagine...that is if he relocates from England to L.A..  He begrudgingly opts to, even though it creates huge wedges in his professional and personal relationship with Ellie, who can't bring herself to leave her home and family behind in England. 

The juiciest aspects of YESTERDAY occur in its early stages, when the dumbfounded Jack fully begins to grasp the limitless magnitude of The Beatles being completely eradicated from popular existence in the new alternate reality he finds himself in post-blackout and accident.  And it's not just music that's been affected, but other aspects of culture as well (apparently, cigarettes, Harry Potter, and Coke don't existence anymore either).  Artistic plagiarism is indefensible, to be sure, but the tantalizing predicament that Jack finds himself in is pretty rich: If no one has ever heard of John, Paul, George and Ringo and no one has ever heard any of their music, how would anyone call him out for being a phony it he used their catalogue for career and financial gain?  Jack also isn't a money grubbing cynic.  He worships at the altar of this band, and re-introducing their music to a new world is equal parts preservation of an integral part of music history...and, yes...a way to become a sensation. 

YESTERDAY also works well at times as a pretty spot on and hilarious satire of the contemporary music industry.  As Jack becomes bigger and bigger he finds himself at odds with his new manager that wants to pervert his image and sell him as something he's not comfortable with at all.  Even more noteworthy is a sly, yet sobering scene with Jack attending a vast marketing meeting with an advertising firm filled with hopelessly out of touch executives that inform him that market research has revealed that, for example, the titles he has picked for his new albums (all lifted from actual Beatles albums) are wretched (The White Album, for instance, speaks badly towards diversity).  In one hysterical sequence, Jack is convinced by Ed Sheeran (playing himself in a very self-deprecating cameo) that he should change the title of "Hey Jude" to the vastly more obnoxious sounding "Hey Dude."  Sheeran is front and center in one of the better moments in the film when he watches Jack belt out "Back in the U.S.S.R" in front of a Russian audience, with Sheeran sheepishly bowing to Jack's greater skills.  "You're Mozart and I'm Salieri." 

The heartfelt performances here help sell this film's frankly out there premise.  Patel's a pretty gifted vocalist that provides many flattering renditions of cherished Beatles tunes, not to mention that he makes his character extremely likeable and empathetic despite the fact that he's faking his way to success and an absolute fraud.  He has really superb, unforced chemistry with James, whose face has never appeared in a film that the camera has not loved.  She's also quite thanklessly natural playing what's otherwise a pretty stale love interest on pure autopilot in the story, which leads me to one of my criticisms with YESTERDAY.  Considering their film's wonderfully wacky and innovative premise, Boyle and Curtis pepper the narrative with an awful lot of overused romcom clichés.  Far too often than not, the film seems more interested in trudging down well worn genre conventions with Jack and Ellie's on again, off again relationship status, which is nowhere near as intoxicating as world building the flip side universe presented here sans The Beatles.  Patel and James are undeniable cute together on screen, but the stakes of the story they populate really seem bigger than their obligatory and formulaic romance. 

This all builds to an unavoidable feel-good conclusion that seems a bit forced (that, and Boyle and Curtis regrettably let their film implode in the final 15 minutes or so in an extremely rushed sense of dramatic closure).  Lastly, YESTERYEAR didn't dig as deeply as it should have in terms of its reality bending premise, and the ramifications having no Beatles in this twisted existence as to how it would affect music as a whole is kind of sidestepped, minus a few well timed gags. I also started doubting Jack's super human ability to remember every single lyric from nearly every Beatles tune by heart, which never seems credible (granted, he does stumble with recollecting a few more obscure songs).  Still, I found the magical weirdness of this film's premise and its what if possibilities to be agreeably entertaining, even if the final product doesn't click into the higher gears that I was expecting with the partnership of Boyle and Curtis.  And let's not forget all of the film's infectiously toe tapping renditions of The Beatles' most revered catalogue of hits.  Leaving the cinema post screening, I found it haunting to think of how much worse off our world would be without them.  It would leave countless generations of guitars gently weeping.   

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