Sunday, September 22, 2019
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Camille Chen, Maryana Spivak, Lamorne Morrise, James Corden
Running Time: 116 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If Oscars were handed out for story ideas and concepts, it's likely anyone involved with the one at the center of Danny Boyle's Yesterday would be preparing their speeches. Unfortunately for them, no such category exists, and for good reason. Movies still have to be written and directed, wherein we discover if the execution of those ideas successfully translate to the screen. It would seem the pairing of Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire director Boyle and Love, Actually screenwriter Richard Curtis on a film envioning a world where The Beatles never existed would be the closet thing to a sure bet there is. I'd even go as far to say it contains one of the best premises for a movie we've heard in years. Calling it a "can't miss" is likely underselling its potential, which seemed limitless from the moment it was announced.
While its theatrical trailer appeared to have given away too much, it's still fair to say expectations remained very high going in. Especially when they somehow found a way to license the Fab Four's entire catalogue, cleverly incorporating it as a plot device that guarantees we'll listen to the songs in a way we haven't before, watching the reactions of characters discovering it for the first time. It could also work as pop culture commentary, glimpsing how it would be received, marketed, and promoted in today's wildly different music landscape. We do get some of that. Kind of. Mostly in its promising first half, before veering way off course and making me about as frustrated as I can recently remember about a film's squandered potential. Despite being recommendable on just about every level, you can't help but be bothered by what it isn't, delivering what has to be the cruelest kind of tease. It succeeds due to a winning lead performance and a film's worth of Beatles' covers that are excellently performed and presented, but that inescapable feeling it could have been so much more still lingers after the credits roll.
Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter from Lowestoft, England whose manager and childhood friend, Ellie Appleton (Lily James) keeps encouraging him not to give up on his dream, even as he continues to perform in empty dive bars, coffee houses and music festival tents. About ready to quit and return to teaching, Jack's hit by a bus during a global blackout, landing him in the hospital with multiple injuries. When he gets out and sings "Yesterday" for his friends, the realization sets in that they have no idea who The Beatles are.
When a quick Google search results in insects rather than the band, Jack's suspicions are confirmed, as he's awakened to a world where only he's heard of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Unsure whether they never existed or no one remembers them, Jack begins performing their songs and passing them off as his own, attracting the attention of pop star Ed Sheeran (as "himself"), who asks him to open on the Moscow leg of his tour. You could probably guess which song he picks.
It isn't long before Sheeran's cold, money-hungry agent, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) gets her claws into Jack, signing him to her label and carefully orchestrates her newest superstar's meteoric rise. As his career takes off, it becomes clear something's missing: Ellie, who's opted to stay behind to continue teaching. As they wrestle with their feelings for one another, Jack reluctantly basks in the newfound fame while also wrestling with the guilt of having plagiarized The Beatles' biggest hits. Not to mention his fear of being found out.
If there's one thing this film does exceptionally well, it's incorporate The Beatles' music into the story in a natural, unforced way. It's a welcome change of course after the last major release to earn that legal right, 2007's Across The Universe, which attempted to shoehorn their songs into a single narrative, with wildly mixed and forced results. Having played more like a collection of music videos starring characters we cared little about, it was easy to understand the lukewarm notices. Dramatizing the lyrics and content behind their songs was always going to be an uphill battle so it's a relief that this film doesn't even attempt to try.
It's as a tribute to the band's music and legacy that Boyle and Curtis score the most points, its premise practically demanding a closer look at what they've meant, regardless of how well that idea's seen through until the end. But their biggest accomplishment is in finding a virtually unknown singer and actor who can deliver two hours straight of immensely innofensive Beatles covers that remind us just how fun their music can be. While it seems strange to need a reminder of that, there are times their legacy seems so daunting it would feel like homework for the uninitiated, if such a group exists. There's a lot to like in what's done with the arrangements of these songs and how the story necessitates their inclusion rather than the other way around. They're updated and tinkered with just enough and Himesh Patel has a really pleasant voice and presence for delivering them as intended, in addition to an everyday charm well suited to the monumental predicament Jack finds himself in. Of everything, the music was the one aspect the film absolutely had to nail, and it did.
The question of whether or to what extent the public would embrace the Fab Four's music if released by a modern artist in present times is handled fairly well, wisely observing that no matter how great art is, it still needs to catch on. And more often than not, people actually need to be told how good something is before they feel comfortable fully embracing it and spreading the word. In this sense, Curtis' script is accurate in so far as depicting that just singing these hits won't be enough. One of the best scenes involve Jack singing "Let it Be" for his disinterested family and receiving an even chillier reception when performing more of their classics for local patrons. Or Sheeran's insistance on changing the lyric of "Hey Jude" to "Hey Dude."
If there's anything to extract from this, it may be the realization that our culture actually does need agents, critics and the media to open our eyes to quality if it isn't otherwise receiving exposure. Would The Beatles be as revered if they came along in an era where TV wasn't simultaneously taking off in popularity and didn't have the platform of shows like Ed Sullivan's? If no one told us how great they were, would we ever know? Or is the music strong enough that it didn't matter? Maybe that philosophizing gives Curtis' screenplay more credit than it deserves, but the very idea does make the mind race with implications and possibilities. So there's that.
Casting Ed Sheeran as the unwitting mentor Jack leans on to get The Beatles' work to the masses makes for a strangely good fit. His role's actually larger than expected and the highest compliment that can be paid is that his presence doesn't feel like a celebrity walk-on, as he blends into the movie's hypothetical universe fairly well. And that him being presented as the modern songwriting bridge between The Beatles and Jack Malick doesn't come off as an abomination is likely the biggest victory he could have hoped for before signing on to this project. It doesn't require too much, while allowing the singer to poke fun at himself in a way that also matches the tone of the material. That's more than can be said for Kate McKinnon, whose caricature of a music exec seems to have been transplanted from another movie altogether.
Everything about McKinnon's character and performance as Debra Hammer is hideously misjudged, to the point that if she literally dressed up as a dollar sign it would seem subtle in comparison. If the intent was to broadly depict industry types as shallow, money hungry pariahs, this doesn't help the story in any way, especially when the agent in question doesn't seem like an actual person, much less someone Sheeran would even associate with. She has this terrible line where she tells Jack that he's just there to make her rich and the delivery is so ham-fisted and over-the-top way that you're not even sure what to make of it.
This isn't dark satire of the music industry or a parody of its many woes, so the character's mere presence causes a massive break in what was previously a fantastical, but well-grounded conceit. McKinnon somehow manages to play this at a volume of camp that's turned up about ten times higher than just described, her acting histrionics peaking at the film's finale. As she races backstage screaming something about money in a demonic voice better suited for an Exorcist reboot, you'll be asking whether it's too early to start thinking about Razzie nominations.
McKinnon's character does lead to an interesting boardroom scene where the marketing and promotion of Jack's album ("One Man Only") starts to take shape, with the hook being that he does everything on the album himself in a corporate age where few artists exercise their autonomy. While the irony of that title isn't lost on the guilt-ridden Jack, Curtis' script starts flying off the rails just when it should be delivering its biggest payoff, shifting focus to he and Ellie's somewhat clumsily handled romance. Like the "A" plot, it starts off promisingly, as their strictly platonic relationship develops into more as we anticipate they'll eventually realize their feelings through the circumstances of this extraordinary situation. Instead, the script forces the issue with convoluted confessions and break-ups, letting the actual story we're here for fade into the background.
Lily James is quirky and likable as usual, but it's not much of a role given that Ellie isn't really around for Jack's ascent, making it harder to invest in the relationship when she reemerges full force in the third act. Nothing really tops their enjoyable early scenes together with him as a struggling artist being unconditionally supported by his childhood friend and manager. Set against the Beatles' music, it could have made for a powerful love story, but it seems a more concerted effort was put into making sure James looks as dowdy as possible, as if to justify his delusion in only seeing her as a "friend."
Of course, the true stakes are in whether anyone finds out what Jack is doing, namely those who may somehow know of The Beatles existence, or maybe any of the surviving band members themselves, whomever they may be. The trailer doesn't spoil any of this, but I kind of wish it did since the tease we get there feels like it could have been infinitely more satisfying than what actually ended up on screen. In fact, there's more than a few details present in that trailer (like Ana de Armas' character) that didn't seem to make the final cut, implying that there may have been more production or editing issues than initially suspected.
Curtis does have a trick up his sleeve toward the end that can be considered shocking, and is probably the most satisfying in terms of delivering on the story's premise. But it's difficult to read just how we're supposed to react once you get past the actual shock value of it happening. The scene in question swings for the fences with mixed results, but about halfway through Yesterday, it was already obvious this had settled into the rom-com it was going to be. There would be no explanation for what happened or any real fallout for the main plot, as so much of what happens is in service of a fairly twee romance. The premise didn't have to go full Twilight Zone or anything, but by any standard, the resolution falls a bit short.
That audiences seem to have enjoyed the film considerably more than critics comes as little surprise since the public loves The Beatles and would likely jump at any opportunity to bask in their music, which this provides in spades. But it's almost maddening seeing a set-up with this much potential compromised to appeal to a larger fan base, even if they found the right writer for that job. While Curtis is known for writing fluffy British rom-coms that do this, boy how I really wish he hadn't used this concept as a vehicle to do it. The bond between the two lead characters tends to function better when used as the backdrop to our relationship with The Beatles. So while it's easy to appreciate Yesterday for exactly what it is, it's still hard not getting carried away by all the possibilities of what could have been.