Travis Leamons // Film Critic
What if? Now there’s a question that can begin a fun conversation or just as easily start a heated discourse. Its insertion can be germane to an ongoing dialogue about superheroes or music, like: “What if Peter Quill’s mom introduced him to country and Western music instead of top 40 hits?” or “What if Cher could really turn back time?” Oh, time – that’s also worth pondering. Never enough, wasted, or just a construct? The farther you get from an event, the details start to get hazy; the file cabinet in your head turns into a recycle bin.
The fantasy-comedy YESTERDAY poses one giant “What if? question and uses the hypothetical to present a world in which the Beatles never existed, except for one man who somehow does remember John, Paul, George and Ringo. That this man, Jack Malick (Himesh Patel), is a struggling singer-songwriter is significant, as it adds another what if. But the wish-fulfillment fantasy isn’t “What if I was the one who wrote those songs?,” but “What if I pass those songs off as my own and become famous?”
Danny Boyle’s YESTERDAY will likely be referred to as that “Beatles never existed” movie, and while that is true – and also a hell of a hook to entice casual viewership from young and old alike – its premise is still a gimmick that only partially works.
Since playing Oasis’ “Wonderwall” at the age of 14 as part of a school talent contest, Jack has wanted to be a performer, penning memorable songs for the world to hear. His classmate Ellie thought he was going to be star and has remained by his side. But after a decade of playing to passersby on the boardwalk and inside small cafes around Suffolk, UK, to little success, Jack is set on retiring his guitar and going back to work as a teacher. While his friends and now manager Ellie (Lily James) stoke his dreams by attending his performances, Jack remains discouraged and unconvinced that he’ll ever find success.
At the same time, while Jack ponders his future, here’s Ellie assuring him that success will come by comparing his situation to stranger occurrences – like “Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a sex symbol.” You can thank Richard Curtis’s writing for that little chuckle. The man who gave us LOVE ACTUALLY imbues the script with jokes so easy and frivolous that even your sweet aunt Eloise can understand.
Ellie was right about Jack finding fame, but she probably didn’t think it would involve him, his bike, a global power surge, and being struck by neighborhood bus, for it to happen, though. Waking up in the hospital, missing two front teeth, Jack casually asks Ellie if she’ll still need him and feed him when he’s 64. She doesn’t get the reference. Later surprised with a new guitar by his friends, he plays them “Yesterday.” They think it is an original piece. Their reactions are a combination of being bewildered and breathing out a sigh. Then Jack tries his best to explain that the Beatles wrote it. Glazed expressions and questions about this never-heard-of band are the results.
Jack knows what needs to be done. He needs to remember the lyrics and write each classic Beatles tune and perform them. The public needs to hear these songs. It isn’t until Ed Sheeran (playing himself) hears one of Jack’s songs on social media that things start to take off career-wise. Through a series of scenes, we chart Jack’s progress: A once-struggling songwriter who is now a writing wunderkind, unfettered by his own musical malaise thanks to the lyrics of the Fab Four. When Kate McKinnon enters the picture as an L.A.-based talent manager, that is when YESTERDAY tops the chart. As a fellow critic pointed out, “Kate McKinnon is at her most McKinnon-est.” I have to agree. She steals the show.
By the time YESTERDAY reaches the final act, Jack has to decide if he wants to live a lie as the greatest songwriter of a generation and the fame that will most assuredly come, or give up the dream job for the dream girl. That’s right, lovely Ellie, who has been there by his side since they were teenagers, and Jack has been completely oblivious. Come on, Jack, do you need someone to start singing, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” for it to all make sense?
It’s a shame that Richard Curtis, along with director Danny Boyle, take the easy road with a story that never goes beyond the surface level of a world where (save one person) can recall the Beatles. It wasn’t just about the music they made; they changed the culture of music, and also influenced marketing, clothing, and hairstyles. Without Beatlemania, how would The Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS sound (if it got made at all)? Bob Dylan, would he have made the shift from acoustic to electric, bridging the world of folk to rock? And this film’s title track wouldn’t have been covered by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson. Just a few “woulds” borne out of a “What if?” premise that we’ll never know. 55 years removed from Beatlemania hitting the U.S., and a half-century from their final performance together is a very long time. Easy to forget if it weren’t for the lasting impression they made. Too bad the filmmakers forgot.
YESTERDAY is now playing.