The John Lennon cynic in you may despise the cloying, feel goodery of Danny Boyle’s musical “Yesterday.” The Paul McCartney optimist in you, if such a thing exists these days—a distinction the filmmakers seem fully aware of—might be won over by the dramedy’s genuinely infectious enthusiasm and its earnest, heart-on-sleeve charms. And the romantic comedy itself, Ringo-y dopey and sentimental, yet charismatic, and containing some traces of Harrison-esque soul might split the difference. Either way, Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis’ film—known for schmaltzy tripe like “Four Weddings And A Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually” — is unabashedly hopeful and in a way, its own humanistic political statement about holding on to your Mother Mary bliss when finding yourself in times of trouble.
But in practical terms, “Yesterday,” is a movie about a world where the Liverpudlian Beatles have never existed and is built upon the most utterly ridiculous of inciting incident conceits. It takes a massive leap of faith to go along for the ride, but Boyle’s impassioned, viscerally paced, and well-directed movie is so heartfelt, even the biggest pessimist will likely begrudgingly warm to it, flaws, and off-key notes and all.
Jack Malik (fresh and persuasive newcomer Himesh Patel), is a struggling musician aka an unremarkable busker. Ellie Appleton (an endlessly lovely and convincing Lily James), is his “manager,” but really just a loyal cheerleader and childhood best friend, who dutifully drives him around from gig to gig, genuinely the #1 fan of his indistinguishable songs.
Going nowhere, after a few painful, off-to-the-margins festival gigs, Jack’s ready to call it quits, but then ridiculous fate intervenes in the form of a bus that strikes him unconscious while riding his bike home one evening. It’s the Thanos-like reality-altering snap, and when he wakes up the next day in the hospital, he discovers—eventually, much to his confusion— that the Beatles have been eradicated from memory. As Google searches and vanished physical LPs demonstrate, every shred of their existence has been wiped off the planet. Cue your suspension of disbelief alarm, but the movie is already racing off to the next scene.
Sensing opportunity—though not much of a true opportunist, a morality the movie struggles to reconcile—Jack decides to learn every Beatles song from memory and include them into his repertoire. Unlike his own unexceptional originals, the Beatles tunes strike an immediate chord; buzz grows, he makes excitable recordings, local television appearances occur and then suddenly the rush of fame is starting to groundswell at his feet.
Soon, even Ed Sheeran, who has tapped him to open up gigs for him, including one defining back-in-the-USSR show in Russia, is asking how Jack writes superhuman classic gem after gem. Seeing dollar signs in her eyes like a Looney Tunes cartoon, Kate McKinnon, as the unsubtly named villain/record industry mercenary Debra Hammer, jumps at the chance to turn Jack into a global superstar.
The musical meat of the movie then essentially becomes an identity play cross-pollinated with a love story. Jack must choose between global stardom and who he truly is—and facing his dishonest charade—while also choosing between the music career he’s desperately wanted and Ellie, who has revealed to him, just as he’s leaving for America, that she’s in love with him and always has been (like a true dope, he’s missed her all along).
Fascinatingly, “Yesterday” mostly manages to avoid the core story of fraudulence. Sure, his unmasking, the nagging feeling of imposter syndrome, his big falsehood, etc., is a fundamental element of the story and the truth shall be eventually revealed, but Boyle’s film manages to evade casting Jack as a deceitful charlatan profiting off the hard work and art of others.
In someone else’s hands, “Yesterday” becomes a morality tug of war, or a censuring of pretense, but Curtis’ screenplay is profoundly disinterested in such a story. Instead, somewhat dubiously, but still somehow working—the magic trick of the movie— the filmmakers reframe Jack as the hero doing greater good work for all of humanity. He’s decidedly not a genius, but an everyday man with a good heart, congratulated by the secret few, who like him, remember the Beatles for keeping their music, spirit, and flame alive. It’s a turning point that’ll undoubtedly make or break the film for anyone concerned with authenticity or questionable morality (which is ironic, considering musical legitimacy is such a theme).
It’s here where the genuine concern of the movie reveals itself. While never really addressing our current state of affairs, the idealistic “Yesterday” almost seems purposefully built as an antidote to today’s Trump-ian/Brexit-ian times. “Yesterday,” with its throwback title to a gentler, kinder, more civil times, is a conservationist. Boyle’s is a heartening, all-you-need-is-love movie about preserving joy and the Beatles represent the nee plus ultra of our halcyon days.
These platitudes are essentially hokey, but, if you’re listening, carefully, hew close to encouraging lyrical Beatle sentiments (or at least Paul’s). And it’s a testament to Boyle’s exuberantly shaped film that they work regardless of the side-eying discerning audiences will definitely give the movie.
Those aren’t its only flaws. “Yesterday” might depend on your tolerance for buskers (there should be none), the guileless, painfully earnest musical street troubadours usually lacking any discernible talent. It bludgeons Beatles songs with zeal, thoroughly decimating the nuance and subtleties of their songs and songwriting and transforming every pop nugget into a rollicking romp. Music writers and musicians (me; former, anyhow), will take much umbrage with the renditions of songs and in short, musicologists will take offense with how much the movie leans into McCartneyism and largely discards Lennon-like sensibilities (tellingly, there are very few true Lennon-originated tunes in the film for the most part, and it skews heavily towards Macca).
Boyle has been accused in the past—by his own screenwriting collaborator even—of clubbing everything to death with a restless, visceral, kinetic energy— and see above— that is his approach once again. While Lennon gets a key nod in the end, “Yesterday,” is essentially taking its cues from Paul McCartney’s definition of the Beatles, the happy, shallow, jovial puppy dog that we all love, but never really had the depth of his musical ally and that’s really its Achilles heel, even if it’s mostly enjoyable nonetheless thanks to its cast.
Ultimately, “Yesterday” isn’t the insufferableness of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”—one of the most superficial and detested Beatles songs written by McCartney—but its one-sided slant on sweet, saccharine, good day sunshine Fab Four pop might leave you wanting for a better, more well-rounded greatest hits. [B-]