While My Screenplay Gently Weeps
Imagine there’s no Beatles. It’s easy if you try. No Mop Tops, no Yellow Submarine, no Yoko drama, no solo careers, no Wings, no Traveling Wilburys. How can the world possibly survive without them? Turns out quite nicely, thank you. That’s the takeaway, at least, from Yesterday, an undeniably charming but shockingly shallow look at the solid-gold Lennon-McCartney songbook and its presumed minimal impact on the world. Except for Oasis, apparently. They never formed, let alone recorded “Wonderwall.”
YESTERDAY ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Richard Curtis
Starring: Hamish Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran
Running time: 116 min
“Ah, it figures,” says struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who suffers a bike accident and a concussion, plus two lost front teeth, after a mysterious 12-second worldwide blackout. Turns out that massive power failure was also some kind of magical reset button. And all of the sudden, Jack is the only person alive who actually remembers The Beatles. No one else has the foggiest idea what he’s talking about. Because that seminal rock group never formed. Also missing from the world: Coca-Cola and cigarettes. Which is actually pretty funny.
After a frantic Google session where a “John Paul George Ringo” search results in Pope John Paul II, Jack realizes that he and his failed musical career might just get by with a little help from his suddenly imaginary friends. So he frantically jostles his brain to recall as many Beatles songs as he can and conjure up all those vivid, delightful, devastating, occasionally inscrutable lyrics.
Success follows. With a dazzling back catalogue in his back pocket to wow people like Ed Sheeran and score a massive record deal, he doesn’t need hopelessly devoted fan/manager/roadie/chauffeur Ellie Appleton (Lily James). She’s been nursing a middle-school crush on hapless Jack for 15 years. So she confesses her love, he chokes, and they diverge. But he can’t get Ellie out of his head, especially when he knows that his songwriting façade is a charade.
Yesterday is a two-hour Fab Four tribute-band riff that begrudgingly, obediently, offers up a plot. It’s a love letter to pop’s most enduring legacy with nothing to say about that legacy’s impact. And the consolation prize is a feeble will-they-won’t-they love story awkwardly propping up the proceedings.
A love letter to pop’s most enduring legacy with nothing to say about that legacy’s impact.
Why not talk about the music? What about the Beatles’ influence beyond just a cheeky Oasis dig? Missed opportunities are rife. Ed Sheeran, his ego shaken, challenges Jack to a friendly post-concert speed-songwriting competition. Sheeran comes up with a catchy little ditty. Jack plays “The Long and Winding Road.” Dejected, realizing he’s the Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, Sheeran walks out of the room in a deeply unsettled huff. Interesting, please continue. Wait, what? You’d rather have another mopey scene about Ellie? I thought this was going to get good. Never mind.
Don’t think about it too much, just sit back and relax. Screenwriter Richard Curtis, the author of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually, knows a thing or two about charming blokes and smitten ladies. And Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle is one of the most visually dynamic craftsman working today. This is the guy, after all, who took an Aaron Sorkin script about Steve Jobs talking to people in windowless rooms and made it into an action picture.
Yesterday reaches towards its ripe premise, then contents itself with low-hanging fruit instead. Oblivious parents ask good-naturedly whether that new song is called “Leave It Be” or “Let Him Be.” A trip to Liverpool’s iconic locales, like the Strawberry Field children’s home and Eleanor Rigby’s grave, are simply in service of a memory-jogging tourism montage. Jack’s cynical American agent Debbie (Kate McKinnon) tsk-tsks at his pathetic lack of image. “You are skinny, yet somehow round,” she says. Ed Sheeran’s ring tone is “Shape of You.”
Don’t expect a rich rumination on the Beatles, why their songs are so inspiring, and why they continue to reverberate in our culture. This is pure jukebox reverence. Thankfully, Yesterday sidesteps the maladroit missteps of cinematic backfires like the dress-up-box fiasco Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Julie Taymor’s romantic fizzle Across the Universe. No one is creating characters named Mr. Kite or Jude. To their credit, Curtis and Boyle only want to bring the songs to life by having people sing them. But more than a few viewers are going to leave with a nagging sense that they missed something deeper. And they’re gonna carry that weight a long time.