Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle team up for Yesterday (2019), the story of a struggling songwriter who, following being hit by a bus after a freak global blackout, wakes up in hospital to realise he is the only person who can remember The Beatles. That, in itself, is a superb high concept idea. However, its execution is hampered by the fact that Danny Boyle isn’t really a director of comedy, and though Richard Curtis’ screenplay has some shining moments, it doesn't fully explore its promise.
On paper, a film that has free rein over the Beatles' back catalogue seems like manna from heaven for the pen of Curtis, a self-professed pop music nut who has liberally sprinkled classic pop songs throughout his numerous mega-hit romantic comedies. Think Wet Wet Wet's chart-topping cover of The Troggs' ‘Love is All Around’ in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Elvis Costello’s cover of ‘She’ by Charles Aznavour accompanies the opening montage of perhaps Curtis’ best romantic comedy, Notting Hill (1999). A variety of well-chosen golden oldies pepper perennial favourite Love Actually (2003), including the late Lynden David Hall’s rendition of The Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love’ during a wedding scene (in which Curtis himself cameos as a member of the brass band). The likes of The Cure and The Killers make their presence felt on the soundtrack of About Time (2013), a film to which Yesterday owes some debt in terms of its fantastical premise. However, Curtis' previous venture in sound-tracking an entire film around the melodic hooks of the hits of yesteryear resulted in the bloated and vulgar The Boat That Rocked (2009) which should have and could have been so much more than it was. Anything would be better than that, right?
Well, Yesterday is certainly better than The Boat That Rocked, but much of it feels like 'Curtis-lite' (and many would argue his output is quite 'lite' to begin with), trying to recreate the impact of iconic scenes from his other films. Take, for example, the relationship between main characters Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) and Ellie Appleton (Lily James). Jack has been a teacher, now working part-time at a bargain warehouse, and playing lacklustre songs to indifferent audiences in local pubs. Ellie is a Maths teacher who shows unconditional belief in Jack’s talent and finds enough time to manage him and book him gigs. They have been friends since childhood, and Ellie has harboured unrequited feelings for him for many years. There is a lovely chemistry between the two actors, but there are a few too many scenes that come across as rewrites of that scene in the rain from Four Weddings and a Funeral or that scene in the bookshop in Notting Hill. It is not until the second half of the film that this romantic aspect starts to work.
Yesterday has a lot of fun with the idea of a world without The Beatles.
The opening act of Yesterday effectively portrays the trials and tribulations of a struggling singer/songwriter whose passion is slowly being eroded by a lack of audience interest. His friends provide boundless encouragement, but are often the only ones applauding his performances, and Jack is ready to throw in the towel. “I never asked to be The Beatles,” Jack laments at one point. Well, today (or is it yesterday?) has all the makings of his lucky day. When it comes to The Beatles, a pivotal factor in their world-beating success was not only the music, but the synthesis of the talent and personalities of the Fab Four themselves. They were cheeky, funny and, at least in the early days, didn’t take themselves too seriously. Combined with an unrivalled song-writing prowess, they captured the mood of a world ready for something new, fresh and exciting. The problem is, Jack isn’t fresh, new and exciting, and the film rather disingenuously suggests that it is the mere power of the songs themselves that catapulted The Beatles and, by default through the band’s absence, Jack into stardom. Really, that is only half the story.
However, Yesterday has a lot of fun with the idea of a world without The Beatles. Jack’s Google search goes into overdrive trying to find something – anything – referencing John, Paul, George or Ringo. When receiving the gift of a new guitar after his accident, Jack declares “a great guitar requires a great song” and proceeds to play his friends ‘Yesterday’, to which one of them responds, “Well, it’s not Coldplay.” Jack sits down at the piano to play “new song” ‘Let It Be’ to his parents (a perfectly cast Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal), only to be interrupted by a visit from a family friend and trips to the kitchen, requiring him to start again numerous times. These well-observed character moments are pure Curtis and some of the best moments of the film.
As Jack begins to realise that he can capitalise on being the only person who can remember Beatles songs (with one or two humorous exceptions), the world starts to take notice. There is the inevitable introduction of a fire-breathing agent for whom Jack is just dollar signs. This comes in the form of Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer: blunt in demeanour and ruthless in ambition, dragging Jack along in her wake. Ed Sheeran makes a rather self-deprecating appearance as himself, humbled by the quality of Jack’s ‘new’ songs in comparison to his own (one of which he amusingly has as his own ringtone). The film comes into its own in its latter stages, as it juxtaposes the slick, corporate machine of the American music industry with Jack's quiet, Suffolk upbringing. Where Jack finds himself surrounded by grinning and applauding self-congratulatory marketing types throwing around ideas for the potential title of his new album ('The White Album' has diversity issues, apparently), his dad is less concerned about his son's newfound fame than whether there are enough sandwiches backstage.
Curtis' forays into the fantastical have often had the habit of having a brilliant set up without really knowing what to do with it.
Yesterday is held together by strong lead performances from Patel and James, the goodwill of the audience and, of course, some genius songs. Overall, it doesn't concern itself too much with making a lot of sense, as Curtis' forays into the fantastical have often had the habit of having a brilliant set up without really knowing what to do with it. Surprisingly, Danny Boyle's direction is rather workmanlike, lacking a distinctive visual flair, which is a shame as one wouldn't usually describe a Danny Boyle film as 'ordinary'. Despite this, it would be remiss of me to not mention in passing a much-discussed scene (for now, residing in the 'you'll know it when you see it' category) which has elicited numerous responses. To me, the scene is written and performed beautifully, adding a poignant heart and soul to the film and taking it, in those moments, near the realms of 'special'. For others, the scene's inclusion has been seen as emotionally manipulative, clouding the intention of the rest of the film. One thing is certain though, Yesterday succeeds as a reminder that the world is a more joyful place with, rather than without, the music of The Beatles.