Some will claim that “Yesterday,” the new film by Danny Boyle, written by Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill”), turns on a plot axis so untenable that the whole picture collapses around it. Others will argue that “Yesterday” touches on an interesting premise, even if it is not fleshed out sufficiently. I find myself somewhere between those two possible responses to the movie, though closer to the first. The interesting premise is what would happen if a significant and influential element were to disappear from history – in this case, the entire oeuvre of the Beatles: No one knows their songs and no one has ever heard of John, Paul, George and Ringo. No one, that is, except for a failed singer of Indian origin named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who composes and performs songs that are only so-so.
The Beatles’ disappearance from history occurs one evening when the lights go out for 12 seconds around the world (the movie, of course, shows us a few famous tourist sites that go dark and then are relit). No explanation is offered about the cause of this very short global blackout – and none is necessary: What’s supposed to pique our curiosity is what happens in its wake. In those 12 dark seconds, Jack, who is riding a bicycle, collides with a bus and wakes up in a hospital, minus his two front teeth. An initial indication of what has happened is when Ellie (Lily James), a childhood friend of Jack’s and the manager of his seemingly hopeless career, visits him in the hospital. Jack asks her to go on looking after him until he’s 64. To which Ellie responds: Why 64?
A little later, Jack is hanging out with friends and sings them “Yesterday,” which they think he wrote. They’re bowled over and say it’s the most beautiful song they’ve ever heard (though one of the group maintains that it doesn’t hold a candle to the best of Coldplay). Jack realizes that they’ve never heard the song before and also that they’re not familiar with any other Beatles songs.
After he discovers that the name “Beatles” no longer appears in Google (though the Rolling Stones are still there), and neither does “Sgt. Pepper” – they’ve been erased from the historical consciousness altogether – he decides to adopt the Beatles’ songs as though they were his own compositions. That’s fraudulent, but the movie doesn’t invite us to judge Jack, because his performances of the songs represent the only possibility of restoring them to history, even if it’s a history that emerges in the film’s present.
Jack’s renditions of the Beatles’ songs finally gets him the success he has craved and also stir the interest of the British singer Ed Sheeran, who plays himself in the movie. He invites Jack to be his warmup act, while Debra (Kate McKinnon), Sheeran’s aggressive agent, decides to manage Jack’s career even though she is not pleased with his appearance. At the same time, Jack tries to play “Let It Be” for his parents, but they display a total lack of interest in their son’s work, and he tries, without much success, to remember all the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby.”
Debra suggests releasing the Beatles’ songs the way it’s done today – first a few singles, then an album. Jack becomes a superstar. Debra flies him to Los Angeles, where he is welcomed with the same fervor that greeted the Beatles on their first American visit, in 1964.
One question the movie ignores completely is whether the Beatles, if they were a phenomenon newly discovered today, would achieve the same scale of adulation and admiration that they did in the 1960s – especially when Jack’s performances of their songs are hardly in the same league as the originals. Popular amazement at them is total, and at one point the modest Sheeran even likens Jack to Mozart, and himself, in contrast, to Salieri. When the time comes to release Jack’s first album, an argument breaks out over the title. “The White Album” sounds too “white” for Debra at this time. The company that’s producing the album also insists that he change the title of the song “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude,” because no one today has ever heard the name “Jude.”
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Another problem with the picture is that, even though it deals with history, it is totally ahistorical itself. It completely ignores the transformations that occurred in the Beatles’ work over the years.
Other aspects of the film are also characterized by an ahistorical approach, and are more disturbing. Jack discovers that other products have also disappeared from history, such as Coca-Cola, though Pepsi remains. That’s less critical, but it’s immaterial to Jack that no one around him has ever heard of the Soviet Union as they listen to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and they have no idea what the initials stand for. With all due respect for the Beatles, the Soviet Union’s historical influence was undoubtedly longer and more crucial than theirs.
All this leaves faithful Ellie behind. It’s clear that she’s in love with Jack, but he doesn’t notice. This aspect of the plot forms the basis for the romantic comedy that develops. The scriptwriter, Richard Curtis, is a specialist in romantic comedies, but in “Yesterday” it’s the weakest part of a film that’s suffused with weaknesses.
In the film’s most peculiar scene, and also the most repellent, Jack, in the alternative universe he’s in, and suffering pangs of conscience from the fraud he is part of, meets 78-year-old John Lennon, played by Robert Carlyle, who starred in “Trainspotting” and its unfortunate sequel, “T2 Trainspotting.” Carlyle, whose name doesn’t appear in the title credits, is fashioned convincingly as Lennon if he had lived this long. But there’s something unpleasant about the return to cinematic life of a figure whose murder is still mourned by many. The conversation between Jack and Lennon is supposed to be meaningful in the former’s life and to guide him professionally as well as personally; but it’s too embarrassing to be able to realize that plot goal persuasively.
What, then, do we do with a movie like “Yesterday,” which constitutes another link in the very uneven career of Danny Boyle, the director of “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” – which landed him one of its eight Oscars? Should it be treated as a film that bore the potential to generate a core of interest because it addresses the question of historical death and resurgence, but whose makers weren’t able to develop a subject which, admittedly, is difficult and requires a complex cinematic vision? Or perhaps we should view it as a curiosity that’s not satisfying even in that category? In other cases I would say that the film’s virtue is that it arouses renewed interest in the music that’s heard in it; but given that we’re dealing with the Beatles, in whom interest – and love – has never waned, it all seems truly unnecessary.