Yesterday

This review contains spoilers.

Yesterday is aptly named, because it offers absolutely nothing new.


This is the latest Danny Boyle film, with a screenplay by Richard Curtis, of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually fame (we'll come back to the screenplay later).
Set in the present day, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician who often sings and plays guitar to indifferent public audiences at pubs or piers. However, after Jack is hit by a bus during a mysterious brief global blackout, he discovers that no one knows who The Beatles are, after playing 'Yesterday' to his friends and his manager/childhood friend/love interest Ellie Appleton (Lily James). He begins performing their songs and passes them off as his own. Following a performance on a local TV channel, Jack attracts the attention of Ed Sheeran (as himself), who invites him to play as the opening act at his gig in Moscow. Sheeran's agent Debra (Kate McKinnon) invites Jack to LA and signs him to her label; engineering his rise to global fame.

The film's source material came from an original screenplay called 'Cover Version', written by writer Jack Barth and actor-writer-director Mackenzie Crook. Crook originally intended to direct the film. However, a few years later, after Crook dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, the story was pitched to Richard Curtis. Curtis loved the concept, but wanted to write his own version. According to Wikipedia, in 'Cover Version', Jack only achieves moderate success with the Beatles songs, whereas in Curtis's Yesterday, Jack becomes "the biggest star in music history", to the extent that he has swarms of screaming fans chasing him in certain scenes, à la Beatlemania in the '60s.

Curtis also shifted the focus onto the love story between Jack and Ellie. It almost felt as if the Beatles songs were just a backdrop to this formulaic subplot. As it turns out, Ellie has secretly loved Jack all her life and drunkenly admits this to him during his farewell party, the night before he leaves for LA. I could see this plot line's story beats from a mile away: Ellie gives Jack an ultimatum (her or his career), Jack chooses his career, Ellie calls Jack later on and tells him she's in a relationship, Jack publicly declares his love for Ellie during the final gig scene at Wembley Stadium, Jack and Ellie flee from the crowds, they kiss, have sex, get married and have kids.
Besides being a love interest, Ellie has very little to offer. The other significant-ish female character is Debra. Even then, she is basically a pantomime villain, driven only by making money. Some memorable lines of hers include, "I'm not interested in his (Jack's) private life, I'm only interested in him as a product" and at the end of the film, as Jack is fleeing from the press after confessing the Beatles songs weren't his own and uploads them to the internet, free for anyone to download: "for the love of money, stop!"

What really frustrated me the most about Yesterday was how poorly handled the main premise was. As well as The Beatles, everyone apart from Jack doesn't know what Coca-Cola and cigarettes are, or who Harry Potter is. Why, do you ask? Your guess is as good as mine. How are they related to The Beatles? I wish I knew. But look, Jack Googled coke and Pablo Escobar was the top search result! How funny!
Besides these random changes to the universe, nothing is drastically different to how things were before the blackout. Oasis also no longer exist, as they were apparently heavily influenced by The Beatles. But according to IMDB, Ed Sheeran has claimed that The Beatles are his main source of inspiration for his songs. Why was he cast as the musician who discovers Jack? If The Beatles never existed, which band would have been considered the biggest British cultural phenomenon instead? Would it have been The Rolling Stones? Or the Sex Pistols? If The Beatles never existed, would that mean the Spice Girls never existed? According to Jonathan Gould's biography of The Beatles 'Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America', The Beatles became a catalyst for bohemianism and activism in various social and political arenas, fuelling movements such as women's liberation, gay liberation and environmentalism.
The film could have made full use of its idea and explored many potentially interesting or funny changes. Instead, it felt really underdeveloped. We know what is missing in this new universe, but there isn't anything new that wasn't in the old universe.

I thought Himesh Patel and Lily James had good chemistry and Patel clearly is a talented musician (singing and performing the songs himself), but apart from that, Yesterday is a perfectly serviceable, inoffensive rom-com. I can't help but wonder what the film would have been like had the original screenplay been used. Maybe The Beatles wouldn't be as successful to a 2010s audience as they were to a 1960s one, or great music and lyrics are nothing if you don't have the right looks/stage presence, or the popular music of a Beatleless universe sounds nothing like the popular music we all know and love today... Imagine.

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