Directed by: Danny Boyle
Premise: A struggling singer-songwriter survives an accident and awakens to discover that The Beatles never existed. He passes off the group’s songs as his own work, leading him to fame and fortune.
What Works: Yesterday is led by Himesh Patel as Jack, a musician eking out a living playing at bars, boardwalks, and festivals. The role requires Patel to perform the music as well as act and he is up to both tasks. Jack achieves seemingly overnight success when he plagiarizes the music of the Beatles but his deception causes Jack a great deal of guilt and paranoia. Patel is quite good at playing that guilt and creating drama where there really isn’t any. Yesterday also benefits from the chemistry between Patel and Lily James. She plays Jack’s longtime friend and manager and the love story between them is sweet and likable. This film also has a few fine musical sequences. The Beatles’ music remains irresistible and the movie has a few laughs imagining a world hearing these songs for the first time.
What Doesn’t: The conceit of Yesterday is flimsy and it falls apart if you think about it at all. The Beatles’ music is so important to culture and especially pop music of the past half a century that to arbitrarily erase their work from history ought to cause other ripple effects. Yesterday doesn’t really do anything with its premise. The story posits that if these songs were published today they would be just as popular as they were fifty years ago. But the filmmakers ignore the very specific circumstances in which The Beatles’ music came about and why these songs continue to be so popular. There’s very little appreciation for the music. And that’s ironic given that the film’s other big idea is that today’s music industry would exploit The Beatles’ body of work and overproduce and over commercialize it and thereby rob the music of its essence. This is, at best, naïve idealism that is divorced from the fact that The Beatles’ music has always been commercial. At worst, it’s outright dishonest because Yesterday uses The Beatles’ music so shallowly. It does not explore what The Beatles mean either culturally or individually or how their legacy shaped the history of pop music. The songs are just a gimmick. This story would make just as much sense if it was about a musician who stole someone else’s songs and rose to fame. The wobbly nature of the story goes beyond its music. This is fundamentally a love story about a musician who is caught between a life of fame and success and a simple life with the woman he loves. That’s cliché but it’s also a false choice. Romances require a concrete obstacle keeping the lovers apart. This film doesn’t have that and so the love story is never satisfying. Yesterday’s superficiality comes to a head in the ending. The meagre conflicts that the filmmakers scrape together are just dismissed with no consequences.
Bottom Line: Yesterday coasts on the likability of its lead actors and the enduring popularity of The Beatles. There’s nothing to this film. There are no ideas and the story is an insipid mix of romantic and show business clichés.
Episode: #757 (July 14, 2019)