Yesterday review: Beatles music can’t save a silly story

Yesterday sounds like a fun premise on the surface but the script’s outdated notions aren’t thought through enough to be convincing.

The ’60s and the Beatles went hand-in-hand. No band came to define not just an era, but a generation of music whose ripples are still felt in the work of nearly every musical group today. But what if they never existed? Would those musicians still have been inspired to make the music they made? Would the 1960s have transpired in the exact same way? Would certain events have even taken place? These are the questions asked (or that should be asked) in Danny Boyle’s quasi-musical, Yesterday.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Richard Curtis, mired in “get your ball off my lawn” mode, utilizes Yesterday‘s premise to do little more than remind audiences of how music today sucks, failing to produce a butterfly effect but merely a whimper of wings.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician sick of playing the same dive bars and festivals where no one pays attention. It isn’t that his songs are bad (though they are), it’s that people just don’t appreciate music free of production. At the same time a blackout hits the entire world, Jack is hit by a bus. He wakes up the next day only to discover that none of his friends, or anyone really, remembers The Beatles. It turns out they never existed. Jack, finally realizing he might have a shot at success, decides to pass off the Fab Four’s songs as his own, leading to fame and fortune. But at what cost?

If science-fiction movies have taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to divorce an event from the timeline. Every major movement in history fits in somewhere, and it isn’t enough to just poof something out of existence without exploring the long-term ramifications it would have. Such is the case with The Beatles. Curtis appears to believe that any dude with a guitar can simply take The Beatles’ lyrics and instantly become a celebrity, as if the band’s persona and charisma had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The film is more interested in focusing on the seemingly corrupt nature of the music industry, solely represented by Kate McKinnon’s Deborah and Ed Sheeran of all people. The emphasis on looks and branding has been done in countless industry stories like this, so it’s unoriginal, but when it comes to The Beatles it’s also untrue. The Beatles’ look specifically played into why they were popular, so what’s the point? The whole thing plays like Curtis just wants more people to play real instruments on the top 40.

Outside of the Beatles themselves, the movie has no idea how to answer the myriad of questions the Beatles’ expunging from history would do to us as a nation, so it just ignores that. The movie makes a point of explaining other things don’t exist in this new universe (like Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and Harry Potter) but does absolutely nothing with these elements. If cigarettes don’t exist, are people living longer? Is the population bursting? Has cancer been cured? If Harry Potter doesn’t exist, what are kids reading?

If these questions aren’t answered, why bring them up at all? It’s one thing to remove a single entity from the historical record, but the film makes huge erasures without looking at the world it’s left behind to see whether things are better or not. Why not erase terrible events like 9/11? At one point a major character connected to The Beatles pops into the narrative whose entire life brings everything painfully into focus. At times, Yesterday just feels callous with the things it’s putting out there.

Danny Boyle, eschewing any of his trademark verve and hyperkinetic energy for staid filmmaking, only comes alive when the film is focusing on the music. Himesh Patel is a solid musician with such a likable persona, though the script is never sure whether to make him succumb to the notion of corrupting his soul by selling out or not. He talks about taking a sip from the “poisoned chalice” of music, though he’s always a character safely ensconced in his own little world. Outside from being mobbed by fans (a misplaced Beatles reference that only proves Curtis’ point that anyone could seemingly copy their success), he’s just too bland. It’s funny that the movie compares him to Ed Sheeran when they’re pretty much the same character.

Patel is certainly the film’s standout, and that’s mainly because everyone is just boring. Lily James is swathed in frumpy clothes and unfortunate little girl hairstyles to play a character that would only exist in a Richard Curtis romantic comedy: that of the hot girl whom no man would ever love (note the sarcasm, because the movie certainly doesn’t). The film isn’t necessarily a musical, because every time Jack really starts to get going he’s interrupted by Collins’ Ellie that he doesn’t love her. The love story might have dramatic weight if either of the characters were compelling but James is nothing more than “the girl,” meant to make sad eyes at the lead until he finally acknowledges her. Considering so much of the focus is on their romantic pairing, it’s unclear why the need to use The Beatles’ music is even required.

And that’s Yesterday‘s biggest misfire. It fails to justify why The Beatles’ music is needed short of name brand, ironic considering how disgusted the script already is with the state of music commodification. At the same time it trades on the band’s name while simultaneously saying they’re not necessary. Considering how Curtis chooses to end things, even Jack’s inner torment at plagiarizing The Beatles comes off as “meh.” It’s two hours of characters trying to make something out of nothing.

Next: Toy Story 4 review: A fun adventure with the gang

Yesterday is one of the more disappointing movies in a year that’s actually been pretty decent for music-based features. It’s difficult to watch this movie waste this fabulous catalog when a competitor, the far superior Rocketman, is showing us how it’s done. Yesterday ends right now. Skip it.

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