Here’s what Hollywood looks like in 2019: comic book movies, seriously fatigued blockbuster franchises, family-friendly animation, horror, movies about dogs, and movies about bands everyone knows and loves. Anything else ends up on some streaming service or seriously wishes it had.
Into this strange brew of distraction, chronic disappointment, and sporadic brilliance comes Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’ Yesterday, an enjoyable, if a tad underwhelming rom-com about a guy who wakes up to a world without The Beatles and then enjoys instant stardom by passing their songs off as his own.
It is the fourth major film in the past 8 months to be built around an ultra-recognizable back catalog of hit songs, following Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen), Rocket Man (Elton John), and The Dirt (Motley Crue), although the latter entry did go straight to Netflix. Before the year is up we’ll have at least another one of these thanks to Blinded By the Light, New Line’s feel-good drama about a 1980s South Asian Muslim teenager turning to the music of Bruce Springsteen to cope with feeling displaced while growing up in England.
They’re not all biopics, but the calculus behind each one of them is very much in keeping with recent Hollywood trends where the only surefire way to get anyone to buy a ticket is to give them something they already know. That usually means superheroes and franchise reboots; lately it also means popular songs and/or a legendary musician’s life story.
When The Observer recently asked Boyle about this trend, he had a thoughtful answer at the ready, first citing the ever-escalating global unrest and the corresponding need for escape before getting to the heart of why exactly these films in particular seem to be resonating so much right now:
“Cinema itself is looking for something unique—a unique communal event that connects with people’s universal desire to celebrate something together because of the state of the nation. But it’s also that cinema needs that collaborative or communal experience to justify itself in the face of so much alternative long-form television, which is a big challenge. A lot of the available talent for cinema has moved to long-form television, so I think it’s a dual thing really that makes the appeal of this kind of event so strong.”
Spot-on, I’d say, which is what makes it so odd that his film, Yesterday, ultimately feels less like an experience and more like a standard Richard Curtis rom-com. The backstory is that a TV writer/producer named Jack Barth came up with the story idea for Yesterday but the producers wanted a bigger name behind the script. Since the film’s music supervisor had previously worked on every single Richard Curtis movie they decided to send their old pal a one-page outline of Barth’s concept and see what the man who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually could do with it. (Boyle, meanwhile, didn’t join the project until much later and seems to have mostly been along for the ride, having wanted to work with Curtis for years.)
Mostly, Curtis turned it into a story about a guy (Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik) who takes a girl (Lily James’ Ellie) for granted, loses her, and then builds to a grand romantic gesture to win her back (courtesy of an assist from Ed Sheerhan, playing himself). Jack also just happens to be a rapidly ascending rock star building his fame off of Beatles songs which no one but him remembers, and while staking his future to a lie certainly gives him pause it’s losing the girl of his dreams which truly breaks him.
In that way, Yesterday is very different than Bohemian or Rocket Man. This is a fictional story about a guy who loses his favorite songs only to eventually realize that losing his best friend hurts much worse. Losing the music is a tragedy, but forgetting the message of the songs to always prioritize love is a sin far worse.
There are still sing-along moments, of course, including Jack genuinely performing live in front of 6,000 extras – all of them real, no CGI trickery here – on an English beach. He eventually sings his heart to a sold-out Wembley Arena (they reportedly filmed this bit during a real Ed Sheerhan concert). However, this is very much a sentimental Richard Curtis rom-com – or maybe romantic dramedy – about a guy and his quest to win the girl.
That means if you are someone prone to getting hung up on the internal logic of it all you will walk away nitpicking at all the ways Yesterday fails to fully explore its own premise. A world without The Beatles is such a fascinating thought experiment, but it’s also one which can branch off in a myriad of complicated ways. Yesterday tends to take the most direct route and assume the pop culture of the last half century would have largely been the same minus a couple of diversions (no obvious Beatles-aping bands like Oasis, for example).
In Yesterday’s opinion, the exact reason why Jack wakes up to a world without The Beatles doesn’t matter. Nor, to a lesser extent, does any kind of alt-history pondering over what culture would look like without The Fab Four. Instead, Curtis aims to paint in broader strokes and remind us that in this long and winding road of life all we need is love. Whether or not he’s created characters worthy of that message is another thing entirely. Honestly, as hard as Patel and James try you’ll mostly sit through their romance waiting for the next Beatles song to play on the soundtrack.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Yesterday wants so badly to simply be an uplifting summer movie that it never seems overly bothered with examing its own premise. As a rom-com, it’s a tad shabby – how many tearful goodbye scenes can one couple have in a single movie? – and as a musical fantasy it seems almost annoyed with ever having to actually think through its own high concept. However, the movie sends you out of the theater with a smile as you sing-along to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Right now, that’s all anyone seems to ask of these nostalgia plays. Curtis and Boyle could have certainly done better, but they did more than enough to entertain.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Cynical take on how Jack’s version of The Beatles songs would truly go over today: The Ringer and other pop culture outlets have a field day with his song “I Saw Her Standing There,” using the lyrics “Well, she was just 17, you know what I mean” to accuse him of leering sexism thus setting off a backlash on social media and then, inevitably, a backlash to the backlash.
- Notable advances in diversity: The fact that Jack is a person of color never factors into the story. Even though he’s kind of pulling a reverse Elvis by putting a brown face on white music (I know, I know – The Beatles owed a lot to black blues artists), the only reference to his appearance or his suitability to be a rock star is that he’s out of shape and needs a better haircut. His ethnicity is never addressed.
- Curtis’ concept of the modern music industry feels like the work of an old man who watched Begin Again and thinks he gets it but is still hung up on the way things used to work.
- Trailer fans beware: The scene from the trailer where Jack sings “Something” to a woman sitting opposite of him on The Late Late Show With James Corden is not in the finished film.