Dir: Danny Boyle
Magical History Detour
There’s some sort of holy trinity within the creative DNA of Yesterday. An exploration of The Beatles songbook? Through a Richard Curtis script? Directed by Danny Boyle?? The mainstream box office would argue that’s a peak of potential. A sure-fire winner. So why have I just left the cinema with a nagging sense of disappointment?
A struggling musician, waking up to the fact that everyone has ‘forgotten’ The Beatles, realises he has the opportunity for the fame and glory he’s always craved. All he’s got to do is… found an entire musical career based on a lie. Sorted. Ok, let’s start with the good stuff. The tunes. Obvs. And Himesh Patel makes a fine lead as optimistic busker Jack, a screen persona that is likeable, subtly amusing and musically adept. Lily James is just as engaging as his ‘manager’ Ellie, neatly balancing innocent charisma with a growing struggle of divided loyalties. But while their individual performances are strong, their will-they-won’t-they relationship never quite sparks. So the issues must lie elsewhere…
Ladies and gentlemen, you must first be aware that this is 27% Ed Sheeran vehicle. An inclusion that, with time, will only date the film. He’s been winning plaudits for making fun of himself, tongue firmly in cheek. The extent of his self-deprecation is actually to acknowledge, ‘Hey, I’m not as good as Lennon and McCartney!’. Thanks for clarifying Ed, we weren’t sure. But fair play, he is waggling a huge blue-handed signpost towards them for his fans. At one point he challenges Jack’s ‘talent’ against his own – who can come up with the best new tune within ten minutes. Our hero sheepishly treats everyone backstage to ‘The Long and Winding Road’, but the faux-humility of Sheeran’s ‘impromptu’ composition is almost cringe inducing. By this point you realise he’s hanging around way longer than a simple, enjoyable cameo, shoe-horning in his own work alongside such classics, and you’re just thinking, “Back off, Sheeran!”
As well as the time-honoured set-up of unspoken affection between the central duo, we also get the tried and tested Curtis staple of the ditzy best friend. Joel Fry is charming as scatter-brained doper sound-tech Rocky. But the dynamic (as nailed by Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill, 1999) is such a familiar retread, it’s starting to wear a little thin.
The event that triggers the core premise maintains an air of uncertainty too. Is it mass memory loss? Or have we passed into a parallel dimension where the band never existed in the first place? Events transpire to specify the latter, yet the world is not the profoundly different place it would be without the greatest ever influence in popular culture. It certainly wouldn’t be identical except for the absence of Oasis (which is a neat joke) and Coca-Cola (er, have I missed something here?). A character is introduced later on which confirms the alternate reality stance, but it’s so strange it adds a jarring touch of, well, creepiness. Even recognisable Boyle flourishes (like the enormous lettering sliding into frame to label the location) feel like such trademarks that they teeter towards pastiche. The magnificence of the songs is always going to win out though, and, rest assured, these are contemporary versions that do do them justice. And the fact that they shine unimpeachably within such a whimsical proposition amplifies their brilliance, albeit inadvertently.
Right. You might be thinking: I’m being too harsh on a daft, sweet, joyful rom-com. But I can’t shake the feeling that …er, THE BEATLES deserve better if this is intended as a route to their world. It certainly seems to be designed as such: an introduction for post-millenials who, as implied by the premise, don’t realise their magnitude. Of course, if Sheeran is the best conduit to reach the young music fan (to whom the sixties will seem ancient) then he, and the purpose of the film, must be applauded. But, executed with much less sophistication, it’s easily outshone by both Rocketman (2019) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). And if this goes down as the Fab Four’s entry into the fad for jukebox musicals, where’s the justice in that?
By trying to tick the boxes of both rom-com and songbook cinema, it doesn’t score a hit in either. It goes without saying that the band’s legacy towers above an ephemeral pop moment like this. And maybe the problem does come down to the scale of that maximum promise. But I imagine we were meant to be heading home with a re-invigorated Beatles catalogue ringing in our brains. Instead, struggling to be heard over the echo of Ed Sheeran’s fingerpicking, the only trace of John, Paul, George, and Ringo I can make out is “Don’t Let Me Down.”
★ ★ ½