Written by Richard Curtis
Directed by Danny Boyle
reviewed byLarry Buttrose
image: badgreeb pictures
Possibly a barometer for how the world is feeling is the quota of feelgood movies being released – which means the world must be feeling rather crap now. A maestro of feelgood is British writer Richard Curtis, with movie credits including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill andLove Actually.Curtis does feelgood very well - and in the words of the great and tragically mortal Ian Dury, he’s doing very well.
Musicalfeelgood films are the current thing: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis project, the forthcoming Blinded By The Light- about how Bruce Springsteen saves a nonconforming young South Asian Brit - and today there’s Yesterday, written by Curtis, about how the Beatles save a nonconforming young South Asian Brit.
The recipe for Yesterdayis house of Curtis to its sunny side of the valley, spiritually-nourishing, ethically-sourced roots. In this case, begin with a big dollop of unrequited love, simmer for a couple of hours with conflicted ambition, caramelise with comedy and garnish with sentiment. In this case, add the zest of some of the finest pop songs ever written (as well as a bunch by Ed Sheeran) and serve with a wink. And did I say concept is turned up high in this one? It’s sci-fi sky-high, so that from the start you might wonder if it isn’t perhaps overcooked and sticking to the bottom.
Think on this – or as Richard Curtis might have put it, Imagine! (Okay, yes that was Lennon post-Beatles…). Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, Eastenders) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a greyscale English seaside town. Lily James (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!) is Ellie, longtime friend, fulltime school teacher, his more than fulltime manager and true believer. She’s loyal, fun, smart. She’s also in love with him (self-absorbed Jack doesn’t even notice), and being played by a movie starlet, she’s gorgeous. He somehow doesn’t notice that either. She’s dressed down for the part, but as with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, his being blind to her radiance is an arduous suspension of disbelief on our part.
Young Jack’s career is going nowhere and he’s decided to chuck it when the high concept stuff literally strikes. Cycling home one night he’s hit by a bus just as the entire world gets blacked out for a few seconds. When the lights blink back on and Jack is extracted from the tarmac with black stumps for a couple of teeth, via some cosmic glitch no-one else it seems can remember the Beatles, Oasis, Harry Potter, Coca-Cola or cigarettes. In other words, not all bad news. Neither Jack’s friends nor Professor Google know of the songs nor even the existence of the Beatles – and, taking high concept right through the roof, even Jack’s Beatles vinyl LPs have vanished from his record rack. It’s as if the Beatles never were. Imagine! (Sorry.)
It doesn’t take long for a certain look to cross Jack’s ever-harried features, and he frantically plasters the titles of as many Beatles’ songs as he can remember on post-it notes on his bedroom wall, and racks his brain for the lyrics, especially to Eleanor Rigby(which even though he finally remembers it, he never actually sings). But he does know Yesterday and Let It Be straight off the bat, and his musical resurrection to friends and family - the latter an over-cheesy scene - proves the beginning of the world’s rebooted love affair with the songs of the Beatles… only now they’re known as the songs of Jack Malik.
Slowly at first, then with the inevitable, wrecking ball momentum of an elimination reality TV show, Jack’s voice is heard, or more precisely, his (Beatle) songs are. Jack is a strong enough performer, but the songs are stellar to any ear that can hear. Enter Ed Sheeran, portraying a nerdy pop star named Ed Sheeran, with a nice slice of generosity. Sheeran asks Jack to open for him in Moscow, but with her teaching job, manager Ellie can’t accompany him. So he goes with his good-hearted n’er do well roadie mate Rocky (Joel Fry), who’s a bit like the love-child of Roy and Moss from the IT Crowd. With the aid of a rollicking Back In The USSRto a heaving mob of pinkly hyperventilating young Russians, Jack’s momentum approaches critical mass: he’s approached by Sheeran’s shudderingly awful manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) and accepts the hemlock chalice of fame with its inevitable ticket to LA. Ellie takes her redundancy with profoundly good grace, and they part continents.
Danny Boyle (Trainspotting,Slumdog Millionaire) has kept a steady enough hand on the tiller for the first act and a half, but Debra is an over the top pastiche of a yoga posing, preening, nasty corporate ogre, and her entry is a real downtick. Debra thinks it’s clever to say the ghastly things we know rock managers think: real ones keep that stuff to themselves. While the other roles are played for truth, this is written and played for knowing guffaws: it jars.
Jack finds himself torn between the false life he’s careering into, and Ellie, who inevitably begins to drift away just as he realises what she means to him. The launch of his album - already being hailed as the greatest ever – takes place on the rooftop (big nod to the Beatles’ 1969 gig) of a pub near his old home in England. Ellie’s there with her new beau, the stork-like producer Gavin who did Jack’s first Sun Session-style recordings, and when Jack performs Help!he delivers it with a wallop, if anything an even more desperate crie de coeurthan the original. Disconsolate backstage afterwards, he agrees to see two people he suspects know the truth about him…one of whom has come armed with a toy yellow submarine. But he’s ready literally to face the music…
There’s a nice twist here, but unfortunately it’s also the point where the film really begins to unravel. Provided with an address, Jack travels to an isolated seaside home. There he meets someone who must not be named here, who tells us virtually nothing but gives Jack the sage advice we’ve been internally screaming for the entire movie – tell the girl you love her you twit, before she’s gone forever!
He plans to do so guesting at a Sheeran concert at Wembley, but first he confesses he’s a fraud, passing off the work of the Fab Four as his own. I won’t spoil the rest, but do warn it does involve possibly the Beatles’ most annoying-ever song, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.
Famed Hollywood script doctor Robert McKee has a simple maxim for screenwriters: Tell the truth. In script terms that means don’t try to paper over parts of your story that don’t add up or make sense just by saying “they’ll never notice it”. If that advice is ignored, after viewing a film like Yesterdaythe little things that might have nagged vaguely in the cinema become itches you must scratch. So when Jack Malik throws away his career – albeit for good, moral reasons – by naming to all of Wembley the four people who’d written “his” songs, it raises the question of is this a world in which those people never existed as the Beatles, or have they simply been forgotten as the pop phenomenon they were by nearly everyone alive? This is a decision that’s never properly made by the creative team, and it fuddles and undermines the narrative sandcastle.
I realise this may be a level of analysis some might say a film like this doesn’t require. It’s just a bit of fun, eh? But Yesterdayis about serious things: ambition, love, commitment, truth - and the answers and resolution are moral ones. The fudging of the central conceit refracts tellingly throughout the entire structure.
The other problem with unanswered questions is you may start to think about other things, such as the choice of songs. There’s an FX nod to one of the Beatles’ greatest, A Day In The Life- but no song. The mysterious and beautiful Across The Universeis reduced to a post-it note, and what about the Pythonesque mad joy of I Am The Walrus? I was grateful at least for In My Life, but so much of the genius of the Beatles was their unique synergy, their velvety, intoxicating melodies and thrilling harmonies, as well as their courage in stripping a song down to something spare, stark and affecting. And then there’s their fellow genius, producer George Martin, rightly known as “the fifth Beatle”.
The Beatles made great art as an organic whole. It wasn’t paint by numbers, packaging of components, and it was on the far side of the creative universe from the iPop of now. In trying to construct a worthy monument to them, Curtis and Boyle have stumbled over important story decisions – but they’ve shown too the genius of the Beatles can’t be deconstructed and reconstructed: their magic is there between the digits of the digital, it’s the unseen and ineffable, the air that swishes through this wildly cast narrative net.
And yet… I mostly enjoyed Yesterday- for its, yes, feelgood heart, its acting, direction, and wit. And its music – well, nearly of it. Life goes on, bra!…If only I could get that ear-worm out of my head, thanks a million Danny.
©2019 Larry Buttrose