The Beatles are one of if not the most legendary band in history. Their combined legacy as a group and as separate artists has transcended music turning Paul, John, George, and Ringo into pop culture icons. So what would a world without these four treasurer artists be like? That’s the idea behind a new romantic comedy called “Yesterday”. Directed by Danny Boyle, the acclaimed filmmaker behind “Trainspotting”, “28 Days Later”, “127 Hours”, and one of the most successful British films of the past few decades, Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire”, it seemed like “Yesterday” was in the right hands especially seeing as Boyle’s specialty has always seemed to be translating British culture to the big screen. However, “Yesterday” isn’t just a movie about The Beatles. It’s a high concept comedy meant to explore a struggling artist’s rise to fame when he discovers he is the only one who remembers The Beatles’ legendary catalogue of music. It’s a neat idea and one that’s had my interest for a while. I finally got to experience the picture for myself this weekend. How well does “Yesterday” live up to its potential? Let’s find out! This is my review of “Yesterday”.
“Yesterday” follows struggling musician Jack Malik (Hamesh Patel) who fails to draw much attention to his music from anyone other than a few select friends, including his childhood best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) and his often-unemployed friend Rocky (Joel Fry). While on his way home from another failed gig and ready to give up music for good, Jack is hit by a bus when a global blackout darkens every nation for 12 seconds. When he awakes Jack comes to realize he is the only one who remembers The Beatles after singing “Yesterday” to his friends leading them to believe it’s an original song. Jack seizes the opportunity and begins to pass off several Beatles classics as his own work drawing attention from Ed Sheeran (playing himself) who brings Jack on tour. Jack also catches the eye and ear of Sheeran’s ruthless American agent Debra (Kate McKinnon) who begins to pressure him into making “the greatest album the world has ever heard”. As Jack’s fame rises, he becomes stricken with guilt over finding success with someone else’s work and becomes increasingly frustrated by the modern world’s refusal to take the Beatles’ music seriously. Things get even more frustrating for Jack when Ellie reveals a hidden love for him, challenging Jack to choose between fame and the love of his life.
I was very excited about the potential of “Yesterday”. I thought the concept was clever and relatively fresh when I first saw the trailers and while the idea of someone waking up to find themselves in a unique position that challenges their ethics and perspective (“Isn’t It Romantic” followed a similar formula earlier this year), we’ve rarely if ever seen this adapted to the idea of fame in music. The Beatles are one of the most famous bands the world has ever known so they serve as a perfect subject for a film that challenges the rights and wrongs of a situation like Jack Malik’s. If one day you woke up and only you remembered the works of one of the most celebrated musical acts of all time what would you do? Would you use that knowledge to get famous knowing nobody would know you’re stealing? Would you be honest with yourself and the world and reveal the source of your musical magic? Can plagiarism exist in a world where the material never existed in the first place? It’s a neat idea and in a lot of ways it’s explored well in “Yesterday”, although it’s not a complete success as you’ll soon see reading on.
Where “Yesterday” shines is in its attempts to challenge the state of the music industry today as well as the value that people put on the entertainment and profit from music over the art. While it’s questionable to simply assume that The Beatles’ music would be as respected today as the songs were when they were released (considering that numerous songs took years to earn respect) it is a challenging idea for viewers to ponder what they would do if such legendary material was put in their lap. It just so happens that Jack Malik not only has the knowledge and respect for the music but also the talent to pull off the songs in a way that resonates with his audience. As Malik finds fame however, he realizes that value isn’t placed on the emotional power of the music, but rather from the entertainment and the money made from the product. People care less about what the song has to say and more about revenue. This is further stressed by the dichotomy between two major figures in Jack’s rise to the top, Ed Sheeran, playing himself, and his on-screen manager Debra, played by Kate McKinnon. Sheeran comes to respect Jack as an artist, seeing him as his superior over time in songwriting, while Debra openly admits to seeing Jack as nothing more than a revenue source. While it’s not always the most subtle film in the world, “Yesterday” challenges viewers, and the characters, to rethink the priorities of music and art and how songs earn their legacies. Is a song great because it’s popular or is a song great because it’s artistic…or is there a fine line in between that needs to be met? The Beatles seemed to find that perfect midpoint and Jack is challenged by a modern age world to try and find that same balance without compromising the Beatles’ original vision for their songs.
Another heavy theme is the idea of personal values. Himesh Patel, in my opinion, is one of the best things about “Yesterday” as Jack Malik because of how he portrays his character going from a down in the dumps musicians ready to give up to a top-of-the-world artist benefitting from a fortunate situation that hands him an opportunity at success. Jack legitimately struggles with his decisions throughout the entire film, sometimes to the point where it’s difficult to see him as a likable person. He starts off depressed and ready to surrender to what he assumes is his lot in life to be everything but the musician he longs to be. When he realizes his situation he even acknowledges that he has a tough decision to make about how to use his knowledge of The Beatles and the entire time we see him rise to fame he is constantly struggling to live up to the legacies of the songs he’s chosen to utilize. He also fails to find peace of mind in his fame. Rarely do we see him truly happy after finding his way to success by cheating, even when he knows he’s the only one aware of his vices. Eventually, the story translates into a challenge of personal values as well as ethics. Jack struggles with his relationship with best friend and manager Ellie, played very well by a confident and capable Lily James, and it only adds to his inner turmoil when he realizes his feelings for her too late and has to decide between being a road traveling musical sensation or settling down with the woman he loves, thus struggling with the meaning of true happiness. I enjoyed these themes and ideas and I love the fact that “Yesterday” was willing to take on the music industry and the idea of fame as a personal goal head on, and quite fearlessly I might add.
But it’s not all great. “Yesterday” has a few problems, its first being a lack of subtlety. I want to preface this by saying that “Yesterday” is more than just preachy messages about personal struggles and the art of music. It’s also a very funny movie with great comedic timing and some fun one-liners and silly moments that lighten up the mood at the perfect time. But, sadly, one of its least effective additions is one of its most talented comedic performers, Kate McKinnon. Now, I love this woman, but she’s definitely hit or miss for me in her films and “Yesterday” is more of a miss. While McKinnon’s Debra, Jack and Ed Sheeran’s agent, does provide some amusing moments she’s also way over the top. Every time we see her she’s throwing contradictory comments towards Jack about him being an abusive celebrity or talking about how Jack is going to make her money with his music. She’s meant to be an overbearing figure that challenges Jack’s peace of mind, but the character goes so far over the edge she quickly becomes an obvious and screaming metaphor for the evils of the industry. She’s just so painfully obvious and feels out of place in an otherwise grounded story. But it’s not just her. While I love the challenges thrown in the face of the music industry through this film there are numerous moments that are clear jabs at the industry of today and sadly they don’t always blend well into the narrative and often feel overdramatized to push a very specific perspective.
It’s also important to remember that “Yesterday” is a movie about a world without The Beatles, which is a fun idea but isn’t as fully fleshed out as I hoped. While Jack Malik is very dedicated to making sure the music of the legendary band is respected, the songs take a back seat to the drama to the point where you could almost trade them out for any other famous act and it would have worked the same way. Even the idea of a world without The Beatles feels a bit downplayed. To its credit “Yesterday” does make some fun jabs at the band’s legacy in pop culture as other aspects of society, including major brands and other musical acts, appear to have also disappeared without the influence of the band to assist them. But this is pretty much where the idea ends. Other than these few jokes and Jack’s struggle with plagiarism there’s really very little more exploration into what the world would be like if such an insanely important part of musical history never existed. It might be too bold to want a film that delves into more world-building seeing as this was a very character-centric piece, but it’s such a neat concept that it begs to be explored a little more and the fact that it’s not leaves more questions than answers from “Yesterday” as to the fate of the world without the band. What else changed? Why was Jack the exception? Even the REASON why this all happened isn’t resolved by the end of the film so once you look past the themes and characters, you’re left with an idea that feels more like a gimmick than anything else. If feels like eliminating The Beatles from history is a means to an end which in turn makes the movie feel less inspired than I think it really is. However, you could argue that one AWESOME surprise in the final act serves a neat way of trying to make due on some of the idea’s wasted potential.
Even though it leaves a lot to be desired I felt that “Yesterday” was a fine film and a fun waste of time. I had expected and wanted more, but what I got wasn’t too bad. It’s a charming and funny story that at least tries to do something unique with its concept even if it doesn’t go all in on exploring the many possibilities a world without The Beatles could really present. Most of the acting is fun and engaging even if some of the characters, Kate McKinnon’s specifically, are pretty heavy handed. It does ask some daring and challenging questions, but I still wish we got to explore the impact of a Beatle-less world just a little bit more. “Yesterday” is the kind of film I love to review. It has clear flaws but also has more than enough to offer that made it worth my time. It’s a fun film to analyze because while it doesn’t do everything right, the stuff it does do right is fantastic and thought-provoking while also being fun and interesting. It explores ideas like the true pleasures of life, the dark secrets of fame, and whether or not we’ve forsaken the art of music for the sake of profit using one of the most legendary discographies of all time to get these points across. Fans of The Beatles might have wanted a bit more, and I wouldn’t blame them if this film didn’t completely satisfy. But as a casual viewer, I found “Yesterday” to be a solid flick that I will shameless recommend.