In Yesterday, Himesh Patel (in his big-screen debut) plays Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter from a small town in England who can’t quite catch a break. He busks on the street, wearing his heart on his sleeve, but not a single penny is thrown in his hat. When he belts an original piece, ‘Summer Song,’ at a local bar, the only ones who clap and cheer are his close friends. The only people who send him fan mail are his mom and his manager, Ellie, played to utmost sincerity and sweetness by Lily James.
One day, on the brink of giving up, Jack cycles ferociously, the wheels in his disoriented brain spinning as fast as the pedals on his bike. It’s his passion! He loves music more than anything else in the world. He’s talented too. But sometimes that’s not enough. Director Danny Boyle intercuts his peddling with a moving train, the night sky, the busy street, as the soundtrack grows louder and intensifies, perfectly matching the rhythm of the increasingly rapid editing (by Jon Harris of Snatch, Kickass, 127 Hours). And then a global blackout — darkness — followed by an accident in slow motion. It’s a sequence of pure style festering genuine emotion and confusion. How many directors can pull off a scene like that? There’s an energy to the first act of Yesterday that’s rarely felt in dramedies, but always present in a Danny Boyle picture.
Jack wakes up in the hospital to find that he’s lost two front teeth but the world has lost all memory of The Beatles. Somehow, someway, Jack’s the only person who remembers the cults of personality that are John, Paul, George and Ringo. Even all physical copies of The Beatles’ albums have magically vanished, erased from existence. So, Jack despite knowing that it’s unethical, passes off classic Beatles songs as his own and finally starts to get noticed.
There’s a cracker of a sequence that takes place in Jack’s bedroom where Ellie asks him how she ended up in the wrong column — the best friend, roadie and manager column instead of the ‘lovers’ one. Danny Boyle handles this scene masterfully, blending comedy (his parents and friends are drunk downstairs, gleefully and noisily screaming his name to come down and join the celebration) with sadness and romantic tension. A gem of a sequence that once again feels like it’s crafted by a director with a sure hand and swagger.
But then Jack Malik flies to the US and the film gradually starts to fizzle out. Lost were the vigour and energy from the first half replaced by a feeling of hollowness. As the film crawls its way toward the two-hour mark, I started to ask myself what exactly is the point of Yesterday? A movie can be anything it wants, even if what it wants to be is absolutely cliche. What’s important is that it carries itself with the confidence of Jay Z who once said: “my presence is charity.” My point is Yesterday worked best as a stylistic but straightforward romantic dramedy with the spotlight on two actors with dynamite chemistry.
It was never about ‘the importance of The Beatles to the world’ except the screenplay suddenly introduces that very idea in the latter part of the second act, when two elderly characters who also have complete memories of the pre-blackout life say something along the lines of “the world NEEDS to listen to lyrics and music of The Beatles” Now the film’s telling me to use my brain a little more. So, I think to myself: It’s an interesting idea, no doubt. After all, The Beatles weren’t just great musicians, they inspired a culture. Through songs like ‘Imagine’ and ‘Revolution’, The Beatles became a middle finger to traditional and conservative institutions.
“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” – John Lennon, Imagine
These legends were one of the most integral figures when it came to the birth of counterculture in the 1960s. So, I’d imagine a world without The Beatles would indeed be very different. Music would be different. The arts, in general, would be different. Buddy, life would be different. But Yesterday doesn’t explore any of that. When Jack wakes up in a world without what’s arguably the greatest band to have ever lived, it’s exactly the same. Culture is exactly the same. In fact, the absence of The Beatles is nothing more than a plot device to send Jack Malik on his paint by numbers romantic dramedy journey. Substitute the Beatles with Elton John and the movie stays exactly the same. So, the idea of the world desperately needing to hear the lyrics of The Beatles feels forced and the climax which to some degree is built around that notion falls flat.
But Danny Boyle never loses grasp of the film completely. Even the mostly-dull second half is reasonably engaging because of the occasional bursts of style by the helmer, Himesh Patel and Lily James’ charm and the dry British humour which hardly ever misses a beat. A running gag involves Jack discovering what else is missing from this new world. There’s also Rocky, played by Joel Fry who displays comedic timing — there’s a joke with Ed Sheeran that steals the show. I do have to wonder why Danny Boyle decided to take on something as mild as this when his previous works include Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Steve Jobs and bloody Trainspotting. Perhaps he figured since nobody went out and watched his previous two more provocative works (T2: Trainspotting did average at the box office; Steve Jobs was a huge bomb), he’d make something more palatable for the masses.