“Yesterday” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 116 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released June 28, 2019:
It’s probably not a good idea to put too much thought into “Yesterday” while you’re watching it, although you’ll probably find it impossible to not think about it afterwards.
The violations of the space-time continuum in the picture are difficult to accommodate, especially for those audience members who follow the “Star Wars” and Marvel Comics-based pictures, and are notoriously picky about such details. And although “Yesterday” is filled with amusing scenes, charming set pieces, and some of the best music ever composed and performed, the whole is decidedly not a sum of its parts. And that’s a real shame.
In “Yesterday,” Jack Malik, a struggling British musician on the worn edge of youth, is tempted by his lack of success to quit the music business and return to his primary profession of school teaching. But after he’s knocked unconscious in a traffic accident caused by a cosmic anomaly and momentary global power outage, the young musician awakens to find a substantial change in culture. Specifically, the world has no memory, or historical account, of Coca-Cola, cigarettes...or The Beatles.
Now the failing musician is faced with a dilemma...and an opportunity. With a head filled with Beatles songs in a world that’s never heard them, his path to global superstardom is open--all he needs to do is to claim the Beatles music catalog as his own. But first he needs to decide whether unprecedented fame and wealth is worth the burden of having to live with a lie...and possibly losing the affection of the only girl who ever truly loved him.
Despite an original premise and a musical score filled with a dozen or so of the best songs ever written, “Yesterday” ultimately becomes a fairly standard rags-to-riches entertainment story, a variation of the Faust legend, with British actor Himesh Patel’s Jack in the Faust role, Lily James as Marguerite, the girlfriend, here called Ellie Appleton, and Kate McKinnon as Mephistopheles in the guise of the venal and soulless talent manager Debra Hammer, who promises young Jack riches beyond comprehension in exchange for his talent.
Part of the joy of the Beatles experience was in witnessing their growth and maturation. When heard today, their early music--songs such as 1962’s “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” in 1963--seem primitive and primordial, little more complex than prehistoric cavern-dwellers chanting and pounding on hollow logs. That the group in a few years’ time was able to gain the musicianship and sophistication to produce works like “A Day in the Life,” “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” is nearly astonishing.
There’s no sense of that wonder in “Yesterday,” and even less of the joy. Jack, the movie’s central character, possesses the knowledge of the Beatles catalog, but not the discipline the band’s members required to produce it. Despite his presumptive skill and experience as a musician, during Jack’s first solo appearance with his own band to perform one of “his” new compositions before an audience, the opening song (the 1965 hit “Help”) is almost laughably inept, hardly even worthy of a suburban teenage garage band.
Additionally, despite the movie’s premise there’s never any real sense of the band’s eventually modifying world culture. The impact of The Beatles extended beyond popular music, and eventually affected world culture. To begin with, without The Beatles there likely would’ve been no Rolling Stones, Woodstock, Michael Jackson, or long hair on men--all details mentioned in the film as having occurred anyway.
Worse, in a movie which turns on the audience’s liking the central character, Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik becomes almost painfully unsympathetic, and even unlikable. To be successful as a persuasive dramatic narrative, the movie has to show us plainly why the lovable Lily James as Ellie follows her musician crush, and encourages him to persist in his pursuit of success in music. Instead, the audience falls in love with Lily James as Ellie, and vaguely wishes she’d come to her senses and dump Jack, maybe find a guy who’s a little more attentive and caring.
Of Jack’s musical work without the spirit of The Beatles on his shoulder, Kate McKinnon as the Mephistophelean manager Debra delivers the picture’s best line: “I hate it...but I’m not interested enough to listen to it again to find out why.” It’s a great line, but she might also be describing the picture’s plot development, or even the movie’s central character.
In the end, Jack’s decision, and the path of his soul, is made easy by a piece of advice he receives from a familiar countenance indeed. Led by an address slipped to him by a fan, Jack arrives at the door of an aging, reclusive artist living in a remote seaside cottage on the periphery of society. The old artist shares with the conflicted young man the culmination of his long years of experience: “Tell the girl you love you love her,” the old man advises Jack, “and tell the truth whenever you can.” Come to think of it, that’s what those four guys were telling us all along.
Directed by the talented and eclectic Danny Boyle, the filmmaker behind 1996’s “Trainspotting” and 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” from a screenplay by the equally-talented Richard Curtis, the writer behind 1999’s “Notting Hill” and 2003’s “Love Actually,” “Yesterday” is entertaining enough, but richly unsatisfying. The picture ultimately presents viewers with more questions than answers. For fans of the Beatles--and honestly, if there weren’t millions of us, there’d be no movie--”Yesterday” might inspire a sense of disquiet, and possibly a feeling of blasphemy.
One character is exactly correct when she observes toward the end of the picture, “A world without The Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse.” But at the same time, the picture’s premise and structure begs a question: If a single musician were really able to compose the whole of The Beatles’ catalog of songs before even releasing his first record album, what in the world would he do for an encore?
“Yesterday” is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language concerns.