Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran
Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen 2009’s Julie & Julia: I will be revealing a climactic plot point within this paragraph. After a year of blogging about the challenge of cooking one recipe a day from Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep) cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking for a whole year, blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is crestfallen when an interviewer tells her that her culinary idol has dismissed her blog, saying that the one-recipe-a-day exercise was disrespectful. Writer-director Nora Ephron didn’t really investigate why Julia Child reacted in such a hostile manner to what is ostensibly a tribute, and I puzzled over it myself the first time I saw the movie. But after watching director Danny Boyle’s “tribute” to the Beatles, Yesterday, I’m beginning to understand Julia Child’s point.
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Like Amy Adams’ wide-eyed blogger, Yesterday presents itself as an ingenuous fantasy that breathlessly wants to tell today’s audiences what geniuses John, Paul, George and Ringo were. It’s a romantic-comedy with a humdinger of a “what if” premise: What if one day you woke up, and the world had never heard of The Beatles? That’s what happens to struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) after he leaves another dispiriting gig and, after the entire world plunges into darkness for 12 seconds (don’t ask me how an American baseball stadium can exist in the same time zone as a Japanese evening newscast), gets hit by a bus. Jack wakes up to the supportive care of his longtime friend/inept manager Ellie (Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again’s Lily James), but he starts to notice strange little incongruities: Ellie doesn’t get a “when I’m 64” reference, and she professes ignorance of The Beatles when he mentions the band upon being discharged from the hospital. But the truth really hits home when his warm but mercilessly teasing circle of friends (a specialty of screenwriter Richard Curtis) gifts him with a guitar—none of them recognizes “Yesterday” when he performs it for them, thinking he had composed the emotional ballad on the fly. (In trademark Richard Curtis fashion, after Jack insists that it is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, a friend scoffs and says “It’s not Coldplay.”)
Jack discovers even more alarming details about the alternate timeline he has woken up in: The Gallagher brothers-fronted band Oasis never existed (because they were heavily influenced by The Beatles), but random things like Coke and cigarettes also seem to have been erased. And so Jack passes off The Beatles’ greatest hits as his own, which brings him to the attention of Ed Sheeran (who manages to come off as both self-effacing and egotistical in his lengthy cameo). Pretty soon, Jack also catches the eye of Ed’s fictional manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), who flies him to Los Angeles and, in the film’s compliment-then-undercut strategy, tells Jack that his songs might be ready-made hits, but they really need to work on his schlubby wardrobe. Viral fame—and a nagging sense of being a fraud—soon follow.
Yesterday hangs its Beatlemania on a gossamer-thin rom-com thread: How can Jack move his relationship with Ellie from the friend zone to the next level when the demands of fame and fortune come knocking? It’s a gift to have the warm and radiant presence of Lily James suffusing the film, because the actress makes the dilemma a true heartbreaker. It is also a hoot to watch Kate McKinnon play the Tinseltown foil to this romance; the Saturday Night Live scene-stealer pushes Debra’s slithery impulses to before-unseen reptilian lengths (even though we have seen the “welcome to LA” montage of palm trees and the Hollywood sign a gajillion times before). The problem is, the Beatlemania that the film professes to have is itself insubstantial—it takes the band’s hits for granted without exploring how those songs break your heart and elevate your spirit, or what those songs meant to the world that first heard them. A character even tells Jack that a world without The Beatles is worse off, and yet the parallel reality doesn’t seem radically different from our own (and might even be an improvement with the absence of cigarettes). The film can’t even be bothered to prove its essential thesis.
Yesterday is a cute romantic-comedy for people who like their romances laced with cheeky British humor, but after awhile, it started to annoy me—and this is when I finally realized why Julia Child might be pissed off at the fangirl blogger who just wanted to pay tribute to her. The annoyance starts when Jack’s parents ask him to play one of “his” new songs, and then continuously interrupt him and get the title wrong before he can get past the first three bars. Then it becomes genuine irritation when Jack can’t remember the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”, and a song that my high school English lit class dissected with care is reduced to a repetitive sight gag. And that’s when it hits me: Yesterday essentially dismi
Yesterday will have sneak previews on Monday and Tuesday, July 15 and 16, before opening wide on July 24.