It may sound trite, but nothing can make me feel more dead inside than when a Millennial doesn’t get your references. I go into fits of despair when I get a blank stare or an “I don’t know her” in response to my saying Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar-winning performance in Paper Moon ranks as one of my favorites of all time. When my parents would mention the greatness of Bette Davis, I’d seek out her films, and that was way before streaming content or even video stores. Nowadays, all they have to do is get off their Tweety Insta Snapchats and Google something to get up to speed, but …why bother when you’re too busy gaining followers or “influencing” people? Has my generation become forgotten? Is that a real fear?
Perhaps this is why when I saw the trailer for Yesterday, the new film directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) and written by that romantic comedy God, Richard Curtis (Love Actually), I reacted so strongly. Its premise of a man who after a freak power outage and accident, wakes up to discover a world where The Beatles never existed spoke to me. Is it possible for people to have never known some of the best music in history? Well, yes, despite its somewhat goofy “Get whacked on the head and land in an alternate universe, Twilight Zone-style” trope, we live in a world where the young don’t see eye-to-eye with the older generation. It’s nothing new, and there’s small comfort in knowing that. Anyhow, I couldn’t wait to see what the master director of kinetic cinema and the writer of swoon-worthy moments would give us.
Turns out, we get an extremely fun, funny, moving, highly entertaining film which simultaneously spins it wheels, goes off the rails, and generally limits the possibilities of its own concept. Still, it’s hard to complain when a film gets packed with such incredible music, laughs, heart, and one jaw-dropping surprise, which I won’t spoil.
Himesh Patel, in his feature film debut, plays Jack Malik, a down on his luck musician in a small English seaside town, who trots out his acoustic guitar to dead-end gigs. Despite having the confidence of his lifelong, adoring friend and manager, Ellie (Lily James, delightful as always), Jack tells her he’s giving up on his ambitions to work full time at a Big Box-style store. Life, however, has another plan for Jack, who gets hit by a bus after a freak 12-second global power outage leaves him vulnerable. While he’s merely lost his front teeth, the rest of humanity has lost any knowledge of the Fab Four, among a few other specific and hilarious things such as Coca Cola and cigarettes. Those darn kids again with their vaping, right? Seizing the moment, Jack pretends to have written such classics as “The Long And Winding Road” and “Hey Jude”, gets swooped up by Ed Sheeran (who plays himself really, really well) as his opening act, nabs Ed’s manager Debra (a spot-on Kate McKinnon) and achieves global superstardom. If you’ve ever watched a movie before, you know this charade will only last about, oh, say 90 minutes.
This premise, as fun as it is, remains a tad under-explored in the film. It mostly focuses on Jack’s rise, his will they/won’t they romance with Ellie, and the amazing music Jack seems to make. We get little snippets about the feelings of loss one would have if the world had never known Lennon and McCartney. We get one little, and admittedly funny line, which informs us that maybe The Beatles wouldn’t be so popular in today’s world. More troubling, however, we spend time with a guy who remains singularly focused on his career instead of putting down his guitar for a second, walking away from Google, and wondering what else has happened in the world. I guess it’s all in keeping with the inherent narcissism of an entertainer, but Patel plays Jack with such a sweet vulnerability, I’d expect his actions to have a little more depth. Still, it’s understandable that one could freeze up when presented with a new reality. It’s hard to quibble too much when you find yourself tapping your toes in delight. It’s impossible not to beam when Jack and Ellie don dishwashing gloves to recreate the handclaps to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or in the deliciously drawn-out sequence in which he tries to play “Let It Be” for his parents, who interrupt him at every opportunity.
Instead of exploring the global implications, Richard Curtis plays to his strengths as a writer of rom-coms, which Yesterday falls squarely into that category. As such, the film loses some of its steam in the final act, in which love takes over. Curtis surprisingly whiffs a key moment in which a main character unceremoniously dumps another with no real explanation or sensitivity. The characters here behave like a screenwriter’s pawns instead of like living breathing humans with feelings. It’s the dumbest breakup scene I’ve ever witnessed. I could have also done without McKinnon’s final moment, a cartoonish scream more fit for an SNL skit than for the over-the-top but still well-observed character she portrays up until that point. Boyle does get a remarkable moment out of Patel when he has a meltdown while singing “Help” to an adoring crowd. A B-story regarding the possibility that Jack may not be the only person to remember his music idols ends up lowering the stakes, however sweetly it goes about it.
Despite its many flaws, Boyle, in his usual fashion, keeps things moving beautifully, and his cast touched me. Special mention goes to Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s scattered, inept roadie who finds an endearing sweetness to his beyond silly character. The film, however, belongs to Patel, whose expressions connect the dots for the audience and his gentleness goes a long way towards selling his love for some of the best melodies ever. Besides, he’s also a terrific singer.
As for the big surprise, I appreciated that Curtis swings for the fences. It’s truly gasp-inducing and emotionally resonant, but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny after Jack’s jig is up. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because this is a film about…groan..finding out that love trumps everything. It’s more important than having a successful career, than making great art, than having any sort of ambitions whatsoever. Hollywood has been selling us this message for decades. Love is all you need. Is it true, or was that a catchphrase created to make the competitors back off while the one percenters enjoy the spoils?
Maybe these are all just the musings of a man who doesn’t understand that sometimes a fluffy good time is enough. I get it. Besides, if Yesterday causes one twenty-something “influencer” to stop taking selfies in front of a giant pink wall and listen to “A Day In The Life” instead, then Boyle and Curtis deserve the Nobel Prize.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Yesterday gets a 0 out of 50. There’s not a single LGBTQ+ character to be found. One could stretch and say that Jack’s secret is a metaphor for the closet, but even salt water taffy isn’t pulled that far. Still, it’s got a good beat and people can dance to it!
By Glenn Gaylord
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