Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Joel Fry
Yesterday, a British film in which a down-and-out musician wakes up to a world that has no memory of The Beatles, is directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire). But it is at heart very much a Richard Curtis movie. This is Curtis' screenplay and Curtis' little box of feel-good tricks. There are bits of wry Curtis-ness scattered across Yesterday. There's some Notting Hill in the way protagonist Jack Malik's (a likeable Himesh Patel) frumpy parents are oblivious about a celebrity (Ed Sheeran) in their house. There's some About Time in the way the county of Suffolk is shot – full of magic-hour montages and quaint fields and Cornwall-style beachfronts, another affectionate ode to the small-town English vibe. In fact, one can sense the origins of Yesterday's Beatlesmania in the opening credits of Love Actually: A wedding is made memorable when the best man springs a surprise on the groom – musicians pop up with their instruments at different corners of the church to score Seal's cover of "All You Need Is Love". The scene is charming; it drives home a moment in Yesterday where a nostalgic older lady, the kind who might have fawned over the Liverpool foursome in the '60s, wisely remarks that "this world is infinitely worse without The Beatles." She is right.
The Beatles didn't just make music; they made life. Delete them and you're deleting all the bands who were ever inspired by them. Which is why Oasis, too, rightly ceases to exist in Yesterday. The problem with Curtis' cheeky idea is that it isn't exactly a one-liner; there's more to it than a quirky alternate-reality dramedy. There's more to the nostalgic lady's words than mere hyperbole. The Beatles transcended their stature as boyish poets and became the background score to millions of memories, milestones, historical landmarks and intimate unions. Delete them and you're deleting all the people who let the music define their personalities, their evolution, their spirits. You're deleting the wedding from Love Actually, you're deleting the giddy father who introduced me to their songs, you're deleting a chunk of humanity.
But Yesterday is too satisfied with its frothy genre to truly delve into the (dark) ramifications of living in a Beatles-less universe. A German film, Look Who's Back, comes to mind: Hitler wakes up in present-day Berlin, and the film doesn't hesitate to transition from comedy to bleak cultural satire in its pursuit of reflecting the inherent primality of modern society. Much of Yesterday's copout is down to its choice of character – a second-generation South Asian immigrant, much like the Pakistani teenager in Gurinder Chadha's Springsteen-inspired Blinded by the Light. This automatically makes him the hero and underdog of the story, which in turn demands that the broadness of the concept be narrowed down to accommodate his adventure. The makers choose Jack to be the voice of the band in 2019 – still a worthy theme, given that the Beatles gimmick is a fine allegory to explore the correlation between inspiration and art. There's much to be said about the way the movie uses this device to commentate on deeper aspects – for instance, the pressure of being 'gifted' or being born with 'god-given talent'. Or the tendency of artists to feel possessed by a sort of special superpower when they are on a roll. Picture John Lennon and Paul McCartney back in the '60s experiencing what Jack does – picture them being convinced that the words just came to them after a popular '40s band vanished from the face of the earth, leaving them with the privilege of reproducing the lost music in their own voices. Perhaps that's what we normies call "divine inspiration".
A profound meditation on morality and individualism needlessly morphs into a generic rom-com (superstar misses the only girl who believed in him) with a grand monologue
But again, just as Yesterday promises to address some of these very interesting existential issues, the film cripples itself with a basic childhood-sweetheart track. Here is where the reputation of Richard Curtis – as somewhat of a romantic comedy specialist – prevents this movie from becoming the best version of itself. He used this reputation to good effect in About Time, fooling us into expecting a romantic comedy before blindsiding us with a touching father-son narrative. The tone-jump in Yesterday, however, is not as pleasant. A profound meditation on morality and individualism needlessly morphs into a generic rom-com (superstar misses the only girl who believed in him) with a grand monologue. Maybe it isn't that surprising that Curtis' story believes that…all you need is love. Perhaps all it really had to do was imagine – imagine there's no Beatles, it isn't hard to do, nothing to live or die for, and no religion, too.