Preview screening on 19th June, 2019
On general release from 28th June 2019
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
The board of Google will be practicing their fat cat grimaces this summer, like every summer. Even on days when tax shaming heckles flare up, Yesterday, the new Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle movie, should bring the committee some welcome relief. Whatever their reputation, they’ll find their global domination confirmed in one of the funnier riffs in this film. It’s a saving grace for the movie’s lead, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel); whenever he casts doubt on his life and disruptions in world culture he consults Google for reassurance, it’s ubiquitous search bar waits for him to tap in a query.
His questions and their results form one of the better running gags in the film, heightened by his weird predicament. After a global blackout and a late-night collision between his bike and the local bus, Malik wakes up and finds himself the only person able to remember The Beatles. The global seizure has wiped swathes off the world’s pop cultural consciousness, and the loss of the Fab Four, more so than Coke and Harry Potter, is treated as high tragedy. (The fate of Nickelback is, I’m sad to report, never mentioned). As we go on, it becomes Malik’s mission to remember the records and release them as his own stuff – in a time of worldwide amnesia the cultural identity theft seems naughty but not unforgivable.
So starts Curtis’ story of Beatlemonomania, fame and recognition. Before his bike crash, Jack, played with brilliant warmth and alienation by Patel, was a jobbing local musician, low on talent, high on ambition; a sort of pie-and-a-pint folk singer, hitting up the bars and clubs without anyone paying the slightest attention. All this changes when he starts bashing out ‘Let it Be’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘In My Life’; the tracks prove just as popular as the first time round.
Like those toddlers plucked from YouTube and shoved into success, his complete transformation happens with amazing speed. Ed Sheeran soon becomes a mentor and at one point proposes a friendly songwriting competition: he wants to see who can pen the best song in 10 minutes. The movie’s logic easily wins. Jack cunningly comes back with ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and upstages Sheeran’s bleeding artery of a ballad – an awful whining, wimpy noise that would make any sane person want to hand Mark David Chapman a pistol and Sheeran’s home address. Greedy media moguls come after him and he’s lifted up to universal acclaim and chat show familiarity. So far so good, but as with all tales of fame, it comes at a price – in all the gushing fandom, he’s left behind his one true original fan, his friend and manager, Ellie (Lily James). She clearly loves him and he’s nervous about making a move.
Our romantic leads are on great form, though Lily James definitely gets the short straw. I’m not entirely sure why, but the movie has dressed her like a blind cat sitter – all ghastly vintage fair dresses and dowdy shoes – with the overal sex appeal of a school shooting. Curtis and Boyle are whipping up a nice girl next door whimsicality, but you can feel the strain every time she’s on screen. She’s always trying to be twee, trying very very hard to be the innocent, homely, humble Maths teacher.
Homage it certainly is, though so far it’s received complaints that Curtis and Boyle have merely proffered a superficial ‘Best of’ compilation. Weighted exclusively towards the songs that have come to define mass appeal, you may well complain – depending on how serious a fan you are – that a lot of The Beatles’ charm is taken away. This is a mistake, as is sententiously picking apart the whole alternate reality premise. Some ignorati in the film criticism business have taken it upon themselves to embrace their inner voice synthesiser and become Stephen Hawking, questioning how the world would work if something like this actually happened. Please please me, don’t bother. It’s light summer rom com fair, appealing to the whole family, using as much in-depth knowledge of the lads as a North West Tonight segment would require, and rolling towards an obvious romantic reunion finish. Though Boyle has opted for some of the visual appeal of indie romance, this is what the film most definitely isn’t. It doesn’t want to reside in the hipster wing of summer rom coms, in which if the global glitch happened we’d get the movie Bingo Master’s Breakout, the tagline: imagine a world without The Fall.
If anything it’s a good balance of elements. Curtis usually operates in two modes; one is the easy going elite class romantic farce, with Hugh Grant displaying the worst case of polite middle class tourettes you’ll see in cinema. The second dimension of Curtisland being what you could roughly call time travel mode, in which you’d place About Time and the amateur historian oafishness of Blackadder. I’ve never found Blackadder remotely funny, as far as I can see it’s just po-faced Python, arch gags grabbed from, written and performed in the Upper Reading room of the Bodleian Library. It’s reputation truly baffles me. In Curtis’ favour, the two strands are united here in an enjoyable, pacy movie. British Pop artistry and the well-worn material of unspoken attraction do work together (the audience certainly clapped and laughed when I went). The humour is warm, comfortable and generalist, no cult insider lines just a teasing skewer here and there that stays its course and no more.
The more serious messages are fairly well handed too. Those who craft and market flash-in-the-pan pop products are made fun of and, most importantly, the issue of being ‘genuine’ is raised but never too bluntly. The indefinable quality of honesty, integrity and genuineness is something regularly discussed in music criticism. Yesterday happily points to the fact that Malik is half-remembering, half-conjuring the Beatles without any sense of their geography (hence the mid-film trip to Liverpool), any trace of their Scouse wit, any well of Northern melancholy that the actual Beatles had. Without this, how can he possibly perform this stuff with feeling?
Patel’s singing is excellent – his version of ‘Help!’ being the best in the film – and the conclusion is a predictable but satisfying rejection of the world of stadium pop. Boyle’s direction is energetic, though there are disconcerting camera angles, upshot and titled, that don’t add anything to the storytelling. For those who haven’t heard The Beatles in a while or who are seasoned fans of Curtis’ well-made rom com three-acters, then go and see Yesterday.