"Yesterday" Wastes The Beatles' Music with Rom-Com Tropes
All its troubles should have been fixed in rewrites.
Yesterday has a brilliant high concept premise for a movie, one that doesn't require big explosions or visual effects.
The idea is juicy enough to make it a must see. That's why it's so disappointing when Yesterday turns into a worse version of the same romantic comedy we've seen so many times before.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician. His songs are only suited for pubs and boardwalks, and he's ready to give up on his rock n' roll dreams. But then, a worldwide blackout occurs and Jack is hit by a bus. He wakes up in the hospital and realizes that nobody else remembers The Beatles. Once he's checked and double checked to be sure he's the only one who remembers their songs, he starts playing them as his own.
This premise raises all sorts of interesting questions. If a different, non-white singer performed the same songs, would he be as successful as The Beatles? If The Beatles debuted now, would they still make it? And what's going to happen when Jack runs out of songs? The Beatles catalog is finite, after all.
But that's not the movie Yesterday wants to be. Jack keeps getting distracted from his ascending music career by his old manager and childhood friend Ellie (Lily James). Ellie has always been in love with Jack, and Jack never noticed. Now that he's finally successful, he only begins to realize he had something greater than fame and money all along, but let her slip through his fingers.
Okay, I guess that's sweet in theory, but it's not the movie the audience came to see. Coming from screenwriter Richard Curtis, it's appallingly pedestrian. The best that the writer of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Love, Actually could come up with was a take on the Friend Zone? Ellie says Jack "put her in the wrong column." I guess that's the classy British way of saying it.
Ellie is right when she tells Jack he had 20 years to make his move. Ellie has a life that doesn't involve him, has other romantic prospects, and most importantly, Jack is bad for her. At this point, he's actively sabotaging her healthy adulthood. The film should be on Ellie's side, but its sympathies are misplaced with Jack.
If it feels like I'm spending too much of the Yesterday review discussing the romantic subplot, I assure you I'm giving it as much attention as the movie gives it. The fun world building of "what if the Beatles didn't exist?" only appears in hints. Sure, scenes of Jack trying to explain The Beatles to his friends are funny, and Jack and Ellie recording songs in a do-it-yourself studio is fun. But revelations of other things that no longer exist are worth exploring further than the movie does. One trivial example is that, in this world, James Corden interviews one guest at a time. Apparently, if The Beatles never existed, James Corden never did his three guests on the couch schtick either. More likely, the film couldn't afford two other celebrities for the scene.
There are hints that Jack feels guilty about plagiarism, but they're only suggested through Patel's performance, as it's not explicit in the movie. The script only implies that he's afraid of getting caught, that there may be people who know his secret. He does forget some of the lyrics, which is a worthwhile plot point. As famous as The Beatles are, Jack probably wouldn't have an encyclopedic memory of their lyrics. He also tries to throw his original songs in the mix, and of course they pale in comparison to The Beatles. That, too, could have been a worthwhile crux of the story. Would he be happy enough being famous because of other people's songs if he still couldn't get any love for his true art?
But Yesterday wastes most of its time on rom-com shenanigans, right down to chasing Ellie to the train station before she leaves. And the film really wants Rocky (Joel Fry), Jack's incompetent roadie friend, to be endearing comic relief. I'm sure Fry is talented, but he deserves better than being forced to be a version of Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill. The movie focuses on Rocky's bumbling instead of interesting Beatles-centric material.
Richard Curtis writes great romances, but he shouldn't have tried to shoehorn one into a completely different concept. Director Danny Boyle can also do romantic or whimsical tales. as he shown with Slumdog Millionaire and Millions. Frankly, the romance subplot is probably more out of place in Yesterday than it would have been in Boyle's darker previous movies like Trainspotting or 127 Hours. Finally, based on the film's loud, bombastic renditions of The Beatles songs, I think it's safe to say Jack's versions would not have become timeless classics like those of of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
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