The Rolling Stones were about sex, while The Beatles were about making love. When framed in this manner, the appeal behind what is conventionally considered the greatest band of all time appears oversimplified, but the essential sentiment remains: the emotion behind something transgressive is often the best thing about the whole endeavor, not the transgressive action itself. If heard for the first time now, would this philosophy that places affect and experience on a pedestal impact as it did in the 1960s, a time that idealized ideological and formal experimentation in music?
Yesterday, which follows a struggling artist named Jack (Himesh Patel) who wakes up in a world where only he can remember the music of The Beatles, sets itself up for questions about the relevance of a 60s phenomenon in a contemporary world where finding a unique and singular voice seems impossible despite the accessibility of social media. Would a philosophy of love your neighbor loads hold up in a world where the veneer of political civility is almost completely eroded? Even mildly existential conversations about the legacy of icons and inspirations, unfortunately, cannot be found in an entirely acceptable, yet generically plotted liar-revealed rom-com about learning to love before doing anything else.
It’s a film the most uninteresting of Beatles fans would concoct; every rockin’ tune is just as groovy as it was in the 1960s and not a naysaying party-crasher can be found anywhere in Jack’s globetrotting, glory-heavy adventure. There is much talk about how this “new” stolen music could perhaps become the greatest work of art of the 21st century. Is it because of the formal variety? Little attention is given to how Jack wants to rerelease the old discography, and none of the most experimental tracks are even mentioned (I am the Walrus, Tomorrow Never Knows, Within You Without You among them). Is it the commentary on contemporary issues? I doubt a plea for friendship and the importance of love would change many people’s perspectives today. Revolution seems not even a quarter as biting or formally audacious as Childish Gambino’s This is America for example. Truly, The Beatles will just always rock, man. Guess that’s because they’re just so damn catchy?
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) thankfully brings an aura of basic professionalism. While the film’s style feels largely removed from his usual frenetic wheelhouse (discounting the plethora of trademarked unnecessary canted angled), Boyle is able to make likable performers portray likable characters, in turn making a likable product. Himesh Patel and Lily James elevate the often nauseously wholesome instincts of writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually) to the bold level of standardly acceptable. Both believably exchange charming looks, earned tears, and the occasional dry laugh. Sequences like running after a train to catch a love interest, getting cut off when trying to reveal the truth, and a chase scene with a producer who is capitalistic and therefore villainous are certainly lame in concept, but when I’m rooting for these characters to learn the bold lesson that “all you need is love” by the end, it’s fine because at least I care.
Perhaps much of the impact comes from the unsurprisingly killer soundtrack, which Boyle creatively pairs with the pathos behind a scene. When Lily James’ Ellie asks Jack who “In My Life” was written about, the emotion is more impactful because of the high quality of both the song and its performance just a moment prior, as well as the knowledge that Jack needed to pick a song that would make him stand out during his supposed one big break. “Let it Be” is (almost) performed when Jack is interrupted by his inconsiderate family members and rudely berates them. A screaming rendition of “Help” is sung when Jack is at his lowest point in the third act. Beyond being cheeky references to the meanings behind the songs we all know, they show how Jack may miraculously have the ability to recreate the majority of all 211 Beatles songs from memory, but he can’t always appreciate the message and context behind them until the end of the film.
Yesterday is like a well-built exciting birthday cake that has all of the icing wiped off of it right before every bite. Luckily, the cake itself is fine, but when you look at that delicious, sugary goo sitting on a mound in plain sight, you can only really think about the sugar high you deserve.
Yesterday is a missed opportunity wrapped in the accessible and enjoyable wrappings of a standard rom-com.