I Am The Bad Script, Goo Goo G’Joob
What do The Beatles mean? It’s a difficult question, one that I’m ill-equipped to answer. What we know for sure is that they cast a shadow that touches virtually every aspect of human life. Think of the music they made as the first domino in a vast and sprawling design. From pop to indie to rock to hip hop to punk and beyond, the DNA of the Fab Four winds through virtually all of it.
Their reach stretches far beyond music. Their 1964 concert film/documentary/comedy A Hard Day’s Night is both massively influential and enormously entertaining in terms of film. They were pioneers in the development of music videos. Hell, say what you will about Yellow Submarine, it still helped push interest in regarding animation as a serious artistic medium.
There are books and scholarly works about The Beatles. There is art that appropriates the ideas and themes of their music. A quick search on Google will help you discover Beatles related developmental gear for infants, pet supplies and, presumably, sex toys.* It’s no exaggeration to say they literally changed the course of human civilization.
But what if they didn’t? What if there was a world where Ringo Starr didn’t replace Pete Best, where John Lennon decided to focus on art school instead of music, where Paul McCartney didn’t invite George Harrison to watch his current band, The Quarrymen? A great movie could be made about a Beatle-free world. Yesterday, unfortunately, is not that movie.
It’s not exactly fair to call Jack (Himesh Patel) a has-been. He lives with his parents in Suffolk and works in a warehouse. Music is his passion, and as a busker performing in coffee shops and on boardwalks, it’s more accurate to characterize him as a never-gonna-be. While he’s a pretty good singer and an okayish songwriter, he simply doesn’t have “it,” the strange musical alchemy that can pluck artists from obscurity.
Ellie (Lily James) still believes in him. Ever since Jack performed Oasis’ “Wonderwall” at a school talent show, Lily has spent years as his manager and best friend. She books him a gig at a local music festival. It could be the moment he blows up…except that only seven people bother to listen to his music. He’s crushed, and from across the universe, it seems like the universe is telling him it’s time to pack it in.
While Jack bikes home to his parents, two very odd things happen. The first is a 12-second global blackout, which makes it very easy for him to get hit by a bus. The second occurs after he awakes in the hospital. Gradually, Jack discovers that the world is, among other things, utterly unaware of the music of The Beatles. No “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” no “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and no “Rocky Raccoon.”**
From there, Jack hatches an audacious scheme. He’ll pass off The Beatles’ stuff as his own and achieve his dreams of rock godhood. Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran) sees Jack on a TV spot and asks him to be his opening act. From there, he attracts the attention of cold-blooded record executive Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) who sees trainloads of money in Jack’s future. Yet does anyone else know about the scam Jack is running? Most importantly—at least, according to the movie—will Jack and Ellie realize their attraction to each other?
As a quick digression, oatmeal-raisin cookies are the Judas of baked goods. They lure you in with the promise that what you’re eating is, in fact, a chocolate chip cookie. As you bring the cookie towards your mouth, you’re expecting an explosion of dough and chocolate on your tastebuds. However, when it makes contact, there’s a piercing moment of betrayal as you realize that the chocolate chip you yearned for is actually a raisin. Sure, you can eat around the raisins, and those parts of the cookie are pretty good. Inevitably, you’ll be confronted with yet another raisin. Why am I laying this righteous science upon you? Because Yesterday is an oatmeal-raisin cookie of a movie.
I can’t blame Danny Boyle for it. God, who could? Boyle is the visionary director of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire. Whether he’s showing us a mission to reignite the sun or a man hacking off his own trapped arm, Boyle makes films bursting with style and creativity. Here, when he’s not bogged down by the script and focuses on the music and performances, Boyle gives us sequences that are delightful.
I can’t blame the cast for it. As Jack, Himesh Patel gives us a charming and likable performance. He’s asked to perform some of the greatest songs in history, and he pulls it off while simultaneously recognizing their power and making them a little bit his own. Lily James, who made such a strong impression on me in Baby Driver, doesn’t have much to do beyond believing in Jack then inexplicably ditching him. She’s stuck with a poorly written role, and she occasionally rises above the material.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the mighty Kate McKinnon. As the reptilian Debra, McKinnon gives the film a sarcastic edge, one that I think a certain Mr. Lennon would have appreciated. She’s one of those performers who always brings it, even when the material is below her. Sooner or later, she’s going to be the centerpiece of a film, and she’ll blow audiences away when that happens.
Who can I blame? Why, screenwriter Richard Curtis! He’s the architect of twee romantic comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually. Here, he’s taken a compelling idea and executed it in the safest way possible. What does the world look like without the music of McCartney, Lennon, Starr, and Harrison? Curtis’ script tells us it looks…well…pretty much the same. Instead, he focuses on a lazy “will they/won’t they” between Jack and Ellie. As with many other works by Curtis, we have some occasionally good jokes, a declarative speech about love that no human being would never give, and some truly hacky plotting.
There are a few interesting moments early on where Jack sings their music while busking and nobody cares. Does that mean Jack is the weak link? Apparently not, as Jack becomes a globally famous celebrity after Ed Sheeran notices him. As far as I can tell, Curtis’ script believes that the music of The Beatles exists outside of its original time, place, and influences, and it would be staggeringly successful whenever it was released. Would it, though? Would people respond to “Can’t Buy Me Love” the same way now? The script never tells us. Also, the script treats their music as perfect works of art handed down from Mount Olympus.*** Along with a ton of classics, The Beatles wrote a few songs that are godawful. That humanizes them, and the script should have recognized it.
With every album, The Beatles grew in stature. They could be triumphant, horny, mawkishly sentimental, and psychedelic. They took chances, and we’re better for it. While you’re watching Yesterday, you can feel Danny Boyle and the cast straining to make a film equaling the power of “Come Together.” Instead, the screenplay drags the film down to the level of “Wild Honey Pie.”
*You’ll forgive me if I don’t look that one up.
**They ain’t all classics.
***I’d like to remind you that John Lennon himself referred to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as “granny music shit.”