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Film Review: ‘Yesterday,’ a Magical Mystery Movie About the Meaning of Life, Imagines a World Without the Beatles

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Since the Beatles split up almost half a century ago, fans, concert promoters, recording industry executives, etc., sought ways to reunite all of the members of what’s arguably the greatest rock band of all time. Today, even though only two of the Fab Four survive, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle has contrived to bring the Beatles back through the film fantasy Yesterday.

(Note: the following review contains some mild spoilers, so read at your own direction). 

In this rom-com/drama, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an indie rocker who has flopped at attaining his aspirations as a successful songwriter and musician in contemporary Britain. Pushing 30 and still living at home with his parents, Jack’s day job is working in a supermarket and warehouse — career-wise, he’s a real “Nowhere Man,” going no place fast. The only thing Jack has going for him is his manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who gets him booked at pubs and (empty) tents during music festivals, in between earning her living as a teacher. Their longtime friendship and professional relationship has prevented the two from progressing beyond the platonic to becoming a romantic couple.

Following another lackluster gig, Jack decides to pack it all in and give up his quest for rock stardom. Perhaps metaphorically, the entire planet then experiences a brief but phenomenal event of epic proportions, during which Jack — who “didn’t notice the light had changed” — has a serious accident, winding up in the hospital. (Leading up to this collision the harrowing music from “A Day in the Life” is cleverly alluded to.) To make a long story short, when Jack recovers he discovers that people around the Earth have lost part of their global powers to recall. A number of world famous things have disappeared down the collective memory hole, notably the Four Moptops and their music — and Jack is the only person alive (or is he?) who remembers the Beatles and their songs.

It’s almost as if the plot concocted by screenwriters Jack Barth and Richard Curtis have dramatized that number from “Magical Mystery Tour”:

“Let’s all get up and dance to a song

That was a hit before your mother was born

Though she was born a long, long time ago

Your mother should know…”

Indeed, while the whole world should know the Beatles’ songs, it is Yesterday’s conceit that following the confluence of the odd planetary momentary snafu and Jack’s crash, he appears to be the only earthling left who actually does remember Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and their trendsetting oeuvre. Once Jack realizes this — and the singular power he possesses — the struggling musician sets out on a path to bring him the success, fame and recognition that had previously eluded him while writing and playing his own run-of-the-mill tunes. Performing classics such as “Yesterday”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Let It Be”, et al, in rapid succession, Jack is acclaimed as a songwriting phenom who dazzles the world with his genius.

“Malik-mania” ensues.

As Jack starts taking off, Ed Sheeran (the English rocker plays himself) spots him on local telly and calls the still unassuming-musician, who mistakenly believes his friends are punking him. But when Sheeran show up, in person, at the Maliks’ doorstep to express his admiration for his songwriting prowess Jack realizes it was no prank. Nor is Sheeran’s offer for Jack to become the opening act on his current tour. Within days the aspiring guitarist is belting out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” to a wildly enthusiastic audience at a concert in the Russian capital, where the Moscow crowds sing and shout.

In addition to being a major performer of songs such as “Thinking Out Loud”, “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill”, the Grammy Award-winning Sheeran is also a noted composer/lyricist. In Yesterday he’s taken aback when Jack claims to have written “U.S.S.R.” on the corporate jet en route to Moscow, so Sheeran challenges his opener to a musical duel. When his warm-up act outshines him, Sheeran concedes to Jack and defers to his apparently superior gifts.

Sheeran proves to be a good sport, as he allows the onscreen version of himself to pokes fun at his offscreen self, including convincing Jack to change the title of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”


Hilariously portraying Sheeran’s snakelike onscreen manager, SNL’s Kate McKinnon schemes to make a fortune by promoting Jack as a talent of world historical consequences whom she compares to Mozart — while likening Sheeran to Wolfgang’s mediocre rival Salieri. (The only song Jack croons which she expresses disdain for is the one Malik himself actually composed.) McKinnon’s ruthless music industry executive is named Debra Hammer — possibly a sly reference to the serial killer in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” from “Abbbey Road”:

“Bang! Bang! Maxwell’s silver hammer
Came down upon her head
Bang! Bang! Maxwell’s silver hammer
Made sure that she was dead.”

But Hammer’s ruthless representation comes at a steep price. Like his tour with Sheeran, it further separates Jack from Ellie and complications arise. Jack discovers that fame and fortune is a long and winding road, and despite the growing demand for his work, he finds — as Lennon and McCartney put it — “Many times I’ve been alone, And many times I’ve cried.” Further compounding Jack’s angst is the anxiety that his plagiarism will be found out and who the real creators are of the riffs he’s been playing and fobbing off as his own creations revealed. (During a surreal appearance on James Corden’s CBS late night TV show, instead of a rendition of “carpool karaoke”, Ringo and Paul are slyly suggested by a shot of the two surviving Beatles’ feet as they appear on the famous “Abbey Road” album cover.)

Living a lie and willy-nilly on the road, Jack is in crisis mode, as his love for Ellie remains unconsummated and his popularity is totally based on deception, falsely taking credit for that which he hasn’t created. In one of the silver screen’s great transcendent moments in cinema history, Jack’s personal predicament is resolved in a way guaranteed to cause even the most hardened, jaded Beatle fan to swallow hard — if not break out weeping. Suffice it to say that the filmmakers’ render a highly imaginative, breathtaking sequence that turns Jack on to the wisdom of the Fab Four’s philosophy of “love and light.” Experiencing this epiphany, the newly enlightened Jack solves his private and public problems in one fell swoop (much to Debra Hammer’s annoyance).

Manchester-born Danny Boyle, who won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for directing 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, dexterously helms his Fab Four film fable. Unlike in earlier movies such as 1996’s Trainspotting, Yesterday doesn’t have much of Boyle’s trademark rapid cutting, except in a few scenes, where Malik-mania causes frenetic fans to frantically pursue Jack, which are reminiscent of Richard Lester’s montages of the Lads of Liverpool being mobbed by mainly teenage girls in 1964’s classic A Hard Day’s Night.

As Patel croons their gems, Yesterday reminds of how wonderfully brilliant the Beatles and their music were — and are. Indeed, for many of us, John, Paul, George and Ringo created the soundtrack for our youth, the sound of our generation that still remains so beloved for contemporary listeners that major motion pictures based on it/them are still being made.

But where the 116-minute Yesterday falls short is in displaying what the world would have been like had the Beatles and their groundbreaking music never existed. Some viewers may also find the on again, off again, will they, won’t they? nature of Ellie and Jack’s romance to be tiresome (although it does have a beautiful payoff).  Romantic comedies are the specialty of the New Zealand-born Curtis, whose screen credits include 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1999’s Notting Hill, 2003’s Love Actually, the Bridget Jones movies, as well as numerous Mr. Bean comedies.

American audiences may recognize English actress Lily James as Downton Abbey’s adventurous, youthful Lady Rose MacClare and from 2018’s Mama Mia! Here We Go Again (co-written by Curtis). James is currently shooting a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, co-starring with Armie Hammer in the role Joan Fontaine was Oscar-nommed for, playing opposite Laurence Olivier in 1940. Another standout in Yesterday’s cast of thousands is Joel Fry, who appeared in Game of Thrones but here provides comic relief as Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend and roadie named Rocky — perhaps a reference to the White Album ditty “Rocky Raccoon”?

Himesh Patel co-starred in the popular long running BBC TV series EastEnders, appears later this year with Eddie Redmayne in The Aeronauts and with Josh Gad and Hugh Laurie in the upcoming HBO sci-fi comedy Avenue 5. Yes, Patel himself gives voice to the Beatle songs Jack sings. Like his character, Patel is British-born but of Indian ancestry. However, little is made in Yesterday of Jack’s ethnic background or the interracial character of his romance with Ellie. He and his parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal as Sheila and Jed Malik) seem fully integrated into modern English society.

Nevertheless, Patel told USA Today he “feels most of a connection with George Harrison because of his fascination with Indian culture and Hinduism. ‘It was part of my identity that I felt like I struggled to share with people growing up in the U.K. as a teenager,’ Patel says. ‘Whereas here was this man who popularized it in some way and brought it to the masses back in the ’60s, introduced people to the sitar and that level of spiritualism.’”

Indeed, Boyle — whose Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars, including for Best Picture, was shot and set in Mumbai and starred an actor named Dev Patel — may have cast an actor of Indian heritage in Yesterday’s lead role as a homage to the Beatles’ relationship with renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the purported Holy Man the quartet visited in 1968 at the guru’s ashram in Rishikesh, India in their quest for enlightenment. And George’s ties to the Hare Krishna religious cult are well-known. The India-link provides a spiritual element to the phantasmagorical Yesterday.

Along with Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman and Echo in the Canyon, Boyle and his creative team prove once again that rock history provides fertile filmic soil for features and documentaries.  Yesterday is a Magical Mystery movie about the meaning of life that tells us how to live out our tomorrows in a fulfilling, happy, loving way.

Yesterday opens in theaters on June 28.

A longtime contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, L.A.-based film historian and critic Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/).

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