Starring:Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon
Directed by: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, Millions)
Synopsis: Struggling musician has a head injury which transforms him into an alternate reality where The Beatles never existed. He then becomes the most popular musician on then planet by “borrowing” the classic Beatles songs.
What works: The charm and the music (obviously) although both work in this film’s disadvantage as well. My whole love of pop music started with me being introduced to The Beatles back in 7th grade. And while I can’t honestly say they are my favorite group ever—there are very few bands that touch me on an emotional level. Their songs most times transcend from just some silly simple ditties. For some, their music is the soundtrack to their lives. Now I’ve seen a few movies now that are themed around Beatles tunes (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band with Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees and Across the Universe) and most fall flat. Both just use the music to tell a feature length story and do very little else. Yesterday takes a different approach and uses the concept of someone else in a different time using these songs and becoming a mega-artist. The two leads, Jack Malik (Hamesh Patel) and his manager/friend Ellie (Lily James) are cute together and do a decent job emoting to each other. Even Ed Sheeran didn’t embarrass himself. Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis made an typical British dramedy that you can’t outright hate and at times will actually like but maybe never see it again ever (I still haven’t rewatched Slumdog Millionaire and that was an Oscar Winner!)
I would continue to give some credit to how the music works but I can only safely say that if you like Beatles music, you will like how the music is used with care and respect but that brings me to what doesn’t work…
What fails: The concept is a great idea and was SORELY LACKING! I can’t stress this enough about this movie and its utter wasted effort to give a whole new dimension to the half-century-old Beatles’ catalogue. Whenever Jack introduces his “new” songs to the public there is immediate and unadulterated accolade and adulation for them. While I think 93% of Beatles tunes are fucking fantastic, I can totally see the
opinion fact that they are ancient in regards to modern music. And I’m not just talking the lyrics either. Although that’s another aspect that was hardly explored. The only instance I can recall that someone questioned a song was Ed Sheeran telling Jack that it was odd to still call Russia the U.S.S.R. after he sang “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Anachronistic comedy &/or drama could’ve been more explored with stuff like this. At one point even my wife watching with me said it was really odd to have a 30-something man sing “She was just 17, you know what I mean?” Why would they choose to have a middle-aged man sing that particular song?!
I honestly feel, even as an ardent Beatles fan, that more than half of their songs would NOT be hits today. With the advances and changes in genres, tastes, public perception, technology and social/political climate there’s zero way all those songs would be instant hits. I have a hard enough time getting my own kids into this kind of classic music. It was a wasted opportunity to not have the dynamic or plot-points of Jack struggling to have sone of these songs actually work. The bits of comedy explored a little was him struggling to remember the music and lyrics of some of the tunes (“Eleanor Rigby” for example). Another point the film explored that kinda worked was him wanting to “write” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” and he made it a point to “pretend” to get the same inspiration from the actually places in Liverpool that Lennon and McCartney had to write the songs. But once he got there he realized that he wasn’t getting any inspiration because well, it’s not his history or memory of the place! But that idea was quickly glossed over for the next scene which involved the bland love story between our two leads.
Then there was the John Lennon scene. Apparently even though the Beatles were never a thing in this alternate reality, the members themselves are and John is alive and well aging in a small cottage. Jack meets with him and discusses life, love and other boring bits (by this point I had lost a lot of interest, although Lennon was played by Robert Carlyle and he looked great in the role. Although I’m not sure how he found Lennon or why Lennon is talking to a complete stranger in personal and intimate terms). Again, another missed opportunity to explore the fact that Beatle members are in this reality but never actually wrote “their” music. I had the idea that Lennon tells Jack that he attempted to write music himself and he plays something from the early 60s (the really outdated Beatles tunes—like “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and Jack says he likes it and that he should’ve recorded some of his stuff hen he had the chance. That way, the film would’ve acknowledged that Lennon (or by extension the other lads) had the talent all along even in this alternate reality but they never progressed to their later more experimental music of the later 60s.
The only other thing that bugged me was this film never explored the reason for the alternate reality. And it isn’t just the Beatles that didn’t exist but Coca-Cola, cigarettes, Harry Potter and amusingly enough Oasis (which if I were the Gallagher Bros. I’d be a tad insulted that the only reason the film thinks they exist is because they were huge Beatles fans, but since I never liked Oasis I don’t give a shit). But besides them not showing how the world is affected by these exclusions they never attempt to rectify it either. The film ends in the same alternate reality after his accident and the global black-out. There is no Wizard of Oz ending where he wakes up the same struggling musician that he was before his accident. Which in turn diminishes the theme of being yourself and being truthful—which Jack learns by the end and admits to the world that he didn’t write this music (which really falls flat when absolutely no-one knows who Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or even Ringo is). I seriously would like this better if he did wake up in the normal reality and through the life-lessons he learned as a mega-star stealing other peoples’ art then he becomes a better person and artist. But nope, happy endings anyway! The film even throws a curve ball in the plot by introducing two random people that actually remember the Beatles songs and approach Jack to tell him. But they basically thank him for giving the Beatles music back to the world. So I’m assuming the global black-out made every one forget The Beatles except Jack since his head was damaged? That makes zero sense. How would Coke be absent then? It made people forget or did it create an alternate reality? Make up your mind movie!
Overall: So while some of the comedy works, it’s in very short supply. As well as the philosophical questions that would arise in an alternate reality and someone introducing 50-year-old music to people today who never heard it before. It seems the filmmakers only wanted to tell a very watered-down character study about wanting to be a great songwriter but also write the biggest love-letter to the timeless Beatles music as well. I think it’s OK to question the validity of some of the Beatles hits in today’s parlance and social-political climate. It’s a very daunting task, no doubt, to question if that would some or most of the old Beatles stuff resonant with people today. A few years back there was a Netflix show called Beat Bugs that was a kids’ animated show that featured bugs and all the music was Beatles songs. For instance, one bug got caught in a jar and the whole show revolved around the song “Help!” My kids loved the show and got into the Beatles music a little bit I must admit. But on a very basic level and these songs were recorded or covered by other artists with lots of differences in the music. In other words, updated to today’s modern music standards. So yeah, they’ll love a Beatles song sung by Pink but will they become actual Beatles fans? Yesterday gives us a very lackluster reality that everyone in the world will love “Hey Jude” the first time they hear it and declare Jack Malik the greatest songwriter in the world! While I still can have the opinion that these songs are timeless and perhaps even some of the greatest ever written, I do have a 1000 other favorites as well based on the time and place I heard them. And this song just tells us that no matter when, no matter where, no matter how, every Beatles song will be an instant global hit. And you don’t need a musical background to know that’s bollocks!
Score: 4 Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’s (out of 10)
P.S. Another thing that bugs me is I read that when the filmmakers were discussing this film with Sir Paul McCartney he suggested that they should call the film “Scrambled Eggs” which a big Beatles fan would know was Paul’s placeholder title for the song “Yesterday.” Yet another missed opportunity since the title would’ve worked in two ways, 1. Jack literally had his eggs scrambled and 2. using the alternate title to one of the most iconic love songs in history would be a great trivial nod to the fans as well as illustrate the alternate reality that the film portrays. See, Macca gets it!
Is there a sequence at the end of this movie where they sing “All you need is love, love is all you need” over and over again for 30-minutes just like the song?
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They should make a movie called Sussudio with the same concept but the musician wakes up realizing that Phil Collins has never existed and he doesn’t go around playing Phil Collins songs just lives a much more fulfilling and successful life.
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Imagine the peace the world would have known if the “Land of Confusion” video never existed…
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Great review, Brad!
I haven’t seen this movie yet and I don’t think I will. I love the idea for the plot, it seems like there could be something really great here if more of the pitfalls you mentioned were better thought through. I also agree with you that these Beatles songs would not be mega hits today. They just wouldn’t. Maybe a song like Yesterday could be made famous again. But there’s no way people would instantly go apeshit over this stuff in today’s musical climate. Especially when the songs aren’t being performed by the actual Beatles. For me what I love about the Beatles music is the actual personalities of the Beatles themselves woven into the music.