When I realized that Richard Curtis, the man who wrote the screenplay for the new comedy, Yesterday, also wrote About Time (2013), my reaction to the former made perfect sense. Both are movies with terrific concepts that almost, but just not quite, reach perfection. That’s not to say I didn’t like Yesterday; it’s a real crowd pleaser, as any of the audience members who applauded at a recent screening will tell you.
The terrific concept here is not complicated, and it’s been made clear during its marketing campaign: after a freak accident, a struggling musician awakens to realize he’s the only person in the world that remembers The Beatles. The idea alone, which must have made a great studio pitch, has virtually endless comedic possibilities. What surprised me about Yesterday, though, is how much it made me think.
The first thing I wondered when Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) started performing Beatles songs for an audience who has never heard them before, was how much of the original band’s success came from their actual music versus the men themselves, John, Paul, George, and Ringo? When Jack doesn’t realize immediate success, he laments that even with the amazing songs, nobody likes him.
This soon changes when Ed Sheeran, playing himself, hears one of Jack’s — er, The Beatles’ — songs and invites him to open for him in Russia. Theirs becomes one of the endearing relationships in the movie. Considering himself to be one of the greatest current songwriters, Sheeran is humbled when Jack writes a better song than he does during a spontaneous contest.
In a story with many layers, there’s irony to this because Jack is repeatedly told by his new handlers that he’s the greatest songwriter, not just currently, but ever. You can imagine Sheeran experiencing the same thing at the beginning of his career, which demonstrates how fleeting fame can be and how quickly media consumers move on to the next best thing.
Another endearing relationship is the one Jack has with Ellie Appleton (Lily James), the childhood friend who has been his biggest fan since grade school. At the beginning of the movie, she’s his manager, landing him gigs mostly in local pubs. She’s always believed in him and, to no one’s surprise except Jack’s, she’s always loved him. Their love story hijacks the majority of the movie.
Two other members of the supporting cast are particularly strong. Joel Fry is Rocky, the lovable loser that’s fired from a “real” job and becomes Jack’s roadie when he’s invited to Los Angeles to discover fame and fortune. Kate McKinnon is Debra Hammer, the arguably insane agent who orchestrates Jack’s rise to fame and fortune. Their roles are familiar in comedies like this, but the actors shine nevertheless.
Yesterday was directed by Danny Boyle, a favorite of mine ever since Trainspotting (1996). I mean, look at his resume: Shallow Grave (1994), 28 Days Later (2002), and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Wow, I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since that one! The man knows how to make a movie, even when exerting a light touch like he does here.
The inevitable rain on Jack’s parade takes a nice, unexpected turn and adds yet another layer to the story that made me think. I don’t want to spoil it, but it examines the entire conceit of any pop act being “the greatest ever” and discovers true value in what an artist can authentically accomplish. In the end, it may not be all about the music or the men, but the gifts they give us… and that we might be poorer without them.