Warning: this review contains many spoilers!
Last week’s family Friday night at the cinema started in the most obscure of ways…there was no argument over what we were going to watch. Having all laughed along to the trailer for Yesterday on three separate occasions, mouthing inaudibly down the cinema row “I want to see that,” “Yes, I wouldn’t mind seeing that”, it went without saying that on the first weekend it was released we’d be down the local cinema, clutching our snacks ready for the joyous feel-good Brit-flick of the summer.
Yesterday is centred around Himesh Patel’s character Jack, an unremarkable musician of average talent with an ability to write songs only his childhood best friend wants to listen to. During a worldwide electricity cut, Jack is hit by a bus and supposedly becomes the only person in the world who can remember The Beatles (how a collision with a bus could subsequently result in the retaining of a memory everyone else has lost is a concept that is never explored – even just a line to explain how the two could be connected would have been helpful as I’m still here scratching my head trying to piece the two together). Passing off The Beatles’ songs as his own, Jack soars to vertiginous heights of fame and popularity across the world, experiencing Beatle-mania in a digital age. Becoming subsumed in the fear of his fraudulence being uncovered, the protagonist is faced with the decision of whether he can live with the subterfuge or fall on his sword in the name of love and morality. We know the answer before the popcorn’s even been partly ravaged. Everyone in that cinema has gone in for a ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ – it would take a brave writer to rob us of that preordained happy ending.
A deluge of press attention has been given to the fact that Yesterday is the product of a collaboration of two juggernauts of British cinema: Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle, the former having been responsible for the screenwriting and the latter for directing. As a family who can recite the script of Notting Hill without error and who considers Trainspotting to be one of the best films ever made, this joining of forces was undeniably the key attraction of the film for us.
The hand of Richard Curtis is instantly recognisable – the harmless inoffensive gags, the protagonist’s ineptitude with the opposite sex and the unapologetic shout-outs to UK locations only recognisable to us Brits and that would often be lost on a foreign audience. The most pronounced trace of his work is however the quaint portrayal of the British day-to-day life that Americans envisage us all to be living in. The shared house in which Lily James’ character Ellie lives with another teacher is a glaring example of this – teachers in their early twenties living in a cosy Suffolk cottage, original stone wall, throws on the sofa, marking homework with a cocoa by the fire…it’s comically saccharine.
The American romanticisation of the UK – or rather of ‘Inger-laaand’ – is reflected in the protagonist’s rise to fame. The bumbling, scruffy, dry-wit charm is lapped up by the American audience who adore his irreverence for ostentatiousness and the retinue of LA busybodies attempting to commercialise his personal brand. It is impossible not to draw parallels between Patel’s character and the real life of the film’s cameo star Ed Sheeran whose image is so far removed from what Western consumers expect of their mainstream male musicians, the charm of which has captured the hearts of audiences the world over but especially in the USA.
Aside from the suffocation of love Jack receives from the world, the film offers a duality in the love element of the plot: there’s the of the protagonist’s love for The Beatles, an adoration so deep-rooted that he cannot fathom how the world could possibly function without having heard their work; and there’s the romantic plotline which sees Jack completely oblivious to his best friend’s love for him until she has to verbalise it unequivocally so that he can realise what has been blatantly obvious to all and sundry. The latter of the love stories is wholly unnecessary. Whilst Lily James’ portrayal of Ellie is comedic and heart-achingly sweet, there really is no cause for her and Jack to be a couple. The burgeoning romance between them felt laboured and predictable with no real connection to the protagonist’s story other than she used to manage him when nobody else cared about his warbling. Perhaps I might have been a bit more on board with their happy ending of marriage, babies and general matrimonial bliss if it were at all believable that Jack was actually in love with Ellie. Upon learning that his childhood best friend has unrequitedly been loving him for as long as she can recall, young Jack pouts a bit then jumps on a plane to LA. He leaves her hanging not once but twice, after running through Liverpool Lime Street Station where she’s munching on a ham sandwich waiting for her train. He finds her, considers the possibility of being romantically entangled with her only to leave her to jump on another plane to LA. Only when Jack realises the drawbacks of fame and the pressure of his deceit does he truly realise what Ellie offers: a return to his normal life where the love he receives depends not on the quality of his work or the number of streams his records receive, but on his honesty and authenticity. He’s in love with what she represents – I see little to no evidence of him being in love with her.
Whilst I admired James’ portrayal of Ellie, the true heroes of the film for me are without a doubt Jack’s parents played by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Their laugh-out-loud ambivalence for their son’s ‘tortured artist’ charade gives the film the true British edge that laboured stereotypes cannot. The scene where Jack debuts Let It Be is doused in comedic perfection; the protagonist is overcome with the gravity of what is about to happen: he is allowing his parents the honour of being the first people in the world to hear one of the greatest songs ever written, but his parents could not care less. When a neighbour asks what the song is called, the way in which Syal quips “Leave It Be” without a trace of irony in her voice is effortlessly hilarious. Not forgetting the father milling around the looking for chutney whilst Jack is having one of the most important conversations of his life with Ed Sheeran in the kitchen. The trait of British parents having not the faintest understanding of something which their child feels is life-definingly important is portrayed flawlessly in a way that you’d have to be unconscious not to find funny.
An aspect of the film which I have such respect for is that the family appear to be of an Asian background and absolutely no reference is made to it (or not one that I noticed in any case). To my belief, one could have read the script with no visuals and had not the foggiest idea that at the centre of the plot was a character of an Asian background. It was utterly refreshing. I’m disappointed that more hasn’t been made of this in reviews and press coverage of the film, because to my thinking this disregard for what otherwise could have been a tool for cheap laughs is not only a relief, it’s masterful.
While the premise leaves gaping holes in the plot (I still can’t wrap my head around that bus crash / Beatles memories connection), the film does offer a refreshing alternative to the biopics that have recently dominated the silver screen. It is by no means a film about The Beatles, rather it’s a glowing tribute to the immeasurable influence their music has had on the world. Although we all had a little titter at the digs made at Oasis and Coldplay, with no hyperbole one can say with confidence that The Beatles shaped Western culture in more ways than can be counted. So if one unremarkable man’s journey from his ennui laden life to the heights of stardom and back down again with beautifully sung karaoke covers of some of history’s best songs sounds like a perfectly uplifting choice of film, this is definitely worth a watch.