Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"Is it possible to make an interesting film where only one man remembers The Beatles? Probably. Is this it? Probably not." | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

If you don't think about it too hard, Yesterday isn't quite a jukebox musical with Beatles songs (that'd be 2007's Across The Universe) but does have Danny Boyle directing a Richard Curtis script and is full of good performances and even plenty of Ed Sheeran, and people do tend to like each of those things so perhaps the combination will be sufficient.

It's not.

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As the repercussions of the 2008 Universal Music Fire have started to come out, an elision of history and illustration of the precariousness of popular music, that story would make this film timely if it felt smart enough. I was reminded of two works by Jack Womack, one where Elvis Presley is plucked from an alternate timeline's past by a 2033 corporation to discredit a cult centred on The King in part with songs like Hong Kong Mystery Fuck (Elvissey) and another where, well, the circumstances by which Going Going Gone makes an entire genre disappear are bleaker than anything here, but not by that much.

If you've seen the trailers you'll know a lot of what happens - the curse of modern film-making, to try and avoid surprises. Yesterday does still have a few, and while I don't want to spoil them I do want to suggest that an uncredited role feels tasteless and the name of the boat that they're sitting on feels like pandering. The cast do well. Himesh Patel is charming as Jack Malik, Lily James is lovely as his manager Elli, a variety of familiar faces crop up as friends, family, roadies, Kate McKinnon (Buster of Ghosts, Saturday (not Thursday) Night Live alumnus) does that thing with her face and runs down a corridor too and Ed Sheeran is weirdly important to the plot and in the film a surprising amount. Like, a lot. No, more than that. Really.

Jack's a struggling musician, resisting going back to teaching. A gig at Latitude is his last, festival cooperation of the likes of Access All Areas. Then in a sequence that flashes across Red Square amongst other locations, with the orchestral crescendo of Day In The Life atop it, every light in the world goes out and Jack is hit by a bus.

When he wakes up nobody knows who The Beatles are. There are other repercussions, of course. No Coca Cola either, and no Oasis, and it's that bit of derivation that really starts to make one wonder. Wall in Berlin? Not addressed. Significant changes to international trade implied by another difference in the timeline? Horrifyingly blank. 'Plot hole' because a backstory meet cute is rendered impossible by those changes? Check.

"Mate," I hear you say, "this is a Richard Curtis movie, so beyond a nightmarish consequence of a science fictional idea barely examined like all the alternate children elided by do-overs in About Time, does it also have weird issues with consent and gender politics like his other work?" That's one to put in the yes column. He co-writes here with Jack Barth, who's done a bunch of TV but wrote the Troy McLure centric A Fish Called Selma episode of The Simpsons and so can be forgiven some things. Perhaps not this.

Is it possible to make an interesting film where only one man remembers The Beatles? Probably. Is this it? Probably not. For sure it gets round the fact that no matter how good Lennon/McCartney were there's a big difference between breaking out in the British Invasion and becoming a star in the YouTube era, but solving that with a magical ginger feels pretty regressive. The songs are also good, even if we're spared too many deep cuts (though we do get a bit of Maxwell's Silver Hammer), but they're acoustic covers. The 'Hey Dude' thing is painful enough, but there's a rooftop concert with four guitars. That's one too many, and that's part of Yesterday's problem.

Look, go and watch Eight Days A Week while you wait for Peter Jackson's archive project on the Beatles. Pay attention to how good John, Paul, George and Ringo sound. The bands who were playing in Hamburg for the GIs (it's not an accident that 'Komm, gib mir deine Hand' exists) were playing 60 shows a week. Think about how much else was going on in the 1960s generationally, financially, culturally. Think for more than a few minutes and you've probably done more than anyone involved in this. Which is a shame.

There's a reference to Shakespeare that made me think about authorship - I probably wasn't meant to, but there you go. This isn't a film that rewards thinking about it, in most senses. There's a wee list of bands run off at one point and one of them is the Monophonics, and I believe it was meant to be a reference to the Stereophonics but I don't know if anyone checked for the San Franciscan soul band.

I wonder if there's a version of this where The Beatles never existed and nobody cares. There are at least two other published alternate histories of The Beatles (Snodgrass by Ian Macleod was filmed for Sky Arts, and Ian Baxter's Twelfth Album also features the Titanic as a harboured hotel in Liverpool) and given that with a bit of prompting most folk can name at least one of the various fifth Beatles there's all sorts of combinatorial shenanigans. I don't mean to channel Alan Partridge when I ask what happened with Wings, what brand of vegetarian sausages people eat, that there was presumably a Bond film with a different theme song and if so who recorded it?

There are weird choices - for one the trauma inflicted upon poor Jack includes the loss of two of his front teeth and the comic business around it suggests that some of his relationships are somewhat hollow. That Coca Cola doesn't exist surely doesn't mean that Pepsi would have a monopoly, just that somebody else would have set Michael Jackson's hair on fire. When our hero forgets and while on a pop stars private jet asks for some Coke there's an obvious joke there that goes unused.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and pop music loves it. When the US revolted against disco because it was black and queer, it killed pop music there for decades and so country and others converged to fill that void before every record was produced by the same three Swedes. That dominance of a few voices is half-addressed by Yesterday. It has a diverse cast (albeit a comfortably familiar one given how many live just down at 42) but there's rarely the energy one would associate with Boyle. I was more moved by his opening ceremony for the Olympics. Heck, even thinking back to that moment of near national unity moves me more than recalling a film I saw a couple of days before yesterday.

I mention Jackson in part because then I can talk about rights - I fear that this is closer to Bohemian Rhapsody in terms of hagiography than hag-biography Rocketman, and that's despite the fact that almost no actual Beatles appear. Just their songs, whoever owns them now - arguably, we're told, the world, but the rights of rights are not at issue here.

I'm not the target audience, but I don't know who is - Erasing The Beatles isn't as egregious an act against culture as Yesterday is, but it did still have me reach for my Revolver.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2019
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Yesterday packshot
Musical comedy sees a singer-songwriter wake after a global blackout to discover a world where The Beatles never existed.
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Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Jack Barth, Richard Curtis, Richard Curtis

Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Sophia Di Martino, Ellise Chappell, Meera Syal, Harry Michell, Vincent Franklin, Joel Fry, Michael Kiwanuka, Karma Sood, Gus Brown, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Karl Theobald, Alexander Arnold, Dominic Coleman

Year: 2019

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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