Danny Boyle’s ‘Yesterday’: A 21st Century Review

Trust Danny Boyle to make another film on the under-dog, this time not a champion of the masses winning a game show, but a struggling singer-songwriter from Suffolk, postcode: England, who gets a leg-up from a mysterious blackout that wipes out.. wait for it.. The Beatles! Released in the fag end of 2019, ‘Yesterday’, starring Himesh Patel (See: EastEnders, a second in Nolan’s Tenet) and Lily James (See: Mamma Mia: Here we go again, Downton Abbey) in the lead, covers this incredulous premise: What if The Beatles never existed? Of course, in order to pull off such a plot point, it’s necessary for atleast one person to have known The Beatles.

Enter Jack Mallick, the former unpaid and frankly unheard-of singer from the streets of random England, who gets hit by a bus and loses two of his front teeth in order to secure this coveted position: The only man who still knows of The Beatles in a world that thinks Coldplay is it.

The Plot:

“Yesterday,

All my troubles seemed so far away,

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay

Oh, I believe in yesterday…”

The plot is pretty straightforward. In a world that has created ‘Cinderella’, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the fairy godmothers of Jack Mallick swish and flick, and a barely known singer is plummeted to a pop icon. The story progresses in a very predictable fashion, with fame and success being the antagonist to this mellow romantic comedy of sorts. Jack Mallick is initially petrified at being the only one left who knows the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’, thinks he’s part of an extremely elaborate joke. Quick googling (always trust the search engine) reveals its all true, and overnight, through the use of multiple sticky notes, he resurrects the lyrics to all the songs he remembers (or 15, as was the permissible license by The Beatles for the film).

He knows he’s got something phenomenal on his hands and goes with it, all horns out. With barely any initial resistance, the world takes to the songs immediately, with millions of views on Instagram, and labels attempting to scoop him up in seconds.

What pisses me off as a The Beatles noob, and frankly, pisses me off as the target audience for this film, ‘cause Danny Boyle along with Richard Curtis (See: Four Weddings and Funeral, Bean, War Horse) clearly wanted to impress upon the world in 2021 what it’s like listening to ‘Hey Jude’ for the first time, is the fact that:

The Beatles’ greatness is not allowed to be concluded by the onlookers. Their greatness is shoved down your throat, there’s a slight taste of condescension in the air about how the failure to appreciate their music could surely only mean you are tone-deaf, not that the music may not work with the current time and era. Throw in Ed Sheeran into the fray, taking his glasses off and wiping his tears every now and then on the absolute brilliance of the Fab Four’s (or Jack Mallick’s) tunes, and the theory is no longer a theory, it’s the end result in plain view. The film wants you, needs you to understand that “A world without The Beatles is a world infinitely worse”. No questions asked.

‘Yesterday’ and the Multiple Blips:

“Suddenly,

I’m not half the man I used to be,

There’s a shadow hangin’ over me

Oh, yesterday came suddenly…”

While Jack Mallick has never mentioned The Beatles before the blackout, the minute they go missing, Jack’s all about them. He’s making references, he’s singing their songs, he’s hollering about them from rooftops, he’s one step short of revealing he has a tattoo up his ankle of Paul McCartney in a heart. Such blips continue. The blackout occurs at the exact second that Jack decides to quit music, his dejection comes too soon and too half-bakedly in the film. His expressions fail to show any exhaustion, it’s akin to a ten year old refusing to hit gym class after a week or two of it, and being told he can be captain of the football team if he stays (“This was my last gig”).

If the bland acting doesn’t cover it already as another blip, it is worthwhile to note the film aims to become a poster boy for Imposters’ Syndrome, by pointedly torturing Jack on his passing-off act, after literally handing The Beatles to him on a platter. In fact, the greatest blip in the film is that the world in ‘Yesterday’ cannot let Jack Mallick breathe, it keeps hurtling him from one scene to the other. A lousy Career and suddenly, you get hit by a bus. Before you recover, delete The Beatles. Before you can cash in that, let more name and fame in than you can handle. You haven’t launched your first album yet, and everyone’s points out there is something suspicious about your brilliance. You are automatically forced to come clean and sent rotting back to Suffolk.

Jack Mallick’s own personality (or his expressions) do not matter during this entire transaction. He’s a mannequin for the outfit that Boyle and Curtis put together. He hasn’t a say in this. He doesn’t matter.

The Love Angle:

“Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday…”

The makers weren’t satisfied with just the mains, they wanted a side dish. Enter Lily James, with her deer-in-the-headlights innocence, her selfless support of Jack Mallick during his days of invisibility, pinned right down to her floral dresses and jackets tied at the waist country outfits. However, the romance is as bland as Jack Mallick’s expressions, and it’s not Lily’s fault.

The best scene in the entire film is the scene in a coffee shop in Liverpool station, where the actors have been instructed to confess their love to each other, but that Mallick does not choose her ‘cause the timing isn’t right.

What is a stand-out in this scene is not the bad acting or the lines, that were written by an AI analyzing rom-coms throughout the ages (read: nothing new), but the fact that neither Jack nor Lily give a genuine hoot about this conversation. They are impatient, they are bored, and frankly, not genuinely interested in true love. It’s reminiscent of this generation, the faux-ness of it all.

Everything else in the film that has to do with the two is just Crtl+C, Crtl+V, right down to the ending, where they have John Lennon burst into the story and declare ‘tell the girl you love that you love her’ as the secret to being ‘happy’. The man has suffered enough, he has his music taken away from him, and now they have him dressed up as a mascot for true love in a film that barely is about love, in the first place.

Behind the Scenes:

“Yesterday
Love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away
Oh, I believe in yesterday…”

There aren’t any camera tricks worth noting in this film, if you minus the distorted filming set in a few seconds before the global blackout, not to mention the change in background score to some voodoo music, that warns the audience of the incoming cultural whitewash. The score is largely The Beatles, for obvious reasons. The film has been shot in multiple locations across England, and L.A, nothing worth gawking at, minus the half a second glimpses of Strawberry Fields or Liverpool or Eleanor Rigby’s grave. Danny claims to have chosen this film, out of nostalgia (his twin and he loved the band while growing up), and  Richard Curtis claims to have chosen Ed Sheeran as the opposite-musician, due to being inspired by his  simplicity (“There’s nothing wrong with being number two”). Rumour (and newspaper articles online) has it that Paul McCartney himself snuck into a theatre to watch ‘Yesterday’ and loved it. With all due respect, if I had a feature with 15 of the songs I’ve written or co-wrote in my lifetime, and the entire cast of the film cooing about how brilliant I was, playing on-screen in front of me, I’d get emotional, too.

The End:

Yesterday,
Love was such an easy game to play,
Now I need a place to hide away,
Oh, I believe in yesterday… ”

Doctoral students from around the world have studied this band, that has managed to put out 200-odd songs in its lifespan. So, I will not discredit the idea or intention behind ‘Yesterday’. As I find my feet tapping to ‘Help Me’, or feel goosebumps rise over ‘Let it Be’, I’m glad someone was nice enough to make The Beatles trend again. I just wish it was done better, a little bit more logic, and little less faux-heart.

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