Danny Boyle’s ‘Yesterday’ plays with the idea of a solitary musician profiting off the songs of The Beatles in a universe they never existed in. It’s better than it sounds.
The central premise of Danny Boyle’s new film Yesterday is to imagine what you’d do, as an aspiring singer-songwriter, if you woke up one morning and you were the only person on the planet who remembered The Beatles. As a concept, it’s the stuff of a short story, and screenwriter Richard Curtis has made something of a cottage industry about of that—his execrable Love, Actually was a series of short stories with a whisper-thin connective tissue binding them all together. Utter garbage, by the way.
What makes Yesterday a success is that it takes this high concept, this fantasy premise and does more with it. Our central protagonist, Jack (the excellent Hamish Patel, here playing a struggling musician who just happens to be British-Indian, rather than infusing the character with thick-accented racial caricatures for parents) effectively steals the entire back catalogue of Fab Four tunes and claims them as his own in a world where nobody seems to know who they were. They, in fact, never existed as a band. The film’s success comes in part through some of its more insightful gimmickry—he goes searching online for evidence of The Beatles, but finds none. And, as a consequence, can’t find any evidence of Oasis, either. Or, Coke and cigarettes, to boot.
There is more to the film than the “what if” premise, thanks to a well-paced and relatable love story between Patel and Lily Collins as his would-be, yet never-as love interest. Also underscoring the whole piece are meditations on the price of fame, and how much of a psychological burden of guilt it would be on someone to have cashed in on another’s genius. It’s ripe for interesting thematic analysis. Sadly under-used is the usually brilliant Kate McKinnon, playing a music executive with all the smarm and insincerity she can muster—but the part is under-written, and she can only do so much with it.
Director Danny Boyle brings his usual dose of visual flair to the piece, which is briskly paced and in no way outstays its welcome. The tunes are used well, and there’s a nice element of “imperfection” to it, in that Jack struggles to master the content—how does one do these songs justice without any lyrics or sheet music at hand? You’d have to go on memory, which may be easy when it comes to Let It Be, but it might be a bit more taxing if you want to quickly break out a jaunty rendition of Maxwell Silver Hammer, Hey Bulldog or For No One. It also says a lot about the way music is consumed now, in that if “overnight sensations” come about through 45 second grabs on TV talent show clips gone viral, the likelihood of us finding another Bob Dylan seems unlikely at best.
An uncredited cameo comes in the film’s third act which adds a significant amount of emotional weight to the proceedings, which provides the film with a decent takeaway about living life to one’s fullest and the notion of what it really means to have paid the ultimate price for fame and success. The central premise may be fantasy, but it does give us pause to think that the world is a much better place with Beatles’ music in it.