directed by danny boyle; starring himesh patel, lily james
2 out 5 rocky raccoons equipped with a gun that misfires
In the twilight of 1965, the beatles released their sixth studio album, rubber soul. Its multilayered, rounded sound carried indications that the fab four were taking themselves seriously. It was still pop music, but gone was the straightforward bubblegum of headbobbers like please please me or I want to hold your hand. It combined a gumbo of influences (funk, r&b, soul, pop, jazz) with the band’s unsurpassed talent for catchy harmonies. Critically, it fared well, even though it was a departure from their earlier, beloved work. A few lonely naysayers grumbled that listeners were blinded by beatlemania and, as an album unto itself, it wasn’t all that, but overall plenty of underwear still found its way to the stage. One author, steve turner, wrote ‘it may have perplexed the old guard of entertainment correspondents, but it was a beacon for fledgling rock critics.’ And time would prove those fledglings right: the subsequent albums---revolver, sgt pepper’s, white, abbey road---cemented the beatles as far more than experimentalists. They were innovators.
But at the album’s release this wasn’t yet clear. Defining the beatles meant comparing this new, rubbery album to the rest of their portfolio and asking, is it a new direction or just an aberration?
Yesterday is a sunny and frustrating film. It concerns jack (himesh patel), a tailspinning but charming musician, and his overly-optimistic manager, ellie (lily james), whose bad judgement is apparent from the moment we learn she fell in love with jack for his cover of wonderwall. One blameless evening, after another implosion of a performance, jack resolves to give up music altogether, rides his bike home, and gets hit by a car at the exact moment the entire world experiences a mysterious blackout. Jack wakes up in the hospital sans some teeth, but little did he know that wasn’t the only thing missing! (testing out my skills for writing cheesy ad promos, forgive me) In this new world, the beatles never existed (along with a few other odds and ends, like cocacola and harry potter). After reconciling himself to his new, impoverished reality, he employs a bombastic montage to recreate the beatles’ music and pass it off as his own (a great running gag is him consistently mangling the lyrics to eleanor rigby). He blasts off to fame and fortune, stopping only to humiliate ed sheeran on the way.
Good news first.
There are two central conflicts: jack’s plagiarism and ellie’s unrequited love. Per screenplay 101, these turn out to be one and the same---admitting his love for ellie and staying in their hometown (being himself) versus leaving her behind to achieve godhood (being a beatle). It’s a simple and strong struggle. There’s also a clever theme showing modernity’s tiny attention span by way of constant interruptions. Every time jack needs space to think, or to share a moment, or tries just once c’mon guys really I need like two goddamn seconds, a phone or a person or a person with phone butts in. It’s funny and infuriating. The colors (a boyle speciality I also mentioned in my review of sunshine) are lipsmackingly good. What could be mundane shots of people in rooms is transformed by the jazzy color schemes. Not even wes anderson’s sets put so much extra in the ordinary.
And of course, the music. In many ways, this is a better tribute to, and evocation of, the beatles than the movie across the universe. While universe is a direct, sappy loveletter, yesterday is more oblique and more effective. Jack’s sincere love for the music lets us see the beatles with new eyes. And his performances bring out a charisma and poise that his nonrocker persona lacks. It’s only when he’s playing music that we understand what ellie sees in him.
Now the bad news. Sometimes simple means direct, and sometimes it means humdrum. This is not a complicated movie. Everything is straightforward: premise, characters, setbacks, resolution, message. Just as sunshine sidestepped the main plot device (but why is the sun dying?), yesterday shrugs away the messy mechanical details (but why did the beatles cease to exist?). Which, fair enough. It’s easy to see that boyle and co. want to keep the story on the characters----no beatles, bro, deal with it. Unfortunately, yesterday is shallow where sunshine is deep. The story is, again, screenplay 101: stakes raise, characters conflict, climax climaxes, and everyone rides off into the sunset. And there’s no sense of loss. Not to get too spoilerific, but everytime the consequence monster rears his ugly head he’s immediately magicked away.
I left the theater in a confused fog. It took a couple days of walking into walls before I finally figured the movie out. Yesterday is a romantic comedy. I wasn’t expecting it, and it’s not marketed as one, but once I realized that plain truth, the movie clicked. The necessary and sufficient conditions of romcommery are: 1) two people try to be apart but eventually snap together, and 2) a moral of love conquering all or similar. Jack denies any romantic interest in ellie for most of the movie until he suddenly doesn’t and it all works out. And yesterday’s moral is simply that you can be happy and fulfilled if you accept yourself and stick close to people who love you. QED
My confusion stems from my obsession with danny boyle, who’s about as far from a romcom director as ed sheeran is from winning a throwdown against paul mccartney. He’s more at home with rage zombies, disturbed girlfriend batterers, infant manslaughter, and self-administered amputation (28 days later, trance, trainspotting, and 127 hours, respectively). Even slumdog millionaire, his (previous) token feelgood film, has a gritty, brother against brother B plot in a world of corruption and murder. And every movie is structured with multiple dissonant layers rubbing uncomfortably against each other. His fondness for psychological discomfort is accented with actual visual and aural discomfort---see the saw scene of 127 hours, where the soundtrack bleats harsh, jangly notes and the camera blurs and jumps every time ralston literally touches a nerve. Even steve jobs, his most staid movie, still has plenty of narrative tension via its unconventional story structure (a series of vignettes, almost like a three-act play) that illustrates how jobs’ perfectionism alienated him from his family, friends, and company. But yesterday ain’t got even a whiff of a thundercloud.
Boyle’s other movies also use lots of fleshy moral dilemmas to give the viewer a queasy tummy. He’s great at bringing out characters’ inner bedlam through their reactions to the plot. Even though there are clear good and bad guys, all the main characters are stereoscopic. No one ever behaves bad just because they’re the bad guy. Yesterday still has believable, rounded characters, but, again, there’s no sense of consequence to anything they do or say. Jack’s plenty likeable, but his pervading niceguy charm and passivity don’t have any legs. Imagine seeing hugh grant cast in a hitchcock film, only to find out he plays his usual, affable hugh grant self.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say that yesterday is blah. Should a movie be considered a discrete object, or a piece of director’s portfolio? By itself, it’s a well-made, tightly-focused summer movie. Alongside boyle’s resume, however, it’s narrow and unsatisfying. For me, seeing the thing was irreversibly clouded by my expectations. With the credits rolling by, I sat bewildered by the absence of gristle, waiting for a vengeful god to wipe ellie off the earth or for the original beatles to return and groupmurder jack. Not once did I feel that boylian sandpaper peeling layers off my cornea.
Just as a beatles movie should, yesterday underlines story beats with its soundtrack. Moments of change for jack are paired with appropriate songs, so if you divided the story into short acts, each act would have a corresponding song. The end of the movie arrives with scenes of jack and ellie in domestic bliss, scored with ohblahdi, ohblahda.
in a couple of years they have built a home sweet home
with a couple of kids running in the yard of desmond and molly jones
happy ever after…
And that’s okay. It’s just okay.
*steve turner quote from wikipedia