Cinema Dispatch: Yesterday

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Yesterday and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Danny Boyle

This may be a movie about music from fifty years ago, yet the premise is even older than that as the idea of a hapless someone getting a shortcut to fame and fortune is one of the most basic cornerstones of literature.  When you take that premise and make it about something other than say measurable wealth and status (i.e. Aladdin) to instead focus on some sort of perceived skill or art form (i.e. music), you can run into a few issues; namely that you have to sell the audience on the perceived greatness of something that is rather subjective.  You either have to play into the impossibility of someone ACTUALLY making the greatest music ever like with Tenacious D’s Tribute or even Fish Story, or your stuck trying to write it yourself and just ignore the disconnect (*cough* Harsh Mistress *cough*).  The workaround for all that though is what we’ve got here which is a jukebox musical of sorts where the songs being played are widely considered (at least somewhat) to be the greatest of all time, and in this era where Musical Biopics are now in vogue, it was probably the best way for yet another Beatles tribute to stand out among the crowd.  So then!  Does this movie manage to capture the magic of that one band from Liverpool, or will this be a bigger stain on their legacy than Magical Mystery Tour THE MOVIE?  Let’s find out!!

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is the typical struggling artist who spends his time stocking store shelves between gigs that no one bothers to see.  His manager and best friend Ellie (Lily James) still believes in him and his amazing songwriting skills, but if it hasn’t happened yet then it probably isn’t going to happen and so he decides that now is the time to hang it up.  The universe on the other hand has other plans for him because as he’s riding home on his bike that night, there’s a global power outage that no one ever finds an explanation for but did lead to Jack getting hit with a bus; breaking his guitar, his front teeth, and his spirit even more.  After a lengthy recovery though, he soon realizes that no one remembers who The Beatles or any of their amazing songs.  You know, songs like Yesterday, A Hard Day’s Night, and… others.  Okay, so there were A LOT of songs, but Jack can surely remember enough of them to finally have a chance to be the musical star he’s always wanted to be!  I mean these songs are culturally important and should exist in some form for the betterment of mankind, so Jack is practically doing a public service here, right!?  So that’s what Jack does as he starts recording classic tracks like I Want to Hold Your Hand and Let it Be (seemingly unconcerned with the arc the band took in their music) as well as songs like Back in the USSR which sounds a bit retro now, but still jams!  It takes a bit of time, but he does eventually start to get a following and it seems like all that success is just around the corner if he can just stick it out through the hardships and machinations of the music industry, but with so much changing so quickly and his loved ones seeming to get further and further away from him, is this truly what Jack wants now?  On top of that, if HE remembers who The Beatles are then there has to be other’s out there too, right?  Can he keep up the lies before this house of cards comes crumbling down, or will everyone be cool with it since no one knows who the fudge John Paul George and Ringo are anyway?  Most importantly, is he gonna get a mediocre Hanna-Barbera cartoon as well!?

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“Thank you everyone, and make sure to watch my web series!  We are sponsored by Audible!!”

It’s… interesting!  I’m absolutely sure that I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, but the filmmakers seemed VERY determined to not let this premise play out exactly how you would expect it to, and this desire to be subversive with such obvious clichés turns out to be a double edged sword.  I like a lot of the out there decisions that were made with this script and it does have a lot of great moments throughout, but there are also parts that made me scratch my head as I wasn’t sure where they were going with certain things!  Maybe I’m over thinking things and am looking for meaning where there isn’t any, which admittedly is a very on brand thing to do with Beatles media, and despite the twists and turns of the premise it’s still very much a straightforward yet very enjoyable love story!  Still, not one cover of Octopus’s Garden!?  Come on now!!

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Why stop at The Beatles?  There’s no way The Monkees exist in this world!  GET THAT SHREK MONEY, JACK!!

Now the premise itself really was the big selling point for me.  Sure I’ve seen stuff like this before, but I found it really fascinating to think of what I would do in a similar situation; assuming of course I could actually play any instrument other than Guitar Hero.  Personally, I would have leaned into the idea and tell everyone that I come from another dimension where a rock band in the sixties wrote a bunch of hit songs that don’t exist in this universe, and just let everyone assume I’m just putting on some sort of act.  The movie sadly doesn’t go down that (long and winding) road, but it actually does a pretty good job of showing why he didn’t.  Often times a GREATEST ARTIST EVER story will skip over the nuts and bolts of BECOMING a star and jump straight to when they’re at the top so they can inevitably fall back to Earth, yet this movie focuses almost entirely on the journey.  Even if you HAVE the greatest songs in the world, how do you get people to listen to it?  How do you keep them from being altered and made worse by studios trying to chase trends?  Now yes, some of this can come off a bit snooty as genuine changes in music and taste are often seen as “tends” (usually by people who claim that The Beatles is STILL the greatest band of all time), but I think that the movie does a good job of exploring how even if ARE a success with these prewritten perfect songs, you still have to deal with a lot of nonsense and soul draining drudgery just to keep up with all the success.  By the way, I think Himesh Patel does a solid job carrying this movie on his shoulders and sounds pretty great in the songs as well.  Lilly James comes off a bit better as she can reach emotional depths that Patel feels a bit limited at, but for the most part the film doesn’t give him anything too strenuous and lets him alternate between comedic exasperation and utter exhaustion; both of which he does quite well.

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“I was thinking… hats?”     “GENIUS!!  EVERYONE WILL START WEARING HATS NOW!!”

So the movie manages to suck away a bit of the hand waving in their magical realism story which I feel makes for a much more satisfying heroes journey, but beyond that there ARE some legitimate questions that the film raises about its premise that I find kind of interesting!  There’s a sort of knock-on effect here where the power outage didn’t just wipe out The Beatles, but other stuff as well; some directly connected to them and others that weren’t.  This actually makes the world feel a bit bigger by making this changed world not JUST about Jack and The Beatles which in doing so gives Jack’s journey a sense of agency.  It doesn’t feel like he’s being dragged along by the narrative or from some unseen “fate” that contrived this oddly specific set of events; it’s a genuinely changed world that we’re seeing only one aspect of.  This does also bring the onus a little bit less on The Beatles themselves because despite a few cheeky references here and there, their legacy, history, aesthetic, and even specific musical flavor aren’t the driving force of this movie; typified by the rather ingenious move of having Jack not be a Beatles expert.  He loves a good chunk of their discography like many of us do and probably has a better understanding than most because he’s a musician, but for the most part he only remembers the most popular of their works and has trouble remembering the lyrics and composition of others which is a running thread throughout the movie as he tries to piece together a workable version of Eleanor Rigby.  There are more aspects of this that I find interesting (and even a bit perplexing) but to go any further would go into spoilers, and since I AM recommending you see this I don’t want to ruin all the surprises.  The point is that the filmmakers ventured out to do things a little bit differently here, and for the most part I think they succeeded.

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“Apparently people think I killed Bob Odenkirk and replaced him with a stunt double.  Something about ‘I buried Saul.’”

Where the movie falters is mostly in not following up on the ideas that it puts forth.  Ed Sheeran actually has a decently sized role to play in this and it LOOKS like at one point like they’re setting him up to have a major arc in this story, but it just doesn’t happen.  He has a rather poignant scene with Jack early on that looks like it’s going to lead to either Ed becoming a bad guy or at the very least Jack apologizing to him over what happened, but it never comes and his character lacks any real sense of closure by the end. Similarly, the ending just kind of happens and there are still a lot of questions I wanted answered or just an idea of where things are after the events of this story, but it doesn’t deal with any of that.  Sure, it’s magical realism and I could nitpick about a dozen other little things that don’t really make sense, but it feels less like leaving plot holes open than it does trying to avoid more difficult aspects of its premise that, if told correctly, could REALLY have fleshed this movie out and made it a lot more engaging.  There is at least ONE idea that gets brought to its logical conclusion which was actually kind of a surprise to see so I’m glad they stuck it in, BUT… let’s just say it’s the one part of The Beatles that’s… problematic I guess?  I mean look, if you’re gonna make a movie about ANY historical figures than it behooves you to try and be honest with the subject matter, but instead this movie shines a light on perhaps the darkest element of the band and then just PRETENDS that’s not something that needs to be talked about.  I’m being vague here because it WAS a legit surprise for me, but you’ll definitely know it when you see it.  Finally, the last thing I have to bring up is in fact a spoiler and unlike what I was just talking THIS is something that was in the trailer and got me REALLY interested in seeing the movie in the first place so I do feel the need to point out how it disappoints in case anyone else was similarly intrigued by it.  Still, if you don’t want to know then look away from the screen!

We good?  Alright, so the trailer shows a bit where James Cordon brings on Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to confront Jack about stealing their songs.  The idea that they exist in this universe is interesting, but the fact that they ALSO wrote all those songs yet never became successful (and even wrote them without the life experience of being IN The Beatles) was a mystery I really wanted to see play out!  It doesn’t.  That bit is a dream sequence Jack has and it cuts off at the same point the trailer does.  It didn’t ruin the movie for me, but I was  CRESTFALLEN when that happened and it felt like such a cheap ploy; both in terms of marketing the film but also in once again teasing us with the idea of something without going far enough into it.

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“Seriously, why did you write a song about the Soviet Union?  Is it like an inside joke or something?”     “Well, I mean… it was all… wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”     “What does that mean?”     “Wait… we don’t have that in this universe either!?”

Like the band itself, it’s probably not THE GREATEST thing in the world, especially considering how varied people’s tastes can be, but for the right audience I think it has more than enough going for it to be worth checking out.  If you’re a fan of the music in particular and you don’t mind them mostly being covers, then it’ll be worth seeing it on the big screen to get the full effect of the concert scenes and musical numbers, but other than that I think it’s perfectly serviceable as a home release.  It’s still really fun and interesting at points in the ways that it breaks away from the usual formula, but it feels like maybe they could have broken away a bit MORE.  Perhaps it has to do with the music involved as I doubt anyone who still makes money off The Beatles would let someone go TOO far in certain areas, but I don’t want to start criticizing this for not making the movie I’D make and they did get a decent movie out of whatever restraints they had which is certainly more than can be said for OTHER music movies we’ve gotten recently.  Just give it another three years, and I’ll wager we have a Boomer Rock Band Expanded Universe with Jack serving as the Ant-Man of the group.  Hey, I’ll take it as long as we eventually get an Oscar winning biopic trilogy about Reel Big Fish.

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