Near the end of Hot Tub Time Machine (spoiler alert for a movie that is nearly ten years old and way better than the one I am currently reviewing), there was this plot device. The Craig Robinson character, Nick, used his knowledge of the pop music of his revisited youth to reinvent himself as a mega-successful music producer. He recorded his own versions of a bunch of the biggest hits of the era before the original artists got the chance.
Yesterday, the new “feel-good movie of the year” according to the reviews quoted in its trailers, takes this one admittedly good joke and stretches it out to feature length. Instead of all the most popular songs from a given time period, it was only The Beatles catalog being reinvented by the protagonist, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). He was apparently the only person in the world who seemed to remember any Beatles songs after a mysterious blackout causes everyone else to forget them. He then, like Nick in HTTM, seized the opportunity to kickstart his own failing career as a musician by recreating the classic music that only he seemed to know about.
The biggest problem with this premise, and one of several interesting ideas this dreadful movie fails to explore, was that the massive success of The Beatles was undoubtedly due in part to timing. Any cultural phenomenon owes a debt to the time and place in which it was born. It is difficult to say whether the proverbial lightning could be captured in another proverbial bottle, in a different time and place. Would The Beatles have been such a world-changing, enormously famous band if their songs were first released in our own contemporary reality?
It is an intriguing question, but one that is immediately shut down in a movie made by two middle-aged British guys (writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle). These two seem to have no doubt that The Beatles’ entire catalog is timeless and perfect, and that the brilliance of any and all of their songs would be just as readily embraced by the youth of today.
Maybe they’re right. I am not here to cast aspersions on the music of The Beatles. The point is that the idea of a present-day musician passing off all these classic songs as his own in a world where no one else remembers them, and then failing anyway, would have been far more interesting. We saw a glimpse of what might have been near the beginning, when Jack was struggling to be heard despite knowing he is delivering some of the best songs ever written. The movie is all too quick to shuffle him off to international stardom instead.
This was just one way in which Yesterday failed its own premise. As Jack began to realize what had happened, he discovered it was not just The Beatles who had disappeared. Coca-Cola no longer existed, for example, but Pepsi was still around. Oasis and their monster hit Wonderwall never came to be, either, which Jack remarked “Makes sense”, but somehow Coldplay and, presumably, many other bands influenced by The Beatles are still known. Instead of exploring the implications of all this, though, Yesterday is content with throwaway jokes like the aforementioned Oasis jab, with increasingly predictable and grating punchlines.
What the movie focused on instead was the romance (such as it was) between Jack and his best friend/manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James). This was one of the most insipid, chemistry-free romances ever put onscreen. Ellie was a watered-down, boring version of the notorious Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but without any of the mania, let alone any other discernible personality. She existed solely to pine over the oblivious Jack, who has somehow managed to ignore her obvious adoration for the entire 20 years they have known each other. In all that time, Jack had treated her as no more than a ridiculously supportive friend, and yet she remained by his side throughout, the only one who believed in him despite his obvious mediocrity as a songwriter.
This was not a case of one-sided attraction, either. No, instead it was the well-worn cliche of true love being right before your eyes all this time! Jack was the kind of doofus who spent two decades ignoring the extremely obvious signals being sent his way. He was the kind of guy who had probably spent most of that time talking her ear off about how women never gave “nice guys” a chance. He was the guy at the party with the guitar, trying to sleep with your girlfriend. He was the guy busking in the subway station, not because he needed the money, but because he believed it would help him grow as an artist. In other words, he was a twat, and no self-respecting audience member should wish for his happiness.
I only realized after suffering through two hours of this dreck that its writer also scripted and directed Love Actually. Even without that foreknowledge, I should have known. Yesterday felt like nothing more than a rejected plot line from that heinous Christmas schmaltz-fest painfully dragged out to feature length. Yes, this was a script not good enough to be a 20-minute segment in one of the most maudlin, awful romantic comedies ever made…so they made it into its own feature instead!
Perhaps the biggest problem was that Curtis had never written a conflict he felt could not be resolved with an inspirational speech and maybe a tearful hug or two. Yesterday briefly threatened to get interesting in its third act. There were hints of a couple of other people who remembered the songs Jack was claiming as his own, but instead of causing any real problems for our hero, they just thanked him for preserving all that wonderful music for those who had lost it. This was accomplished, of course, with speeches and hugs, and then comes the requisite uplifting ending with, you guessed it, more speeches and hugs.
Oh, well. At least the music was good.