Last night I finally caught Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis‘s Yesterday, which is mostly a likable but harmless so-whatter. Alternate title: “I Was A British Beatles Admirer Who Managed To Become Them When They Were Erased From Memory (and Managed to Live High On The Hog For A While Until I Was Overwhelmed By Guilt).” I actually found it mildly diverting in the early stages. But I can’t say I loved or even really “enjoyed” it all that much. Well, I did here and there. And the audience seemed happy.
I hated the fact that the producers chose only the most banal, saccharine and/or over-played Beatles standards to populate the soundtrack with. I despise “Let It Be.” All my life “The Long and Winding Road’ has made me want to throw up. If I never hear “A Hard Day’s Night” again, it’ll be too soon. (I liked it when young but it gradually wore out its welcome.) But I love “”Happy Just To Dance With You” — why didn’t they use that one? Or “Things We Said Today”? Or “A Day in the Life”? Or “Cry Baby Cry”? Or “Here, There and Everywhere” or “Good Day Sunshine”?
I did, however, like one thing about Yesterday. Tremendously, I mean. Around the two-thirds or three-quarters mark comes a scene that I hadn’t read about in reviews, and it totally blew my mind. Because of this one passage (and BE WARNED because I intend to discuss it, which will mean nothing because everyone is writing about it) I was suddenly very happy that I was watching Yesterday. Because of a certain fellow’s return to the planet earth.
Otherwise this Boyle-Curtis concoction kept boring or bugging me in little ways. I always feel put off when movies “try” to be charming or cute or huggable. I really hate it when they’re selling that shit. But Yesterday is passingly or momentarily saved from this self-defeating approach whenever the camera is on Himesh Patel, whose performance is — this is highly unusual — winningly one-note.
Patel plays Jack Malik, an adept singer-guitarist from northeastern England who becomes a worldwide phenomenon when the Beatles are suddenly erased from memory after some kind of cosmic EMP blackout, which allows Malik to begin performing the entire Beatles catalogue as his own songs because no one knows any differently. What I loved about Patel is that he plays almost every scene with the same vaguely glum, vaguely stunned “uhhm, wait, hold on…what the fuck?” expression. “One-note performance” is always a negative judgment, I know, but not this time. I seriously loved Patel in this thing, and I’m not being facetious. “This guy’s on my team!” I kept saying to myself.
Whenever a good thing happens to Jack, he kind of half-smiles but blends it in with a vaguely glum, vaguely stunned “uhhm, wait, hold on…what the fuck?” expression. Whenever something draining or dispiriting happens, he responds with what can best be described as a vaguely glum, vaguely stunned “wait, hold on…what the fuck?” expression. And so on and so forth. Nothing shakes him out of this default attitude about life, about everything.
In my head I began to believe that Patel was speaking to grumpsters like myself with this expression. He seemed to be saying “Look, I’m just playing this guy, right? I love the money and the promotional boost that this film is giving my career, but c’mon…this movie is piffle! And here I am sort of half-behaving in a piffly fashion on its behalf. Except I’m not because of my nonstop ‘what the fuck?’ expression. Which you understand.”
I could understand roughly 20% to 30% of the dialogue spoken by Lily James, who plays Jack’s manager and secret romantic admirer. She’s about as understandable as any British working-class character in a Ken Loach film, and before you start in with the cracks about my hearing understand that I’ve seen many British films in Cannes that were shown with English subtitles. There’s a reason for that.
SPOILER TIME: When Jack knocks on the door of a ramshackle beach house and a 78 year-old John Lennon (played by Robert Carlyle and transformed with just the right facial makeup and exactly the right kind of granny glasses) answers, it felt like a huge gut-slam. (A woman sitting near me cried out.) Because this is an alternate universe in which John Winston Lennon never became a rock star, and so he lived 38 years longer than he did in actuality. (And may be around for many years to come.) When John tells Jack how old he is, Jack goes “whoa!”, which is a way of saying “wow, of course, you were never shot to death so you lived a full and long life!”
But how full was it? Maybe from the 78 year-old Lennon’s perspective it was happy and full enough, but you’re also thinking “this version of John never tasted the blazing, eccentric highs and devastating lows and occasional inspirational tsunamis that colored the life of the other one…this guy lived happily but modestly and perhaps (who knows?) a little sleepily.” Right away you’re thinking of Neil Young‘s “My My, Hey Hey” and the “better to burn out than to fade away” line.
Critic friend: “Richard Curtis is a lot more comfortable with lots of balls in the air instead of just one big one. Structurally the screenplay paints Patel into a corner he can never really get out of. Jack Malik is unhappy ripping off the Beatles. That comes across, and there’s no good way out of this.”
HE reply: “But in this new weird universe Beatles songs exist only in Jack’s head. Like all creative inspiration before it is given voice, or put to pen, or painted on canvas, or sculpted or crafted. What’s the difference between memory and creative inspiration? It’s all from a mind pool of some sort.
“Jack is ripping them off, yes, but at least he’s singing their songs and spreading them around. As that old couple says, ‘Thank you…we thought we were the only ones.’ He’s merely performing Beatles covers, yes, and yet, in his guilty mind, he’s a thief. But in the eyes and ears of the world that he suddenly finds himself in, he’s not a thief at all — he’s a kind of pied piper. He’s just a guy with all these great songs. (And by the way, the Beatles magic wasn’t just the melodies — it was the voices, the harmonies, the instruments, the stylistic innovations and the way it all meshed and synched together with the cultural changes of the mid ’60s.)
“And so the big confessional ending doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t add up. What’s Jack gonna do, stop playing Beatles tunes? Why? In what way is that better than playing them? No one else knows the rest of the catalogue. And he doesn’t want to be paid to do this? He wants to do it for free, he declares at the end, but how can Jack spread the Beatles’ musical gospel if he doesn’t earn some kind of compensation for doing so? Is it better to earn $500 a week to sing Beatles covers than to earn $5000? Why?
“All you have to do is think about the ending for two minutes and it all falls apart.”