'Yesterday' succeeds, but only as glorified karaoke

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 6/28/19

 

“Yesterday” is an above-average cover band, skillfully and entertainingly regurgitating familiar tunes but ultimately beholden the original. If you love the Beatles’ …

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'Yesterday' succeeds, but only as glorified karaoke

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“Yesterday” is an above-average cover band, skillfully and entertainingly regurgitating familiar tunes but ultimately beholden the original. If you love the Beatles’ music, it’s after you listened to Paul, John, George and Ringo, not four dudes on a stage in Branson. Yet, that’s essentially the premise of director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis’ flighty flight of fancy, imagining a present-day timeline in which the four lads from Liverpool never got together and there’s no record that their songs ever existed.

At the same time Jack gets hit by a bus, all the lights in the world go dark for 12 seconds (for no discernible reason). When Jack comes to, everything is the same except there’s no evidence or memory of the Beatles—no music, no lyrics, nothing on the Internet. There are also some bizarre, inconsistent butterfly effects: the band Oasis also never formed, apparently because the Beatles’ influence wasn’t around to propel them, but Coldplay and The Killers seemingly did. There’s also no record of Coca-Cola or cigarettes, which isn’t explicated or linked to the Beatles’ disappearance.

Anywho, Jack starts performing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Here Comes the Sun," and the titular track in clubs and festivals, which quickly enthralls audiences and talent seekers, all marveling at Jack’s profound new sound and lyrics. Ed Sheeran (playing himself) asks Jack to open for Sheeran’s concerts, until Sheeran realizes he’s met his better after Jack warbles “The Long and Winding Road” and poaches Sheeran’s agent (a rather irksome Kate McKinnon).

“Yesterday” is an already paper-thin premise stretched to cloying and annoying lengths. The film is grounded in three misguided narratives. An unconvincing will-they/won't-they romance between Jack and his lifelong gal pal Ellie (Lily James) exists to pad the running time. Second, Jack is racked by a crisis of conscience as he attains worldwide acclaim off songs he knows he didn’t originate. But in Jack’s new timeline, Paul McCarthy and John Lennon — who still lived, a rabbit hole I won’t go down — didn’t write anything. The songs don’t exist without Jack, and creative inspiration stems from many unknowable wellsprings, so Jack’s ethical dilemma and inevitable mea culpa make little sense.

But the film’s fundamental flaw is its assertion that the esteem and influence of art is boundless and self-evident, and not a consequence of time, place, and artist. The songs of the Beatles are iconic and exquisite, seminal pillars in the history of music. But their popularity also emerged from the performers who created them, the place they came from, and the time in which they were recorded. At one point, Jack is branded “the Shakespeare of pop music,” a silly but nonetheless illustrative comparison. If the Bard never wrote anything when he lived, and then someone today published “Twelfth Night” for the first time, it would be seen as odd and unreadable. It wouldn’t suddenly become a cornerstone of Western literature. If Mozart never composed any music and someone now suddenly wrote “The Magic Flute,” it’d be terrific classical music but not a cultural and historical touchstone. That doesn’t diminish the supreme quality of any such art, but instead acknowledges that their transcendence is also a product of the mores and politics of their era.

Curtis tosses in some passing jabs at modern marketing. Sheeran suggests “Hey Jude” be changed to “Hey Dude,” and an ad wiz (Lamome Morris) scoffs at albums titles like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for being too wordy and “The White Album” for its racial connotations. Otherwise, every Beatles song is lauded as a trendsetting, genre redefining sensation, as is. “Yesterday” has a super soundtrack, but it would have you believe that any reasonably talented schmo could croon “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” today and set the world on fire. The film succeeds as glorified karaoke. But if it’s meant as a Beatles tribute, it actually achieves the opposite result.

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