There’s always been a sense of whimsy about the films of Richard Curtis. Whether Love Actually or About Time, which he wrote and directed, or the many episodes of Blackadder and Mr. Bean he penned, he brings a light touch to his comedy as well as many sincerely romantic or poignant moments.
Now comes Yesterday, a film Curtis wrote with director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) at the helm, a lighthearted and yes, romantic movie that leans heavily on the fantastic – his protagonist exists in a world where he’s the only one who knows and remembers the music of the Beatles. While this may seem like a premise worth an effective joke or two, there’s more at play here as Curtis and Boyle examine the nature of love, the price of fame and, most importantly, the impact art has on the individual and culture at large.
Jack Malik (Himish Patel) is a struggling musician who’s about to give up on his dream of taking the world by storm with his music and finding fame and fortune in the process. He has good reason to call it quits as over the course of 10 years, he’s endured a seemingly endless string of sparsely attended gigs and has gotten nowhere. Ellie (Lily James), his friend since childhood and de facto manager, is his biggest fan and madly in love with him, something he’s too blind to see, of course. However, an accident occurs one night and Jack wakes up to realize he’s the only one who knows John, Paul, George and Ringo’s catalogue, a stroke of luck that will surely allow him to realize all of his dreams.
As with most things that are too good to be true, this proves be just that. While the initial attention he gets when performing “Yesterday” or “I Saw Her Standing There,” is intoxicating, once a greedy Hollywood record executive (Kate McKinnon, at her scene-stealing worst) comes calling and he realizes his life is no longer his, fame and fortune seems a poor trade off, especially when it keeps him from Ellie.
One of the things about Curtis’ films is that they are shamelessly romantic, yet never come off as maudlin or hokey. There’s a sincerity that runs through his work, and most importantly, he affords a genuine sense of respect for his characters and their situations. Light humorous moments butt up against poignant scenes and all play honestly. Because of this approach, we can’t help but become invested in the film and the characters’ plights.
The way the Beatles’ music is handled in the movie extends far beyond just lively rendered covers. Curtis provides an effective, biting critique of modern audiences and publicists when efforts are made to dumb down the songs and their promotion. They feel as though listeners won’t be smart enough to understand the impact of the work and in order to maximize their profits, they alter things to assure the songs are relatable to all. Changing “Hey, Jude,” to “Hey, Dude,” is only one of the acts of sacrilege that occur.
The most remarkable thing about Yesterday is that it allows us the opportunity to listen to the Beatles’ songs with fresh ears. Like those in the film who hear the tunes for the first time, we find ourselves sitting back, attempting to mimic their experience. The reactions of these characters remind us of the joy their work afforded listeners when the group burst on the scene nearly 60 years ago. In doing so, Boyle and Curtis have created one of the most joyous cinematic experiences of the year, ironically sending up the title of their film in the process – The Beatles’ songs will never be regulated to yesterday – there’s no expiration date for music wondrous as this.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.