Movies inspired by The Beatles have an erratic track record. The infamous 1978 film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featured the Bee Gees and purported to be inspired by the epochal album. Across the Universe from 2007 clumsily tried to redefine Beatles music set to fictional vignettes from the 1960s. A better attempt was I Wanna Hold Your Hand from 1978, Robert Zemeckis's debut film on the early days of Beatlemania. The best remains The Rutles from Monty Python, a madcap satire. Even better are films featuring the Fab Four themselves - no movie will ever have the explosive immediacy of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night.
Yesterday imagines a world without The Beatles. Himesh Patel stars as struggling musician Jack Malik. After a worldwide power outage he slips into a different timeline. Lily James co-stars as his manager Ellie, she's the only one who believes in his music. A key flaw in the film is that it never fully explores what the world would actually look like without John, Paul, George, and Ringo. In Yesterday, things look pretty much the same as our own.
Jack starts performing Beatles songs and his videos go viral. Ed Sheeran takes notice of Jack's talent and gets him a record deal. Kate McKinnon enters the picture as a greedy recordcompanry executive who wants to make big money off of Jack's music. He's conflicted, but the temptation of fame and money are too much to resist.
The central conceit of Yesterday is that The Beatles were simply about the music. But they were also cultural revolutionaries who arrived at specific time within a specific historical context. Music from any era is mostly forgotten by the next generation, or will get sucked of its subversive meaning by the culture industry (e.g. Nike using Lennon's "Revolution" to sell shoes).
Yesterday gives us the non-threatening mop tops. The soundtrack sticks mostly to the top 20 songs everyone knows, performed as uninspired indie rock. That's the gloomy conclusion I take from the film, it's yet another pointless exercise in nostalgia way too common in pop culture these days. Yesterday's false optimism is a burdensome weight to carry.
A baffling scene towards the end (an extremely awkward cameo) speaks to the hollow premise of Yesterday. As a romantic comedy, Jack and Ellie's ups and downs are conventional. Stay at home and dust off Abbey Road.
** out 4