Yesterday (2019)

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RB Score:  9/10.

This is a movie with a novel, engaging concept, that doesn’t go nearly far enough with said concept, and which is still a thoroughly enjoyable movie that everyone should see.

Filmography is excellent from the opening frame and never stops attaining this standard.  Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) works at a big box store stocking shelves, while grimly determined to become a successful musician.  His childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) who has never stopped believing in him and who is now his manager, scores him a gig at a seaside music festival where Jack plays his songs.  At the festival, Jack reconnects with his old chum Rocky (Joel Fry), who is working as a roadie.  Rocky is a lovable and loyal sidekick, and he is immediately attuned to the emotional connection that is going absolutely nowhere, between Jack and Ellie, just in case the audience doesn’t see it (which, of course, we do).

Later on the rainy night after the gig, Jack has an argument with Ellie and gets out of her car to ride his  bike home. Subsequently he gets hit by a bus.  In the moments following his accident the entire planet loses all power for 12 seconds.  Everything goes dark as Jack lies in the rainy road.  He wakes up in the hospital, with cuts and bruises on his face, missing a couple of teeth, with loyal Ellie by his side.  Our first indicator that the world is different happens when Jack quotes a Beatles lyric to Ellie and she clearly has no recognition of the reference.  He is surprised but doesn’t read too much into it, as Ellie was visiting between classes, rushing out to teach her next session.

When Jack is released from the hospital, his friends surprise him with an impromptu party at an outdoor cafe, during which they present him with a brand new guitar to replace the one destroyed in the accident.  They ask him to play a song for them and he obliges, strumming the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and singing along.  Ellie and the others are instantly captivated by the tune, just like most every other sentient human being discovering the Beatles for the first time.  But Jack is puzzled that his friends have not ever heard the song before, and is understandably frustrated.   Eventually, with the help of Google, he gradually realizes that the Beatles have now quite simply never existed.

What’s a poor guy to do, being alone with the greatest musical gifts that have ever been given to modern music?  Isn’t it more important to share these gifts with the world?  Although it’s plagiarism can anyone think of a better solution?  Jack devotes himself to recreating the Beatles discography and playing the songs to wider and wider audiences.  These are fun scenes that recreate the early 1960s Beatles magic.  Soon he is discovered by Harry (Ed Sheeran) and his unapologetically mercenary manager Debra (Kate McKinnon).  Jack starts to lose touch with Ellie after he decides to sign with Debra and moves to Los Angeles, along with faithful sidekick Rocky, to further his musical career.

However, Jack doesn’t completely fall in to the inauthentic LA lifestyle.  He travels to Liverpool, against the stern admonishment of Debra, in order to visit the places the Beatles have immortalized in their songs.  He also meets up with Ellie and spends an evening with her marked by conversation, connection and unbridled joy.  Wisely, the writers avoid ending this scene on a cheesy note as Ellie makes it clear she’s not interested in a one night stand.  They spend the night alone in their respective hotel rooms and in the morning Jack frantically wakes Rocky to help him find Ellie after she checks out, and they end up trying to find her at the train station.

Seated at a cafe near the tracks, Ellie is patient but Jack is unable to articulate his feelings and Rocky is not helping as he displays his cell phone through the window, showing a live feed of Debra ordering Jack to get out of there and catch his flight back to LA.  Rocky and Jack reluctantly leave as Ellie stays behind in the station to wait for her train home.

Things come to a head when at a performance, Jack notices a couple of fans in the last rows, waving a toy plastic yellow submarine.  He is frantic at the thought of his plagiarism being known.  When the two fans follow him to a grand festival in his hometown, and request to see him, Jack’s apprehension is outweighed by the desire to talk with someone, anyone, who understands who the Beatles were.

What he finds are two people who are simply grateful for the music being resurrected.  How do they know?  One of those compelling questions, that the movie doesn’t answer. Suffice to say that Jack isn’t the only person in the world to have been spared the effects of the planetary outage. Things get even more interesting as the woman gives him a scrap of paper with an address written on it.  Jack goes to the address, an exquisite yet humble abode on the beach, to find that the person living there is none other than an elderly John Lennon.

The power blip may have wiped out the music but also made it possible for Lennon to live to a grand old age.  It’s a deeply touching and pretty crushing reminder of the trade offs in life.  That is the movie’s genius, the capture of “what might have been”.  And, incidentally, a very nice and subtle touch that we don’t know who Lennon is married to, just that he is contentedly living by the seashore, happy with the girl of his dreams.  I do not see the disruptive presence of Yoko in this vision.  Given that in this alternate reality, the success of the Beatles never happened, it seems far more likely that the girl is Cynthia Lennon.

This is a great movie.  The failing and one point deduction is for not fleshing out the concept enough.  For example how did the power outage across the globe (why across the globe) knock out everyone’s memory of the Beatles? Did that outage erase history or just memories?  In either case please explain it a bit better!  The hints about other erasures doesn’t help (Coca Cola, cigarettes) as they don’t even cover the same historical time frames.  Granted this might provide some great discussion points for film classes, nights out with friends, or family gatherings, but it is a terribly disjointed structure.

Why not a greater point deduction then?  Because this movie is the epitome of affirmation, and captures that spirit of all things possible, in a way I have not seen many movies manage to do.  The ending is apologetically joyful and it resonates deeply.  Whether you’re holed up at home because of Coronavirus or just looking for a great movie to watch, give this a whirl and let me know what you think.

3 thoughts on “Yesterday (2019)

  1. Well, what a timely return. I can’t tell you how good it is to read a new post here, especially in the current climate. I haven’t seen Yesterday, maybe never will, but it has my eternal gratitude for drawing you back here.
    Stay safe my friend.

      • Hi RB, I’m sure I would enjoy Yesterday, hopefully time and availability will allow me the opportunity. As for being a Beatles fan, who isn’t? My mum’s still got some of their old vinyl LPs in the attic somewhere.

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