Friday, 28 June 2019

For no one (except Ed Sheeran fans)

I can't imagine how much time, effort and money went into securing the rights to The Beatles' music for its use in Danny Boyle's Yesterday. I'm picturing Paul McCartney sitting on a solid gold throne, perched on a balcony made of the purest crystal, jutting out from a mansion constructed entirely from £50 notes stuck together with glue made from the boiled remains of history's finest thoroughbred horses, glancing up from his latest bank statement and shouting down to a begging-on-their-knees Boyle and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner to come back when they've added a few more zeroes to their offer. That almost certainly happened, so let's assume that a considerable amount of time, effort and money was expended before McCartney finally got bored and said he believed in Yesterday.

It's a shame, then, that the film that resulted from that deal is nowhere near good enough to justify that effort and cost, and nor is it worthy of being the one film that gets to use some of the most important music ever written and recorded. Yesterday is a wasted opportunity: an entire album's worth of filler, predictable beats and, most upsettingly, an inordinate amount of Ed Sheeran.
Ed Sheeran

The premise sounds like it came to writer Richard Curtis while he was on the bog, at which point he immediately plopped out a script with less thought for the potential of his idea than how he was going to get his male hero to overcome a series of improbable obstacles in order to have sex with an impossibly hot woman. The gist is that hapless musician Jack (the enormously likeable Himesh Patel, easily the film's MVP) is unaffected by a mysterious global event that wipes The Beatles' music off the face of the earth. As the only person left who remembers the Fab Four, he proceeds - with a little help from his friend Ed Sheeran - to make a career out of playing their songs to an awestruck public who've never heard anything like them.

So first things first, this mysterious global event is complete bollocks. The film's marketing claims that "Everyone in the world has forgotten The Beatles", but that's not what's happened - all their records have literally vanished, there's no mention of them on the internet, and bands who've been influenced by them don't seem to exist. It's more like a parallel universe where Lennon and McCartney never met, although it's a fucking cruel universe that wipes Oasis from existence but still permits Ed Sheeran to peddle his staggeringly bland, clearly Beatles-influenced wares to an undiscerning audience. Of course none of this should matter: nobody cares how Bill Murray got stuck in a time loop in Groundhog Day. But the difference is that the rest of Groundhog Day is brilliant, so it's irrelevant. Yesterday's plot is so uninspired and plodding that your mind inevitably wanders back to its point of origin to work out how all this tedium was allowed to happen in the first place.
Ed Sheeran

But let's put that aside for now (even though it is demonstrably impossible to do so), and concentrate on Yesterday's biggest flaw. It sets up a world without The Beatles' music, then introduces that music via a solo guitarist in 2019, which is clearly a very different cultural landscape to the early 1960s when rock 'n' roll was in its infancy. Predictably, everyone immediately thinks the music is the greatest thing since Ed Sheeran, and Jack achieves his dream of global superstardom. But could that happen? What's that music building on; what came before it, given that it wasn't there to inspire so much of the last half-century of music? Do the songs stand up so well by themselves that anyone could play them and make them hits? The film seems to think so, but what does that say for John, Paul, George and Ringo, whose excess of personality, tireless enthusiasm and hit movies pushed their product to even bigger audiences? And which is more important: the performer or the songs? Do people love the music because they love Jack, or do they love Jack because they love the music?

Yesterday's answer to all of this and more is: couldn't give a shit mate, but keep watching and Tamwar off of EastEnders might get his end away with Lily James, weeeyyyy!! It's a catastrophic missed chance to entertainingly investigate what made The Beatles The Beatles, and that seems unforgivable when the path Curtis and Boyle choose is a humdrum romcom. A hrumcdrom. The film we get doesn't even need to have been about The Beatles' music at all; the songs are just a series of catchy hooks on which to hang yet another of Richard Curtis' mediocre wish-fulfilment fantasies. And not only that but Jack's versions of them are, without exception, awful. They've been engineered to appeal to Ed Sheeran's fanbase, and as such made me contort my face into Picasso versions of myself whenever I heard one. It's telling that at the screening I attended, most of the audience sat through the credits, presumably because it was the first time in two hours we'd been allowed to hear a Beatles song played by The Beatles, and man it felt good.
Ed Sheeran

There's plenty more to complain about: much that occurs in the final act is unbelievable, even in the film's own fantasy framework, but on the off chance you ignore everything I've said up to this point and go and watch Yesterday, I won't spoil the terrible, patronising, offensive ending for you. I should also probably remark on its non-rubbish elements, the most obvious of which is Kate McKinnon's caustic, brutally honest record label exec. McKinnon is perfect in the role, but that's probably because it's basically the kind of one-note SNL character she can toss off in her sleep. Like all of us, she deserved better. But she does provide some laughs, and the film is occasionally quite funny, even if it does like to undercut all its serious scenes with a goofy payoff as if it's part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The success of a music-oriented film can usually be judged on whether, immediately after watching it, you want to head straight to a record shop (a physical building where you can touch, hold and buy objects that contain music) or, more likely, a streaming app of your choice, to investigate that music further. As flawed as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are, they still resulted in me increasing my vinyl collection despite having almost no room to do so. But Yesterday actively made me less interested in listening to The Beatles: maybe it's because I was never a massive fan in the first place (although the same could be said about Elton John), but I worry that the reaction of anyone whose first exposure to The Beatles is through this film will be to wonder what all the fuss is about, and stick Ed Sheeran on instead.


  1. I think you'll find the idea came from rubbish 90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart.

  2. Old enough to remember episode 4 of 80's tv series Otherworld, family trapped in a parallel universe where rock and roll doesn't exist. From Wikipedia "Trace and Gina introduce rock 'n' roll music, and record songs written by the Beatles and other classic artists. The music has an emotional impact that takes the province by storm" Yawn.

  3. God damn, you're bitter. This film was absolutely delightful!

    Love is all you need.