‘I’ ON CULTURE
While there are a lot of big movies around this year, a small gentle comedy like Yesterday can charm all of us. The special effects are no better than we might have seen in the late 1960s on television, but the heart of the film rings wonderfully true. Although it is about a man who, due to some cosmic doohickey, is the only one who remembers the Beatles and their songs and becomes “the world’s greatest songwriter” almost overnight, it is actually a bit of a Faust story as that man has to choose between success and love.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a wildly unsuccessful singer-songwriter in England, who stocks shelves at a large store for money while singing and failing as a street musician. The only one to believe in him is Ellie (Lily James), a teacher who is also his manager. He finally gives up. But then, biking home, he is hit by a bus when all the lights in the world suddenly go out. He wakes up in the hospital missing a couple of teeth. His friends get him a new guitar to replace the one destroyed in the accident and, saying, “I need a great song to start a great guitar” plays and sings the title song. His friends are amazed. “When did you write that one?” He’s shocked, and stammers “Paul McCartney wrote it.” No one ever heard of the Beatles, but they like the song, although one friend does point out after Jack calls it the “greatest song,” that “it’s not Coldplay.”
Playing Beatles songs brings Jack to the attention of others, and he soon becomes a star, leaving Ellie and his old friends behind. Top agent Debra (Kate McKinnon) moves him toward absolute stardom even as he feels more and more a fraud since he knows he didn’t write the songs. The scenes showing success are a lot of fun. There is plenty of material to satirize, and the film does it well. There is also a funny bit of a nightmare of his being on the James Corden show and being introduced to a couple of men from Liverpool… and you can probably guess who.
Eventually, he has to make a choice between his fake career and happiness with the loving Ellie. And even that is handled well.
The movie, of course, contains many of the great Beatles numbers, a treat for those of my generation. Amusingly, we hear British pop star Ed Sheeran (as himself) urging a change in one song to “Hey, Dude.” At another point, a listener suggests a change on another song to “Leave It Be.” Isn’t it amazing that we automatically know how wrong those changes are for songs written a half century ago?
The cast is really good. Patel, well-known as a television star in Britain, is charming and has enough singing ability and charisma to play the central character. No matter what happens, we stay on his side. James, who proved a great singer in the Mamma Mia sequel, is absolutely adorable as the faithful Ellie. She manages to be both cute and beautiful while trying to figure out their relationship. McKinnon is funny, as always. Sheeran is great, gently mocking himself.
The movie, as noted above, is not one of the big comedies. There are no big name stars and, frankly, it is not wildly funny. But it has a wonderfully gentle charm as it focuses on working class Brits suddenly pushed into the limelight. Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) as well as screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) know how to pace a really fun movie.
As a quick aside, I tried to see the film at the local Regal theater and, as has almost become normal there, had the film start to fall apart almost from the beginning. First it went about 15 minutes in, then stopped, then started again from close to the beginning, then lost all sound (something not good in a musical) and, finally, the showing was canceled. I saw it the next day at the theater in the mall. The same thing happened several weeks ago. The Regal definitely has problems.
But the movie is charming. If you like the Beatles, or simply a nice comedy, go see it. And, to not coin a phrase, I believe in Yesterday.