In the 2004 film Garden State, as part of their meet cute, Natalie Portman’s Sam hands Zach Braff’s Andrew a set of headphones and says ‘You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear.’ It’s a bold line and it needs to be followed by a great piece of music. Fortunately the tune is New Slang by The Shins which is indeed a brilliant track and so it works.
Yesterday, this new film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis, constantly propounds that the band and singer/songwriters that they are showcasing have given the world the greatest catalogue of popular music ever created. Now that is really bold. The band in question is The Beatles though so they are fine, it’s a safe claim.
The plot centres around thirty something Jack Malik who has been struggling as a musician for ten years or so. One night there is a weird worldwide blackout during which Jack is knocked off his bike and hospitalised. On recovery he soon discovers that every other person on the planet has no idea who John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are and he is the only one able to remember anything about The Beatles. He is the only person with their songs and lyrics in his head, they don’t exist anywhere else apart from in his brain. Needless to say with all of that inside of him ready to be shared, he doesn’t struggle as a musician for too much longer.
It is wonderful to see and hear the music of The Beatles celebrated and it is a nice way of doing it without having to give the cinema going public another cheesy Mamma Mia! style Jukebox Musical. You could argue that these songs don’t really need showcasing because as John Hannah says in Sliding Doors, ‘everybody’s born knowing all the Beatles lyrics instinctively. They’re passed into the fetus subconsciously along with all the amniotic stuff’. Actually though, I’m not sure that this is quite the case anymore. I’m not saying they are being forgotten but they certainly aren’t front and centre in the culture quite as much as they used to be. I vividly remember singing Penny Lane in my school assemblies when I was a kid but my ten year old daughter is now singing Eye of the Tiger and Living on a Prayer in hers. Children are not being drip fed the same stuff any more. Frankly they are lucky to even get The Frog Chorus (or unlucky depending on your point of view).
The way this movie demonstrates quite how brilliant these tunes are works too. When put up against other music, as they are here, you really can’t help but hear the difference. There is one scene where Ed Sheeran, gamely playing himself as the guy who discovers Jack, challenges him to a new songwriting contest. Ed comes up with something after ten minutes which is nice and familiar and very Ed Sheeran but is instantly forgettable and then Jack sits at a piano and plays Long and Winding Road. The nice and familiar Sheeranesque music that fills the charts currently really does not compare to the words and music of Lennon and McCartney and in the film Sheeran ends up proclaiming that he is Salieri to Jack’s Mozart. There are similar moments where Jack plays Yesterday or Let It Be for the first time and you genuinely get a sense of what it must have been like hearing these amazing songs that had never been shared before.
Of course there needs to be a plot built around this set up and here the film is a lot more Richard Curtis than it is Danny Boyle. The only real time you remember you are watching a Danny Boyle film is when there is a late uncredited cameo from one of his key collaborators (it isn’t Ewan McGregor or Cillian Murphy) but this feels like classic Curtis all the way through. There’s a group of dependable best friends, a weird bloke who finds acceptance through his association with the hero, a shy and socially uncomfortable guy with self esteem issues and a girl standing in front of him asking him to love her. There is the quirky fantasy element which I’m glad to say they never back away from but we’ve seen that from Curtis too in About Time. Crucially the central romance really works. Your heart aches for Himesh Patel’s Jack and Lily James’ Ellie as together they navigate his new found fame and success. Their relationship is as touching as William and Anna’s in Notting Hill and more so than Charles and Carrie’s in Four Weddings & a Funeral or anyone’s in Love Actually. In fact, of all of Curtis’ female characters Ellie is most like Kristen Scott Thomas’ Fiona which is a treat for anyone who ever routed for her over Andie MacDowell. (Which is everyone, right?) Whether her story works out any better is something you’ll have to discover for yourself but Curtis’ stories have often entertained tragedy alongside joy so don’t make any assumptions. One thing the movie does seem to suggest is that love is better than fame which is great news for any romantics in the audience that once had a notion they might achieve the second but are lucky enough to have found the first.
If you enjoy a good romcom then this is a real treat and if you are a fan of The Beatles then I think you’ll massively appreciate it too. If you like both well then frankly it is a must see. When I watched it yesterday all my troubles, did as the man said, seem so far away.
The Ripley Factor:
Boyle and Curtis have both given us stronger female characters before but Yesterday wins on a different kind of diversity giving us an Asian lead and making absolutely nothing of it at all. This guy just happens to have Indian heritage and real life couple Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meeta Syal are excellent as his parents.