Danny Boyle’s latest film, Yesterday, makes pleasure feel guilty, but it’s not a guilty pleasure. Instead, it’s an expertly crafted film telling the surprisingly complex emotional story of one man’s impossible dilemma involving some of the greatest art ever made – and it makes us question our own personal morals in the process.
Yesterday centres on Jack Malik, played by newcomer Himesh Patel. Jack is a talented but struggling musician who gets into a terrible bike accident when a blackout strikes the entire world. He wakes up bruised, battered, and in a weird alternate reality where everything is almost exactly the same, except no one else remembers the Beatles. Except him.
It’s a ludicrous, preposterous premise with unimaginable possibilities. Jack now possesses the keys to fame and fortune beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He also knows these keys don’t belong to him, but no one else is aware of that. They just think he’s some unrivalled musical genius unlike the world has ever seen. So, as he starts to play Beatles songs for people, he very quickly gets very famous, and instantly feels incredibly terrible about all of it.
Yeah, you’re about to change the world, Jack.
There are a few things going on here, all quite well balanced by Richard Curtis’ screenplay and Danny Boyle’s direction. There’s Jack slowly revealing the Beatles’ music to the world and with it, gaining unprecedented celebrity and wealth. As you’d expect, this throughline is rather joyous. It’s pure, unfathomable wish-fulfilment. Imagine you were the Beatles. At their prime. Bringing that music to the world. And it’s not four people sharing the spotlight, it’s just you. Boyle captures this fantasy with gusto, using all kinds of slick editing, striking camera moves, and of course the music. And really, it’s hard to not enjoy sitting in a cinema listening to Beatles songs
Jack’s main dilemma is dealing with the fact that he’s lying, stealing the work of four geniuses who, for some reason or another, didn’t make this music in the version of the world Jack now lives in. Can he live with that? He’s the only person who has to. No one else ever needs to know. Yesterday takes the gorgeous, perfect music of the Beatles and juxtaposes it with this character’s crushing guilt about stealing it. Guilt and pleasure, remember?
Transposing a negative connotation on the positive feeling most of us get from Beatles music is a fine line, but Boyle really nails it. Jack’s conflict is weaved in and out of his rise to fame so that we feel simultaneously happy and sad. In fact, the happier things get, they can also get equally sad, which gives the whole movie a unique, foreboding tension. We don’t want everything to come crashing down for Jack but also aren’t sure we can handle him getting away with it.
There’s a strong romance in Yesterday too.
Then, stuck right in the middle is a love story between Jack and his manager Ellie, played by Lily James. Ellie is with Jack from the beginning and, as he starts to get famous, their partnership begins to crumble, hurting them both in the process. Ellie provides a strong throughline in the film; she’s a full character and not just some prize for Jack to win. Unlike Jack, she makes hard decisions when they have to be made, and their relationship is an important force as the story moves forward.
Both Patel and James are excellent in the film – human, relatable, and obviously invested in the story they’re telling. Even Ed Sheeran, playing himself in a crucial supporting role, is quite believable and charming. On the other hand, the usually incredible Kate McKinnon plays her character, a Hollywood music manager, a little more manic than the rather grounded rest of the film. She stands out but, it’s OK.
You probably won’t hate Ed Sheeran in Yesterday like you did in Game of Thrones.
The other problem with Yesterday is that while it would have been slightly superfluous in the grand scheme of things, the movie never offers any real explanation for why this all happened. It’s just some bizarre event that happens and is never really referenced again. There are a few other fun jokes about it (the Beatles aren’t the only thing people don’t remember, for example), but it would have been nice to have just a little more closure from a logistical standpoint.
And yet, a few minor quibbles aside, Yesterday is a winner. Any time a movie can make you question our personal morals it’s a movie that’s probably working. The film presents the argument that maybe it’s acceptable to steal some of the greatest art in the world. Which, ultimately, becomes a mirror onto ourselves. Are we bad for thinking that? Is Jack? You’ll have to see Yesterday and figure out if you stand with the guilt or the pleasure.