play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Himesh Patel in a scene from 'Yesterday.' (Universal Pictures)
Himesh Patel in a scene from 'Yesterday.' (Universal Pictures)






4/5 Stars


Jack Malick is a struggling singer/ songwriter whose only fan is his best friend and manager, Ellie. When an unexplained worldwide power-outage has him riding his bicycle into a bus, Jack wakes up with a stunning realisation: no one but him remembers the music of the Beatles. Now, passing the entire Beatles songbook (or the parts that he can remember, anyway) off as his own, Jack quickly becomes the biggest pop star on the planet. He seems to have gotten all he ever thought he wanted but is fame and fortune built on the uncredited work of others really how he wanted to get there? And, with the whole world at his feet, what place does that leave for Ellie, the woman who stuck by him through his ups and many, many downs?


I may have been born a good decade after the Beatles broke up, but they weren't just the band that made me a lifelong music fan but, along with their (though, especially Paul's) solo records, they were pretty much all I listened to from childhood through at least my mid-teens. Saying that the Beatles is your favourite band should probably be outlawed for sheer obviousness, but in my case, even now that I've expanded my musical knowledge exponentially beyond the Fab Four, it's simply the unavoidable truth.

The idea of waking up in a world without the Beatles, then, is the stuff of nightmares for me, even if the idea of being the one to introduce them to an unsuspecting world (through a sudden and miraculous ability to sing, play an instrument and not be reduced to the human embodiment of a panic attack at the very thought of performing on stage, of course) is the stuff of daydreams. While the premise of Yesterday is rich enough to play out across any number of different genres with very different outcomes – psychological horror, scathing satire, dystopian drama, heartbreaking tragedy, you name it – Yesterday is a film written by Richard Curtis (based on a general story idea by Jack Barth) and is thus much closer to the stuff of daydreams than any of the darker alternatives. It's also about as grounded and realistic as the very best daydreams.    

And this is crucial. While Danny Boyle may well be the greatest director to ever bring one of Curtis' scripts to life and some of Boyle's harsher edges do occasionally peak through when the film digs a bit deeper into the perils of fame, Yesterday is, first and foremost, a Richard Curtis film. Sure, Curtis is partly responsible for the acerbic adventures of Edmund Blackadder on that classic BBC sitcom but, for most of his career, he has been involved with and known for highly polarizing films that are called twee, sickly sentimental and vapid by his critics; hilarious, sharp, warm-hearted, generous and philanthropic by his fans.

I fall very much into the latter group and consider him one of the all-time great comedy screenwriters, but I do certainly understand where his critics are coming from. You're either going to buy into his shtick, or you're not. What this means, simply, is that whatever you may think of the Beatles, of Danny Boyle or of anyone in the cast, if you have no time for the likes of Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and (his underrated masterpiece) About Time, you need not go any further. If you hate those, you will almost definitely despise Yesterday.

If, however, you love Curtis' wide-eyed sentimentality; his love for his (usually bumbling) characters and his sharp but undeniably good-natured comedy – to say nothing of his love of a good tune – there's little not to love here. There are a few more satirical edges than usual as he does take more than a potshot or two at the modern music industry but that he doesn't even entertain the all-too-realistic notion that the songs of the Beatles would land with a thud in today's musical landscape and would be, at most, relegated to being listened to by a select few indie-music fans, makes it clear that is far more a celebration of both the Beatles and the power of great music than any sort of real criticism of the notoriously horrible music industry.

At the same time, Curtis only skims the surface of Yesterday's brilliant premise as he leaves most of the music industry since the Beatles pretty much as is and never so much as passingly comments on the fact that the Beatles were as much about their vocals, musicianship, musical arrangements and George Martin's stellar production as they were about their peerlessly brilliant songwriting. And that's to say nothing of the lads' magnetic, distinctive personalities that charmed the pants off the world during the Beatlemania days and intrigued and captivated the world to no end in their post-touring, "serious artist" years.

This isn't to say that the songs aren't still incredible even when presented in less-than-ideal versions or that Himesh Patel doesn't do a brilliant job as both a leading man and as an interpreter of these immortal songs. For all that my spirits were suitably lifted and my funny bone satisfying tickled, though, there is also the horrible realisation that this is a world where a song like Something exists without Paul's spectacularly melodic bass work; She Loves You has to get by without Ringo's giddily rolling drums and that none of their songs would ever sound quite right with today's overly digitised recording techniques. But then, this streak of melancholy does run throughout the film in general, even when it's at its most cuddly.

It would be easy to simply write this off as having everything to do with Danny Boyle's edgier directorial touch leavening Curtis' obvious sentimentality but not only does that ignore just how big-hearted much of Boyle's own work can be, it overly simplifies Curtis' own approach. Actually, for all of the unlikelihood of a collaboration between two such seemingly distinct filmmakers, Boyle and Curtis, very appropriately, mirror the Lennon/ McCartney relationship quite perfectly. The two balance each other out, to be sure, but they actually have more in common than might first appear.   

Even if the film as a whole feels more like a "Richard/ Paul song" than a "Danny/ John" song, both of their touches are all over the finished product. Both Boyle and Curtis are huge Beatles fans so Yesterday coming off as a feature-length tribute to their music could have come directly from either of them, whereas the visual flourishes are as much purely Danny Boyle as the fabulous one-liners and generally philanthropic world-view is purely Richard Curtis.

Less obvious is the film's satirical look at the music industry and its questions about artistic integrity, ownership and authorship, which could just as easily come from the guy who directed Trainspotting as it could from the guy who wrote the hilarious but ultimately heartbreaking satire of Blackadder Goes Forth. As for the gooey romantic bits, well, this is a Richard Curtis film but, let's not forget, Danny Boyle did direct A Life Less Ordinary and Slumdog Millionaire, so he's hardly "above" such concerns.

Either way, Curtis and Boyle are on excellent, sympathetic form here and even if they could have just relied on the untouchably brilliant songs and the universally great cast (including the typically lovely Lily James and, yes, a very funny Ed Sheeran) to carry it through, their shared passion for the subject matter has resulted in a film that is by turns hilarious, sharp and huge-hearted and all put together by one of the greatest directors currently working. "Feel good" filmmaking don't come much better than this, folks!


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24