If you’re of a certain age, the first few notes of a particular Beatles song can bring you to tears, summoning up a memory of a love affair, a time in your life, that poignant “last appearance” on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or of crowds gathering in front of New York’s Dakota apartment house.
Generations of music fans can get just as choked up with totally different associations.
Which is a way of assuring you that yes, I wanted to love “Yesterday.” And a way of warning you that I didn’t.
Danny Boyle has made movies spanning many genres over his career, and almost added a James Bond title to his storied resume. Instead, he’s made a Richard Curtis romantic comedy. And although I adore “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill” as much as any Hallmark Channel subscriber, Curtis is very much a hit or miss screenwriter, always trying for movies that wear their hearts on their sleeves, often let down by his own earnestness, clumsy direction or lack of commitment from his stars.
“Yesterday” is about a young busker/pub singer (Himesh Patel) who wakes up in a world where The Beatles never happened, with only him remembering their songs and thus able to pass them off as his own and thus achieve John/Paul/George/Ringo level stardom in an instant, just relying on his memory of the lyrics. It’s a fascinating concept worth mulling over, but a film that fails in concept, and in execution.
It has a romance (Lily James of “Downton Abbey”) that is that rarest of Richard Curtis rarities — a non-starter. It has lots of jokes, about other foods, cultural phenomena and other bands that disappeared from history the same night The Beatles were erased. But not enough jokes.
Kate McKinnon’s in it, a “Saturday Night Live” legend who is a non-kosher butcher shop in every big screen appearance — all ham, all the time, someone who wears out we welcome by her third scene.
And the very concept’s fatal flaw is obvious several times the talented British TV actor Patel launches into song. He’s a good guitarist and singer, but the script and editing undercuts some “big” moments — never letting him get into “Let It Be,” for instance. And while some songs stand apart and endure his solo guitar treatment — the title tune especially — others land flatter than a Bon Jovi cover. Stripped of George Martin’s production and the charming harmonies and simplicity of those original recordings, “Help” wouldn’t likely create “Beatlemania” all over again.
Or “Malikmania,” even though nobody ever calls it that. Jack Malik (Patel) has just given up on his one-last-shot at breaking out, a festival where he flopped at the end of years of playing to empty street corners and disinterested pub-goers. His pal, fellow teacher and “manager” Ellie (Lily James) may be his biggest booster since childhood, the one who stayed in teaching while encouraging Jack to take his shot.
But that shot has missed the mark, and while we can see the love in Ellie’s eyes suggesting ulterior motives, all Jack sees is failure.
One “magical” global power outage, which causes Jack’s “accident,” one “Give us a song on your new guitar” moment with friends, and Jack figures out what he’s been getting hints of from Ellie and others about.
In this alternate history, the Beatles never happened.
He tries out tunes on Ellie and friends, on his distracted family (Meera Syal of “Doctor Strange,” Sanjeev Bhaskar of the funny Britcom “The Kumars at No. 42”). “Leave it Be,” they think it’s called.
Some listeners swoon, others compare “this new song I’ve just written” to Cold Play. Jack’s tirades, defending the Lennon/McCarthy (and George Harrison) songbook to philistines, are a hoot. But it sounds like he’s comparing himself to Leonardo Da Vinci.
It being 2019, there’s a “viral” element to his sudden exposure, a fantastical courtship by “the ginger geezer,” pop star Ed Sheeran, and everybody predicts instant fame and riches for this singer-songwriter “composing” a decade’s worth of collaborative Beatles classics in mere weeks.
One great running gag is the movie’s “taking the piss out of,” as the Brits say, Sheeran. He knocks off a tune, or floats one of his songs up to compare it to Jack’s, and Ed realizes he’s “number two, now.” False modesty is the funniest.
To be fare, his tunes hold up nicely here. They’re just of their time.
As indeed The Beatles were of theirs. Whether or not “Hey Jude” et al would make the Fab Four fab all over again in 2019 is a fascinating argument to have on the way home from the cinema. I love The Beatles and seriously doubt it.
You’ll recognize goofy, borderline incompetent “roadie” pal Rocky (Joel Fry) as a character we’ve seen in most every Richard Curtis script, most famously played by Rhys Ifans in “Notting Hill” and Bill Nighy in “Love, Actually.”
McKinnon, playing a predatory agent with her usual over-the-top gusto, lands laughs in sizing up, to his face, her new client as “Very…unattractive. Skinny, but somehow round.” She still offers him “the poison chalice of money and fame.”
And as in every movie, she runs out of gags and mugs her way out of the movie. Quickly.
It’s not an awful film, just one that only tugs at the heart a couple of times when plainly the intent was for this to happen, start to finish. It is James’ job to sell this romance, and she doesn’t. Patel handles the one liners, the umbrage Jack takes at all these dolts who can’t remember “the greatest songs/songwriters who ever lived.” But he hasn’t a clue about drumming up romantic longing.
Another trait of Curtis scripts is the way he lets us see “Damn, I cannot for the LIFE of me figure out how to get from here to (his often glorious) the finale.” “Yesterday” founders and wallows, a 95 minute movie trapped in a 116 minute one.
A James Corden cameo just reminds one that he got in a car with Paul McCartney and gave us a better version of Jack’s “discovery” of the Liverpool of The Beatles in just a short, sentimental and warmly touching TV sketch.
As Danny Boyle movies go, I’d still rather see him get his shot at James Bond.
As Beatles tributes go, I have to say I prefer Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe,” which re-set the songbook in thrilling and inventing ways. “Yesterday” just makes me long for that unjustly maligned flop.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for suggestive content and language
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Sanjeev Bhaskar, James Corden
Credits: Directed by Danny Boyle, script by Richard Curtis. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:56