Fixing A Hole In an Octopus’s Garden Across the
Universe While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Once again, this will be a 1-review-posting due to time devoted to other fun activities in my life last week including live theatre, a reunion with old friends I haven’t seen for many years, and—best of all—a 29th wedding anniversary celebration with my marvelous wife, Nina Kindblad. Also once again, the film I had a chance to watch was fully worth it so here’s my usual, rambling cinematic-analysis.
Review by Ken Burke
Yesterday (Danny Boyle) rated PG-13
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): A young, down-on-his-luck, aspiring English pop musician finds himself in an extraordinary situation when, after a strange, worldwide power outage, he discovers he’s the only one who remembers The Beatles, with no Internet references to them nor even the existence of their albums remaining. Tentatively, but then with increasing enthusiasm, he begins singing their songs, claiming them as his own, leading first to concert frenzy in Moscow (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”) as an opening act for popular Ed Sheeran (playing himself), then as an Internet sensation, then on the verge of a huge debut-double-album, all the while feeling more guilty about claiming something so fabulous as his own, knowing full well he’s not the author of these songs while also alienating himself from his long-time female friend/manager as his fame grows exponentially, even as he’s seeing himself as a horrible fraud (yet the actual Beatles aren’t in existence in this new reality—or are they?—so he’s not really depriving them of their true recognition—is he?). That’s all I can tell you without getting into spoiler territory, but Yesterday’s widely-available so if you’ve ever been a Beatles fan who’d like to refresh yourself on Beatlemania nostalgia or would just like to get a sense of why their music quickly became so popular in the 1960s I actively encourage you to see this movie, if for no other reason than to ponder the curious-but-challenging question of what would you do if you’re the only one in the world who remembers something significant, then are faced with the dilemma of making a fortune off of this now-unknown-phenomenon even though you know you’re plagiarizing someone else’s superb creations.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a young, likable former schoolteacher living in coastside Lowestoft (Sussex County, England), is desperately trying to make a living as a musician with help from schoolteacher/close-friend/manager (for what little it’s worth in the latter role) Ellie Appleton (Lily James), but even when she books him into a music festival he ends up in a tent with only his few friends and some kids as an audience so he’s disheartened, ready to give up his dreams of a musical career. Things change quickly, though, when a mysterious-global-power-outage (we see headlines in next-day-newspapers speculating it was caused by sunspots) leaves him riding his bicycle in the dark, hit by a bus, taken to a hospital where they have to shave off his beard due to his injuries, including the loss of a couple of front teeth. When he’s recovered, sitting at a café with Ellie and those other friends he wants to play them a beautiful song to celebrate still being alive so he does a nice rendition of “Yesterday,” which floors them (it’s considerably better than anything he’s ever done), even as he can’t convince them it was written years ago by Paul McCartney. Some Internet searches show no evidence of The Beatles or any of the individual members nor does he find their albums in his collection (as the story progresses he realizes there's also no longer Coca-Cola, cigarettes, Harry Potter [or, for that matter, the popular British band Oasis because, apparently, without the previous Beatles influence they never came into existence]). While Jack has no explanation for this strange turn of events he does continue playing other Beatles’ songs as best he can remember them (he really struggles with “Eleanor Rigby”), in hopes these tunes might help his musicianship aspirations, getting him out of his drudgery-job at a Costco-like wholesale warehouse. Sadly for him, it’s not working, as he gets little attention at a local pub; even his parents, Jed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Shelia (Meera Syal) Malik, keep getting distracted when he tries to play “Let It Be” for them. However, he gets the chance to make some decent-enough-recordings with a local producer, Gavin (Alexander Arnold), then Jack’s employer allows him to put "his" songs on the company website, attracting the attention of big-time-musician Ed Sheeran (playing himself; of course I’ve never heard of him, but, then again, he’s likely never heard of me either) who invites Jack to be the opening act on his current tour; Jack asks Ellie to come along, but she feels constrained by her job so he recruits goofball-friend Rocky (Joel Fry) to be his roadie. In Moscow Jack wows the crowd with “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” then tops Ed in a 10-minute-songwriting-challenge with “The Long And Winding Road,” leading to Ed’s despicable, money-grubbing manager, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), commandeering Jack’s career as well.
As Jack continues to impress everyone with more Beatles songs (all of which he’s claimed for his own, not knowing what else to say, especially given the inexplicable circumstances of the Fab Four’s complete disappearance from anyone else’s awareness) he finally gets the revelation from Ellie she’s been in love with him since grade school even though he never realized it; however, that has to be put on hold when he’s off to L.A. where Debra’s set him up for a huge-double-album-debut, One Man Only, intended to showcase him as this uniquely-gifted-songwriter (he’s OK as a singer too, but the quality of the songs is what’s propelling his future at this point), building on a few they’ve already released on YouTube. In hopes of finding more inspiration (or at least remembering more Beatles’ lyrics) he goes to Liverpool (no one else can understand why) where we see an older woman watching him (just as an older man watched him from afar in Moscow), only to be surprised by Ellie showing up at his hotel (how she knew he’d be there, I also have no idea, but there are a lot of unexplained elements in this plot, which you just have to accept if you want to enjoy the larger story [which I did]) where they drink heavily, almost make love, yet Ellie holds back, saying she doesn’t want to be a one-night-stand with Jack jetting back to L.A. He tries again to connect with her the next day as she’s waiting for a train back home; however, she gives him the “career-or-me” ultimatum, so he glumly returns to the U.S. to finish his album. ⇒As anticipation for its release builds to a crescendo (the Internet tunes are wildly popular) he convinces the record company to release it, along with his live performance (at least by now he has a backup band) in another seaside town, Gorleston (in England’s Norfolk County; why there instead of his home town eluded me), where Ellie and his parents attend as he belts out “Help!” from a rooftop, then meets her afterward to find she’s become attached to Gavin; he also gets a visit from those mysterious older folks, Liz (Sarah Lancashire) and Leo (Justin Edwards)—in that she’s English, he’s Russian, I can’t explain how they know each other—who also remember The Beatles, are happy he’s brought their music back to this unaware-world. They also give him an address for a seaside-recluse-artist, who turns out to be John Lennon (Robert Carlyle), willing to talk with troubled Jack, encouraging him to pursue the woman he loves and be honest (as best I can tell, though, this Lennon was never a Beatle) but tells Jack he needs psychological counseling, so it’s great to see John alive but in this reality he’s not part of Jack’s Beatle memories (there’s also a dream sequence earlier where Jack’s on The Late Late Show with James Corden—Corden playing himself—about to be confronted by McCartney and Starr, but, again, they’ve not been Beatles in this reality, as we can only assume).⇐
⇒All of this comes to closure as Jack asks Ed to let him be a guest performer at Ed’s huge Wembley Stadium concert. After a few well-received Beatles songs Jack admits he didn’t write any of them, giving the credits to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr. (Although in this reality, assuming the others, like Lennon, are also alive, they wouldn’t have actually been the songwriters anyway nor would anyone even know who they are, but, again, this is all moving in a nice direction so we don’t want to push plausibility too hard here, do we?) This admission initially draws some negative response from the crowd, with Jack bringing them back on his side again by saying Rocky’s just now uploading all those Beatles songs for free Internet access (which practically causes Debra to have a stroke), followed by activating a camera in his dressing room where he’d previously been talking with Ellie, asking her to wait there while he performed, finally admitting as she’s on screen for the crowd he loves her, asking for her forgiveness which she gives when they meet up backstage (with clear visual clues Gavin will connect with Ellie’s roommate [sorry, didn’t catch her name]). Then we travel a few years into the future where Jack’s singing “Ob-La-De, Ob-La-Da” with the kids at Ellie’s school (Maybe he’s working there again as well?) intercut with shots showing they’re married, have 2 kids, are wonderfully happy, even if Jack’s no longer a rock star.⇐
So What? In response to the plethora of partisan politics on our airwaves recently (always there at some level but especially thick now with the Democratic-Presidential-contenders debating each other to death while actual Pres. Trump [an excellent contender in his own right … to be a 1-termer, I can fervently hope] parades himself and daughter Ivanka into insubstantial-photo-op-showcases during his recent Asian foray), I’ll begin this section of the review with a completely-partisan-comparison of my own in response to our upcoming “Must-See TV” (?). For those who watch broadcast aspects of the U.S.A.’s Independence Day celebration from Washington D.C. this July 4 you’ll see not only the intrusive displays of military hardware (echoing in wannabe-dictator-fashion Trump’s fascination with such chest-pounding-rollouts in Russia, China, and North Korea [in fairness, though, he seemed most influenced by the Bastille Day parade in Paris he directly witnessed]) but also the intrusive-inclusion of a speech from Agent Orange (I’ll be shocked if it’s more about the rich heritage of our country in general than the supposed “accomplishments” of the current administration), delivered from the Lincoln Memorial. Whatever Trump might say that day will just remind me of words from the Great Emancipator himself, especially the line about how “you cannot fool all the people all the time,” serving as a rebuke to Trump’s attempts to categorize anything not supportive of him as “fake news” as well as a summation of how many film critics have disparaged Yesterday, which has garnered a mediocre 61% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a similarly-dismissive 55% average score at Metacritic. This article in Variety lumps our current-review-subject in with Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher; review in our June 6, 2019 posting*) as flops failing to do proper justice to the musical titans they reference (directly, in the Elton John fantasized-biopic; indirectly, in Yesterday as we encounter only the original songs, not the original musicians).
*In that review I noted my local critical-guru, Mick LaSalle (of the San Francisco Chronicle), as extremely negative about Rocketman despite its embrace by the CCAL (Collective Critics At Large—my term), with 91% positive RT reviews, a 70% MC average score, as well as 4 stars from me (I enjoyed its surrealistic, marginally-historical structure, just as I enjoyed the marvelous visuals throughout Yesterday); this time Mick's effusive about Yesterday [like me], giving it his next-to-highest-rating, while the CCAL crowd morphed into their other persona, the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe), so, as is often the case, Mick and I run in parallel paths often swinging wildly away from each other before returning to harmonious-proximity. I’ll also note LaSalle revealed in another article how much of a fan he is of Elton John, essentially admitting Rocketman didn’t do justice to his 1970s memories of this “Madman Across the Water”; I get the sense Owen Gleiberman in that Variety column was expressing a similar sense of personal disappointment toward both these films.
You won’t find much universal acclaim for the actors-as-singers in these films, either, with both Taron Egerton as Elton and Patel channeling The Beatles frequently dismissed as not having the vocal chops to do proper justice to the time-honored-songs they’re recreating; along those lines, Sam Adams in Slate makes the case that Yesterday assumes the enduring power of The Beatles’ catalogue so their songs would be instantly-embraced by a contemporary audience, finding their pop-music-approach easily-magical for 2019 fans rather than as the historical/cultural icons they represent from the 1960s, that these songs would still be voraciously-consumed today as new even when delivered by Jack Malik/Himesh Patel whereas Adams argues such music needs the stylings of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr to put them over as instant classics in the same manner such acclaim actually happened half-a-century ago. (Adams has a reasonable point here in that I remember how dynamically-wonderful something as simple in concept as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sounded on my little AM radio in 1964, a notable break from anything prior in American pop music to that point, so just like with the artistry of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, etc. the vocalizations by the actual Beatles form the complete experience of their songs so that no matter how poetic the lyrics are in themselves, no matter how well-sung these tunes might be by other talented vocalists there’s something more whole in the gestalt of these original recordings even Paul McCartney on his own isn’t able to fully capture now—so, at best, we just have to buy the film’s conceit: the acceptable-but-not-impactful-renditions of these Beatles songs by Malik would be so celebrated, even though Adams doesn’t agree). An even-more-crucial-consideration about Yesterday is the moral-propriety of Jack passing these classic tunes off as his own. Ben Lindbergh in The Ringer explores the ethical-considerations of this crucial aspect of the plot from an extensive, serious philosophical perspective (bringing in commentary from respected philosophers exploring Jack’s dubious-actions from the various perspectives of consequentialism/ utilitarianism [Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill], deontology [Immanuel Kant], and value ethics [which gets us into intellectual property arguments of Georg Hegel and John Locke], with some of these current academicians offering arguments about what Jack should have done in accordance with their interpretations of various ethical/moral traditions, a key question being what harm’s being done to the original Beatles if they're nonexistent now?) Jack certainly suffers enough personal quandary about allowing all this hit music to be understood as his inspiration, trying to find some balance between sharing the joy these “new” tunes bring to the masses with his guilt (and personal sense of loss) over the fame, adulation, material success he’s seen through these songs’ popularity.
Deep philosophical considerations or arguments about nostalgia-success-as-aesthetic-criteria aside, though, I feel an obligation to both you and myself to state some explanations for my own highly-positive-response to Yesterday which certainly puts me way out of line from the evaluations of the CCAL (remember them?), just like I failed to be as impressed by this same collective’s (generically speaking, of course; it wouldn’t be specifically all the same critics cited each time) swooning for The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg; review in our June 12, 2019 posting), one of the highest-rated-films of 2019 so far (RT 90%, MC a surprisingly-higher 92%), when I could rustle up only 2½ stars for it. What worked for me concerning Yesterday is how I found the best motivations of Jack Malik in reintroducing The Beatles’ songs to the world (what he was commended for by those 2 strangers), just sharing the decades of joy those tunes have given to humanity (for Jack, something he somehow grew up with [I can’t imagine all parents were Beatles fans, mine certainly weren’t, although my Dad tried to understand my fascination with this crazy music—he, like my marvelous wife, Nina, was more of a Frank Sinatra fan, although Nina also loved The Beatles, even saw them deplane in San Francisco in 1964, still has some “petrified” jelly beans thrown, stepped on then—so he surprised me one day with an album; sadly for me, it was actually by The Buggs, a New Jersey “bandwagon” group—including Gary “Dreamweaver” Wright—giving delirious—or confused—audiences The Beetle Beat in 1964; I never told him the truth, just appreciated his intent]; for me, an essential part of my teenage-to-young-adult-years). To fully accept Yesterday you have to just flow along with its Twilight Zone-attitude because even if sunspots could cause such a global power failure why would this blackout change the existence of anything—much less The Beatles’ career—yet leave a privileged few with memories of a now-erased-timeline? Once you accept that fantasy-premise then you don’t have to ponder song/singer-concerns as with Sam Adams above (or, if you want to, you might benefit by drinking a couple of Samuel Adams beers while you mull over what he’s saying), you can just partake of the same reverie Jack’s enjoying in remembering these songs, then share with him the discordant sense of betrayal he struggles with in maintaining the ruse he alone’s responsible for this sudden burst of creativity. You can partake in either personal or mediated memories of how enthusiastically audiences (live, radio, turntable) embraced each new release back in the ‘60s, understand Jack getting caught up in his own version of “Beatlemania” when fame runs him ragged, ⇒hold your heart in check when he visits elderly John Lennon, even if this reclusive visual artist isn’t really sure what this emotionally-fraught-young-man’s talking about, with Lennon now just a guy in the countryside ironically visited by the world’s newfound rock star.⇐
Bottom Line Final Comments: For me—whatever the questions—it all works. For audiences, Yesterday seems to also work reasonably well, generating a worldwide gross on its debut weekend of $26.8 million ($19 million of that in the domestic [U.S.-Canada] market) which goes a long way toward answering its production budget of $26 million (plus at least half of that or more for marketing costs), although that total at #3 (in 2,603 theaters) for last week fell far short of Toy Story 4’s (Josh Cooley; review in our June 26, 2019 posting*) $59.7 million as the weekend’s #1 (up to $509.6 million worldwide, $246.6 million of it domestically). Maybe there might have been more for Yesterday if the critical response (except in what might be isolated spots, such as San Francisco) had been more supportive, if Beatle songs really would be that attractive to a younger (more-active-moviegoing) audience (our theater was pretty full, but as with Rocketman when we saw it, tending toward patronage more in our age range than notably younger), or if Toy Story 4 weren’t still filling all those seats so consistently. Whether Yesterday can survive the ongoing Toy … onslaught plus the post-Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 1, 2019 posting)-debut of Spider-Man: Far From Home (Jon Watts) remains to be seen, but I consider myself fortunate—just as when I saw Paul McCartney put on a spectacular show at the weekend Desert Trip concerts in fall of 2016—to have seen Yesterday, even though it was Patel singing except for the actual Beatles’ version of “Hey Jude” under the credits (as lengthy as those things are these days, you need a song that long to accompany them), just because I think Danny Boyle and all those associated with this mesmerizing film have done just what Jack Malik was attempting: to remind those of us who haven’t forgotten along with all the millions more who may not have ever (or just barely) heard of The Beatles (I get lots of anecdotal testimony from grandparents my age their youngsters often are totally unaware of such “ancient” music—you might as well be talking about Bach or Beethoven in your random cataloguing) how extraordinary their relatively-short-time in the spotlight was (by comparison, another Nina favorite, Tony Bennett’s, still going strong since 1951), yet just how impactful, influential, eternal their presence was/is/hopefully will continue to be.
*Nina and I finally worked in a video re-watch of Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010), still the best of the franchise for me, still a serious consideration for 4½ stars if I’d ever review it, gave us incentive to schedule seeing … 4 again on the 4th before Spider-Man ... swings onto our agenda this weekend.
To follow through on that as I wrap up this review with my usual tactic of a retrospective Musical Metaphor to reflect on what’s gone before in the commentary, I’ll leave you with a mini-wealth of Beatles music (not nearly as much as is used in Yesterday, although the vast majority of it there is sung by Patel, often with just guitar-self-accompaniment rather than the fuller sound of additional guitar, bass, drums, and vocal harmony) presented from the premise of what I think absolutely needs to be preserved if somehow much of their catalogue suddenly became unavailable through some mysterious circumstances, such as presented in this fantasy-driven-story. Fortunately for the world in Yesterday Jack was able to strain his memory, finally getting back what he had only himself to rely on, as illustrated by how long it took him to recover all the proper lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” (although as his 2 fellow-rememberers noted, he completely twisted up the order of “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” [which we don’t hear here], just as he was led astray by Ed Sheeran to change words in “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude” [see, these Beatles songs aren’t as completely embraced by a contemporary audience as the film as a whole wants us to easily believe]). Yet, if I somehow knew The Beatles’ entire catalogue was about to evaporate—as with all those suddenly-gone-folks in Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 3, 2018 posting)—(as well as the 4 actual not-yet-understood-as-famous-musicians Liverpool guys not even knowing themselves as The Beatles, so they couldn’t just recreate their former existence), what would I want to preserve, especially as a non-musician myself (despite some “noble” attempts with vocals, harmonica, tambourine, and bongos in the company of true guitarists back in college)? If I could retain just one album (despite how difficult it would be to lose Revolver  or Abbey Road ) it would have to be the marvelous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)—another one of those astounding-radio-revelations when I heard it straight through before it was available for purchase— available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtXl8xAPAtA&list=PL3PhWT10BW3VDM5IcVodrdU pVIhU8f7Z- (each cut flows into the next as a series of interconnected videos, but you’ll have to endure/skip the ads that intrude; note that following the lengthy piano chord fadeout at the end of “A Day In The Life” is a short bit of gibberish included on the British release of the album but not on the American one); if I were forced to choose just one song of theirs, it would have to be “A Day …” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usNsCeOV4GM (the album’s audio linked to footage from the recording sessions [including those massive orchestral interludes], plus other random imagery).
If I could sneak in just a little more of the Beatles' treasures for posterity it would include a live (1963) performance of "She Loves You" to show their stage energy from the early days (song’s on the U.S. 1964 The Beatles’ Second Album, clustering various singles previously released in the U.K. [also on several later compilation albums]), followed by "Don't Let Me Down" from the Let It Be documentary (Michael Lindsey-Hogg, 1970; guest keyboardist Billy Preston) but dropped from the (considerably augmented by producer Phil Spector) soundtrack album (revived for the 2003 stripped-down, closer-to-original-intentions Let It Be … Naked album, championed by Paul McCartney), their last public performance, spontaneously set up on a London rooftop above their recording studio. Well, that’s enough rambling, especially on just one film, for this episode, but Two Guys in the Dark hope to see you back again next time we're posting (and for many more after that).
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Here’s more information about Yesterday:
https://www.yesterdaymovie.com/ (click the 3-bar icon in the upper left corner for more options within this site; also, follow the little “click” icon to add some graphics to this page)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMT4qyhLyMQ (30:48 interview with director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Richard Curtis, and actor Himesh Patel [begins with the above trailer]; if for no other reason you should watch this to see the host’s shoes)
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,
https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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