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MRQE Top Critic

The Sweet Hereafter

(review...)

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Yesterday is an amiable and off-beat tale about music and the power of love, but it misses some of the high notes.

A Hard Day’s Night

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel)
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel)

It’s a goofy premise and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) knows it.

There’s a 12-second global blackout and at that exact same time, a down-on-his-luck musician named Jack gets struck by a bus while biking home. When he comes to, he’s banged up and missing a couple teeth. And the Beatles never, ever existed. But the wannabe rock star — who quit the music business moments before his fateful accident — knows all the lyrics to all their songs. Those classic masterpieces of rock are reborn, as is his career.

Take it for what you will. A light-hearted tribute to the Beatles. A genial romantic tale. Or, more seriously, take it as a look at modern pop culture and a lamentation about how a band like the Beatles couldn’t happen in today’s society of cultural zombies, attention-strained audiences who prefer the familiar and world of perpetual, incessant interruptions.

The Beatles took risks. Lots of creative risks, any one of them with the potential to alienate their robust audience of hysterical screaming teenage girls, rock ‘n’ roll buffs and all sorts in between.

They have a huge catalog of great “traditional” rock standards, like Here Comes the Sun, Come Together, Helter Skelter and Get Back. But think about the relative sonic zaniness of A Day in the Life and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; the lyrical looniness of I Am the Walrus, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Yellow Submarine; the political playfulness of Taxman; all of the above in Happiness Is a Warm Gun. And there’s the fantastic shoo-be-doo-op stripped-down mix Revolution 1; same lyrics, completely different tone for the grand rocker. The Beatles were every bit a product of the tumultuous ’60s and they were an experiment machine long before the advent of AI.

No other band since even attempts to demonstrate the genre-defying range they showed – U2 being a notable exception as they broke their own mold with a string of diverse releases (Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop) after outgrowing their heart-on-the-sleeve earnestness of The Joshua Tree. Maybe Prince and early-years Elton John could be thrown into the discussion, but they’re primarily solo artists. Most musicians stick to a formula and never, ever waver from a particular sound. Getting a group of four to diversify and embark on a musical journey? The Beatles truly earned the moniker “Fab Four.”

Magical Mystery Tour

The story is the kind of unapologetic kooky that doesn’t attempt to seek out any rational explanations. It’s a world without the Beatles (even Jack’s personal collection of Beatles vinyl LPs have disappeared) and — by extension — the Beatles’ alleged second coming, Oasis, never happened. The Rolling Stones, Radiohead, Childish Gambino and Coldplay are still legit but, on the flip side, there’s no such thing as Coca-Cola (only Pepsi), cigarettes don’t exist and Harry Potter never made it to Hogwarts.

That lost-soul musician is Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, an EastEnders regular making his feature debut). Jack works in a wholesale warehouse and he’s been dubbed, unflatteringly, as the Singing Wholesaler. Jack’s music manager, Ellie (Lily James, Cinderella), is his perpetual cheerleader as she tries to persuade him that “next time” they’ll need a bigger tent — those words of encouragement coming immediately after playing to a nearly empty field at a major music festival. Jack’s signature composition, Summer Song, is a pleasant ditty that plays largely to yawns. But, maybe Ellie has some ulterior motives. Maybe she kinda loves the guy.

So there it is. A world without the Beatles mashed up with a romantic entanglement in which Ellie pushes Jack away from his erstwhile day job as a teacher — a move which would drain him of all his creative energy. From there, Jack enters the maddening world of corporate music where everything — image, sound, messaging — is carefully orchestrated and survey driven.

Help!

Some of the concept’s impact gets buried under the movie’s own sense of cleverness. As Jack starts out with his newfound treasure trove of music gold, he tries to play Let It Be for his parents, at the piano in their living room. There’s one distraction after another. A neighbor stops by for a visit. The neighbor gets a phone call. The father’s distracted. Jack tries to start the song three different times. Getting their focused attention is nigh impossible.

Okay. Good joke once. Maybe twice. But this theme of constant discord itself becomes a nuisance to the storyline. After a while, it’s downright annoying that Jack seemingly can’t hold a single conversation in full, without being cut off or otherwise intruded upon by any number of factors. Even an attempt at a romantic kindling gets washed out by a jerky friend’s need for some crisps.

The movie should’ve focused more on the much more complicated and interesting premise the Beatles’ creativity wouldn’t be able to flourish today.

To that end, the very real Ed Sheeran plays himself and serves as Jack’s Number One fan and mentor. In terms of acting, Ed’s got some work to do and he shouldn’t quit his day job. But it is fun watching the dynamic of a real singing sensation (a one-man show just like Jack’s being positioned) wrestle with the creative genius of the Beatles. Hey Jude? Ed recommends changing the lyric to “Hey, dude.”

Rubber Soul

Jack and Ellie (Lily James)
Jack and Ellie (Lily James)

Yesterday continues to dance around that underlying premise while Jack attempts to adjust his image and collaborate with a narcissistic manager, Debra (Kate McKinnon, 2016’s Ghostbusters), who has no internal editor as she spits out one venomous quip, comment or retort after another.

And Jack has to contend with where society has “advanced.” He can’t release something called “The White Album.” That has glaring diversity issues. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Too many words, and too confusing. Abbey Road? It’s just a road. Why name an album after it?

But what’s missing is a more overt appreciation of the creative genius and guts it took for the Beatles to do what they did. They didn’t operate in a vacuum and they doubtless had pressures to not do many of the things they did. Controversy — and a certain degree of notoriety — can help the marketing machine just as much as it might hinder it. (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, anyone?) The real question of value here is how much society’s cultural gentrification — for lack of a better term — has actually curbed creativity and freedom of expression as artists work more from a place of fear than pure expression?

Maybe part of the problem is Yesterday focuses on Jack as a solo artist, a move ultimately driven by the movie’s very own conceit. That alone forces an emphasis on some of the less daring staples from the Beatles catalog rather than going into the more radical aspects of their music.

Nonetheless, Boyle keeps things lively and playful. For every glaring misstep (a remarkably mishandled romantic episode at a train station is worth a smack to the forehead) there’s a scene of contagious elation (Ellie and Jack as they dance in the street when things finally start to move in their favor). And Boyle throws in plenty of visual flare, including another running gag in which visitors to Jack’s house have their face obscured in a glass mosaic — including Ed Sheeran.

Ultimately, Yesterday pulls out an unexpected encounter toward the end. There’s a conversation circling the questions of what it means to be happy and what it takes to get there. “Tell the truth, when you can” and “find a good woman to love” are overly simplistic answers. But, in this one case, it’s not so much the message as the messenger that causes a pause for thought.