★★ / ★★★★
For an amusing and original premise in which our main character wakes up in a world where The Beatles did not exist, it is most disappointing that there is barely convincing drama behind “Yesterday,” based on the screenplay by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle. At first glance, the picture is energetic, the actors appear to be having fun with their roles, more than half the jokes land, and the interpretation of classic rock songs and ballads retains the spirit of the originals. But look a little closer and recognize it is a challenge to care for any of the characters—even though (or especially because) we already know its ultimate destination.
The first half is stronger because it is willing to play with an original idea. A singer-songwriter who has failed to garner popularity and financial success in the past decade, Jack (Himesh Patel) has decided to give up on his dream of making a career out of making music. A strange phenomenon occurs during the night of his decision: a worldwide power outage lasting twelve seconds has erased everyone’s memory as well as physical and digital evidence that The Beatles ever existed. Having gotten hit by a bus during the blackout, it appears that Jack is the only person who remembers the legendary band. Desperate to become successful, he tries to remember The Beatles’ songs from memory and pass them off as his own.
This section of the film is very funny because Jack himself is in total disbelief of the impossible thing that had happened. In a way, he expects to get caught at any time because a world without The Beatles feels strange, emptier. Patel portrays Jack as a hardworking musician without a mean bone in his body—appropriate for a feel-good film about someone who gets the opportunity of a lifetime through sheer luck. Patel exhibits good timing when it comes to delivering punchlines, particularly when face-to-face with another who prefers a modern song from a modern band or artist over a classic song by The Fab Four. It is meant to be silly yet at the same time it works as commentary regarding the change of music, and music preferences of the masses, over the course of fifty years. Needless to say, there are plenty of jokes that rely on the viewer knowing particular Beatles songs, perhaps even a bit of background about them.
Far less effective is the love story that rots in the center of it all. Jack and Ellie (Lily James) have been friends since childhood. It is so apparent that they love one another from the moment we meet them… and yet there is no chemistry between them because the screenplay relies on recycling the same old tropes about one not coming to terms with his or her feelings until a significant or life-altering event is knocking on the doorstep. The romance is desperate for fresh ideas—and we wait for it because Patel and James seem game—but they never come. Notice during the second half that nearly every time the two are in a room together, one is required to deliver a would-be tear-jerker speech. I was not moved by a single one. They bored me.
I found myself more interested in Jack’s savage agent named Debra who is played by Kate McKinnon. McKinnon portrays the Debra with a sarcastic and slithery quality, so brazen when it comes telling his client that all he is a product (when she is not insulting his highly ordinary appearance) and she plans to make a lot of money off his success. Debra may be a walking exaggeration, but the character fits the film because the premise, too, is a hyperbole. The final forty-five minutes to an hour ought to have been rewritten with far more ambition and originality. Instead, what results is a film with a curious premise but one that fails to be memorable.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Nowhere Boy,” directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, chronicled John Lennon’s difficult childhood. John (Aaron Johnson) was raised by his aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) and uncle (David Threlfall). Even though he was never close to his aunt because she had a very cold personality, he had a good relationship with his uncle because they shared the same interests. But when his uncle died, John was forced to live with a woman who expected him to abide by her rules without question. After seeing his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) at his uncle’s burial, John began to question where her mother lived, which happened to be within walking distance, and the two got to know each other to make up for the years she’d been absent from his life. This caused great tension between John’s biological mother and the mother who raised him. The film had an interesting second half but a heavy, repetitive first half. The first forty minutes felt like pulling teeth because it shifted from the feelings of frustration and resentment John felt while staying in his aunt’s house to the joy and freedom he felt while spending time with her mother and making music. He saw his aunt as a thorn on his side because she wanted him to stay and school and do well. They barely said a word to each other unless they had no choice but to confront a serious issue. On the other hand, he saw his mother as a gift because she couldn’t care less about his education as long as she spent time with her son. She nurtured his passion for music. The difference between the two households felt so obvious. I had some serious doubts about how much of it was based on actuality. The picture only started to take off when John finally met Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and both began to hone their talents while being in a band called The Quarrymen. Even though their friendship wasn’t as deeply explored as much as I expected, their relationship didn’t feel strained. When the focus was on them, the tone felt more dynamic because the actors fed off each other’s energy. The scenes I found most effective were when the band played their rock ‘n’ roll and their audiences couldn’t help but get on their feet and when John and Paul were just in a room together. But since the film was more about John’s troubled childhood, it had to switch back to the tired family drama. In the end, some big questions I had, such as John’s relationship with his biological father when he was a child, were left unanswered. Why did the five-year-old John choose to stay with his father over his mother? Was John’s biological mother’s illness some sort of a mood disorder and was she a danger to herself? As for John’s aunt and uncle, why did they seem to distant from one another? Those were important questions that should have been answered because John’s relationship with his family fueled his angst and it was what made him an artist with a distinct voice and perspective.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Beatles (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison) was the biggest band in the world and this film was a testament why they deserved the title. “A Hard Day’s Night,” written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester, was a relatively simple film about how it was supposedly like to be The Beatles when they ruled the world. From the opening scene of screaming (and screeching) women causing a stampede at the train station in hopes of touching the legendary figures to the last scene when they flew into the sky, every frame was a delectable homage to Beatlemania and the Fab Four. Each member of the band had their own problems to deal with. McCartney took his grandfather (Wilfred Brambell) along their hectic travels and tried to prevent him from getting into trouble. Starr landed in jail after being inspired to live his life to the fullest. Lennon and a TV director (Victor Spinelli) were caught in a war of passive-aggressiveness because the former wanted to have a bit of fun while the latter wanted to strictly focus on the business at hand. And Harrison was hired by a producer (Kenneth Haigh) for his opinion about what was cool and in fashion. The film could be mistaken for a music video if one happened to pass by in the middle of it. The Beatles performed every ten minutes which was a joy to watch because they were very energetic and each brought a unique charm to the table. The songs were absolutely incredible. I couldn’t help but tap my feet and mouth the words. I am familiar with most of their popular songs, but I noticed a big difference between just hearing their songs and hearing their songs while watching them perform. When they did sing lesser-known numbers, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them all over again. The best scenes consisted of the quadruplet dealing with their fans and the media. Aside from the swooning women who would go through anything to get as close to their idols as possible, I was very amused when the band members answered reporters’ questions about their hair, what they liked to do on their spare time, and what they thought about their stardom. Starr, Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney answered according to their personalities and it was aided by Lester’s unique vision and sometimes manic camera techniques. Furthermore, they weren’t afraid to make fun of themselves. I was surprised that Starr acknowledged his unusually large nose and short stature. These days, most pop stars with far less talent tend to ignore the obvious because they fear career suicide. “A Hard Day’s Night” had the perfect amount of vanity, effortless coolness, unconventional adventures, and timeless rock ‘n’ roll. It was another excellent reason why I wish I grew up in the 1960s.