Fixing a Hole (in History)
We have, in the past, occasionally discussed some of the more unusual and esoteric aspects of film production, not least what all the money actually gets spent on. One envisages a sort of pie chart, with various slices set aside for the actors, director, scriptwriters, costume department, and so on. Of course, occasionally a film comes along where one slice of pie is disproportionately large, compared to all the others – occasionally a small and unassuming film pays big bucks for a major star, for instance, or you get a big special effects-driven film where two-thirds of the budget goes on the CGI. Danny Boyle's Yesterday must have a fairly unique sort of pie, as a good 40% of the budget went on negotiating music clearances. This sounds wildly extravagant until you learn what the film is about, at which point it becomes clear why they stumped up all the money – without the uncanny potency of cheap music (or not so cheap, in this case), this film wouldn't be being made.
Himesh Patel plays Jack, an aspiring singer-songwriter who is slowly starting to realise that he just hasn't got what it takes to become successful as an artist. Pretty much the only thing that keeps him gigging is the unconditional support and belief of his friend Ellie (Lily James), with whom he has a close but entirely platonic relationship (shush now, I know, but let's not get ahead of ourselves).
Then, cycling home one night after deciding to pack it all in, Jack falls off his bike during a brief global blackout. He awakes sans beard and a couple of teeth, but fairly soon discovers that something rather odd has happened: he seems to be the only person in the world with any memory of the Beatles or their music. He very rapidly realises that suddenly having unique and (apparently) exclusive access to a priceless stash of some of the most perfect pop songs ever written is a boon to a struggling musician like him, and is soon frantically trying to remember the lyrics to Let It Be and I Want to Hold Your Hand so he can pass them off as his own work.
Pretty soon the music industry comes calling, and he is summoned off to Los Angeles by his demonic new manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), accompanied only by his idiot roadie Rocky (Joel Fry). It seems like his success is forcing him apart from Ellie and whatever deeper feelings they may secretly have for each other. But is it really ethical to keep ripping off the Beatles and taking all the credit? And shouldn't he be taking a moment to consider The Important Things in Life?
Yesterday represents a coming together of two of the great powers of what passes for the British film industry: it is directed by Danny Boyle, whom even I will happily concede has made some really great films in the past, and written by Richard Curtis, who has been a huge figure in British cultural life for decades now. Given their involvement and the strength of the premise (it is intriguing, to say the least), you could be forgiven for expecting this to be one of the more substantial films of the summer.
Folks, it ain't. This is as lightweight and disposable as low-sugar candyfloss, to the point where the film's refusal to engage with its own ideas becomes actively irritating. What it basically is, is another outing for that well-worn fable about a young man whose head is turned by the prospect of material success, but must make the choice between that and The Important Things in Life – in this case, true love and personal integrity. Bolted onto this are various scenes that feel like comedy sketches of rather variable quality.
It feels rather odd that they have spent $10 million on rights clearances for Beatles songs, when the Beatles themselves feel rather peripheral to the movie. There's a sense, surely, in which the whole point of this kind of film is to make you realise just how massively significant and important the band were and remain; the hole left by their absence is a memorial to their contribution to society and culture. Except, not here: the Beatles vanish from history and yet the world spins on almost entirely unchanged. Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Coldplay are still there, unchanged; society has not been affected at all. The film almost seems to be suggesting the Beatles have no substantive legacy whatsoever (I should still mention that one of Yesterday's best jokes is that the only other band who seem to have vanished in the Beatles-free universe is Oasis).
And what's going on here, anyway? What has changed, and why? (It's not just the Beatles that have disappeared.) How come the Beatles apparently never got together? Why is Jack (apparently) unique in remembering a world with all their songs in it? Would the Beatles' songs still be successful if they were released today as 'new' music? There is potential here for a rather different and probably much more interesting film about the alt-hist of the new universe Jack seems to have tumbled into (he appears to have a weird form of reverse amnesia, remembering things that never actually happened), and there is one eerie sequence in particular with an uncredited Robert Carlyle which sort of touches on this without ever really properly exploring it. I was really left wanting more, for the film to explore its premise in a more systematic way, but it doesn't come close to truly delivering on this. It's just a facilitator for a hackneyed rom-com plot and some comedy sketches.
Still, it is at least played with gusto and sincerity by most of the cast, even if none of them looks set to get the kind of career boost from it that actors have enjoyed from previous Boyle or Curtis productions. Perhaps this is because neither man seems to have been willing or able to really set his stamp on it – it's not as stylistically distinctive as the best Danny Boyle films, nor does it have the humour or heart of Curtis' best scripts. That said, Kate McKinnon works her usual off-the-leash comic sorcery and the film lifts whenever she's on screen – I fear I must report that the movie also features a James Corden cameo and a fairly extensive supporting role for Ed Sheeran (Sheeran seems to be one of those people who's unconvincing as an actor even when he's playing himself).
By far the best moments of Yesterday come when the film-makers relax and just let the songs speak for themselves without attempting to do anything too clever or iconoclastic with them. The whole point of the film should really be about what an awful place the world would be without great music and great art, and how we shouldn't take these things for granted. It's a point that it never properly manages to make, but the music itself is lovely enough to remind you of that fact. The music of the Beatles is timeless and beautiful; Yesterday never quite manages to do it justice, but it's a pleasant enough film even if it's inevitably a bit of a disappointment given its pedigree.
Also This Week...
...our fourth Marvel superhero movie in five months arrives in the form of Jon Watts' Spider-Man: Far From Home – I will not trouble you with the vowel-heavy exclamation this news drew from Ye Post Editor. Actually, he might enjoy the new film's rather cynical jokes at the expense of the ubiquity of superheroes nowadays, not to mention some sly comments on how ridiculous their plots are tending to become, but this stuff is mostly to be found in the second half of the story.
To get to it you have to negotiate a rather wobbly opening in which the film has to make some sense out of the rather confused state of the Marvel movie universe following the end of Avengers: Endgame, but once Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and his school-mates set off on their school trip around Europe it picks up considerably. It turns out elemental beings from another universe are about to attack Earth, and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) wants Spidey to partner up with enigmatic new superhero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to sort them out. The film obviously looks great and is consistently amusing; its main pluses are a fine performance from Gyllenhaal and a clever plot (even if it is rather easy to guess some of the twists and turns along the way). Not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever, but solidly entertaining stuff.
...cinema's most unpredictable series, Apollo, returns. Following the slick disaster movie (1995's Apollo 13) and the inventive found-footage horror film (2011's Apollo 18), this latest offering, Apollo 11, opts for yet another new genre by being a prequel documentary. It's all to do with two guys named Neil and Buzz going somewhere in a rocket fifty years ago; I believe Bryan Adams wrote a song about it, but I may be getting confused.
Of course, everyone should be educated about the Apollo project, as befits the greatest achievement in human history – for those of us who already know the story, the film is still mesmerising to watch as it is almost entirely composed of contemporary footage, most of it hardly ever seen before. No voice-over, no interviews, minimal graphics and music, just beautiful, fascinating pictures of the first time we went to the Moon. Where did they find this stuff? It doesn't really matter, the film is still deeply impressive in all sorts of ways.