Yesterday: A Film Review

Warning: Spoilers inside.

I went to see Yesterday with my parents while they were visiting, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gone. Not because I didn’t want to watch it – on the contrary, it looked quite interesting in the trailer – but there’s just so much stuff to watch at any given moment, I needed the nudge of seeing it with visitors to convince me to go. I never really thought of it before, but it’s interesting how my mind now categorises what are must-sees on the big screen and the experience of a movie theatre, or what would be best left to when it’s available on stream or Blu-Ray. However, there’s been numerous instances recently when I re-watch movies that I thought were amazing in the cinema, or watch movies at home that everyone has raved about, when I’ve wondered if a lot of the appreciation for a movie at the cinema is actually just the experience of being the ‘ones to see it first’ and not much else. Like being a proud nerd in 1977 lining up to see Star Wars before the rest of the crowd caught on, except now, all these type of movies are hyper-mainstream, and have been planned and plotted by corporations a decade in advance to enhance the fandom of them.

Either way, I digress.

With all the endless Disney remakes and female casted remakes, tokenistic casting, etc, it sadly  feels like there’s not a lot of original content. Which is why I think I’m more likely to have a softer spot for movies that I appreciate for being original in concept, even if they’re less apt at pulling it off in the best way, or living up to their own potential.

Having said this, there’s been a trend toward a more Asian minority-led mainstream films and TV shows around. There’s The Big Sick, which I’m yet to see, Fresh off the Boat, Master of None (which I’ve watched several times over – it’s wonderful), Always Be My Maybe (another yet to see) and of course, Crazy Rich Asians. A few of these have Indian leading men in particular, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a lot. There was a lot of talk a few years ago about Idris Elba being cast as the next James Bond, and how controversial it was. All I could think of was; the debate focused on a dichotomy between white and black – well, how about any other race? Why is it still so controversial, when the conversation completely ignores that there’s even any other options besides Western European features, and African features? And why is it always just a franchise or a remake? Why not just put it on hold for a while and make something entirely new? Why is everyone grabbing for a part that’s been done to death, when there’s no such thing as scarcity when you have literally millions of writers and ideas in the world?

Okay, that was a rant, but anyway. The deciding factor for me to watch Yesterday was the fact that the lead character was played by Himesh Patel, aka Nitin from Damned (which I spoke about in a previous post), a series I really loved. I’d like to watch it again, actually. Patel’s character, like the others in the show, was nuanced and complicated, and most of all; realistic.

In Yesterday, Patel brought a certain empathy to the screen aside from the script. His scowling face and brooding dark brow expressed the immense pain his character was feeling, being torn between the things he’s always wanted, and what he thinks is the ‘right’ thing to do. His live rendition of ‘Help’, culminating in him screaming a plea for someone to help him (get out of the situation he finds himself in) was heart wrenching. The shock and confusion in a lot of scenes was conveyed perfectly by his body language, and it was something I personally connected to, as I felt like I would have reacted/dealt with the situation in a similar way.

However, the script itself at times was clumsy, awkward, and in the case of Ed Sheeran, plain creepy. It wasn’t for lack of acting talent or experience, as the cast featured names such as Sanjeev Bhaskar (of one of the first mainstream Asian-casted shows I knew, The Kumars at No. 42), Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella, Mamma Mia) and Joel Fry (Game of Thrones). But it felt like they were being constrained by a script that wouldn’t let them express the necessary emotion, or at times forced it, contrary to the nature of a scene. So much of the story hinges on the inner struggle between what people want and what is right, that a more loosely scripted performance carried by the talent of the actors involved would have taken what became, essentially, a rom-com, to something much greater.

I don’t know what the deal with Ed Sheeran was; whether it was the role, the script, or just casting him in particular, but I found his screentime rather puzzling and uncomfortable. He had a much more significant role than just a cameo appearance, and was weaved in as quite an important character, as a person who acts as a vehicle for Jack to gain widespread acceptance. The issue was that I couldn’t tell whether we as the audience were supposed to think he knew something was off, or he was jealous or didn’t like Jack, but none of those things would have made sense. Are the writers seriously claiming Ed Sheeran as the modern-day equivalent of the Beatles? (wow), or perhaps Sheeran’s genius can only be toppled by Lennon/McCartney? And even so, the only way an Indian man (equipped with all the unheard Beatles genius in his brain) can gain acceptance is via a leg-up from Ed Sheeran, who trawls the internet scouting for unheard talent? If this is his character in the movie, fine, but why make it specifically him, in particular? My only conclusion is that perhaps it is best that Sheeran is better heard rather than seen, and any attempts to write him into scripts should probably stop at him making cameos on Game of Thrones.

It’s perhaps too late to make a film about the Beatles being the greatest band in the world still, and the anticipated shock that the audience of today should feel had they never existed. And to bring it into the ‘now’ by featuring someone like Ed Sheeran, and trying to pretend he’s on the same scale feels like a hasty rewrite, grabbing at a contemporary pop artist for relevance. B pointed out that it initially felt like it was a fresh interesting film, but in reality, it was another Bend It Like Beckham, and that was released 17 years ago! 

However, in spite of a few clunks and what felt like misdirection for the sake of it, I did enjoy this film. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many movies where you’re supposed to continually guess at what’s really going on from subtle gestures or tone. It’s worth watching, particularly with your parents, for some light entertainment. It was a nice, feel-good movie with a nice premise, just underdeveloped.

Okay, so some final thoughts/questions to get off my chest:

Why was Jack’s only choice to give up fame and fade into obscurity as a teacher with Ellie? She was his manager for 10 years, and then when he actually starts to make it, she decides she doesn’t want to do it anymore and guilt-trips him into deciding between fame & fortune or love? I must say, in a world where we are championing stronger ethnic or gender-diverse roles and casting, I’m most disappointed when poor writing extinguishes a well set-up character for no particular reason. Another nonsensical character is Ellie’s recording studio boyfriend (although I have a soft spot for the actor from Skins), who, at the end, explicitly says he does not mind playing second fiddle when Jack and Ellie decide to finally get together?

Let’s make an unfair comparison; in Master of None, Dev is a first-generation minority actor who wants to make it on his own merits, rather than playing into Hollywood stereotypes, and in the end, does. By the second season, his move to Italy indicates his successes have enabled him to live a lifestyle that can facilitate his creative nature. As a viewer, you appreciate this transition, both on-screen, and in real life, where you feel happy that a talented creative person can succeed, regardless of their ethnicity. In this movie, Jack as a struggling artist, is in the same initial position. By some universal quirk, he is able to attain fame on the realisation that no one remembers the Beatles, but feels guilty about it and repents to tell the truth. How come there’s no redemption or payoff? No interest in hearing his original music, although it seems they respect him after his ‘coming clean’ climax, and everyone seemed to like his personal voice and sound. If he had rewritten all the Beatles’ work but had no talent, or a voice that people didn’t like to listen to, he wouldn’t have made it very far anyway. The fact that he does fade into obscurity, as I mentioned above, doesn’t really make sense. He gave away the music rights, but in a world where they’ve never heard of the Beatles, I’m sure the world was much better off still listening to him (albeit not for profit). I guess they did the ‘success isn’t necessarily what others think it looks like’ angle, but it feels quite frustrating that it’s all or nothing. On that note, I thought it was a nice twist that they revealed John Lennon rather than Paul McCartney, who it seemed they were building towards. 

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them, or your feedback in general!