Sunday 4 August 2019

Yesterday by Curtis and Barth

Yesterday is a romantic comedy with a fantasy element. Jack (Himesh Patel) is a struggling young musician who has an accident and is knocked unconscious at the same moment a kind of cosmic time slip takes place.

He wakes up in a world where no one remembers the Beatles or their music. When he eventually becomes certain that this is actually the case Jack does the inevitable —  he begins to reconstruct their songs and pass them off as his own.

This is an oddball premise if ever there was one, and I can't say I found it immediately irresistible. But then I learned that the film was scripted by Richard Curtis, one of the finest British screenwriters, responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually.

What's more, Yesterday is directed by Danny Boyle, a film maker I admire. He made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, but for my money his best movie is the masterful Steve Jobs.

So I went to see Yesterday and I was captivated. Himesh Patel is excellent, as is Lily James (Fast Girls, Baby Driver) in the role of his manager and love interest Ellie and the ever reliable Kate McKinnon giving a savagely funny portrait of the big American agent who scoops Jack up.

But the most striking aspect of this movie is the music. I'm not the biggest Beatles fan, but the power and attraction of these songs is stunning, especially when they're just being strummed by Jack on his guitar or picked out by him on a piano. 

This is where the central conceit of the film really pays off. The audience believes that the potency of this music, even pilfered and secondhand, is enough to raise Jack to superstardom in a world that never heard these tunes before.

There is an hilarious and excruciatingly and deadly accurate depiction of a local talk show early in the movie, where Jack and 'his' songs are exposed to a TV audience. This leads to Ed Sheeran  — playing himself — looking Jack up.

Sheeran is terrific and there's a really moving scene where he challenges Jack to a songwriting contest — who can come up with the best one in ten minutes. Jack dusts off 'The Long and Winding Road', and Sheeran is utterly crushed.

"You're Mozart and I'm Salieri," he says. And naturally Jack doesn't feel great about this. Because none of these songs are really his.

Of course, the fact that Jack is living a lie is the dramatic heart of the movie. And I have my reservations about how Richard Curtis resolves the situation. But that's a small criticism of an excellent film.

The more interesting question is the one of authorship, in which the reality of the film somewhat mirrors its story.

Because Richard Curtis didn't create the idea for Yesterday. It was originally a script by Jack Barth. Curtis heard about it, loved the concept, and asked not to be told any more details. Without reading Barth's script, he sat down and wrote his own version.

This was a very interesting approach. Indeed, Curtis's techniques as a screenwriter are fascinating and instructive. You can learn more about them in a fascinating two-part interview here.

However, the really interesting thing for me was how Curtis never actually mentions Barth's name in the interview, although he's entirely open as to how the film came about.

In fairness, Jack Barth does get a decent screen credit in the finished movie — although I would rather it appeared at the beginning than the end of the picture.

But an even more intriguing question of authorship involves Jack Barth and Jean-Philippe, a 2006 French film written by Laurent Tuel and Christophe Turpin.

It tells the story of a fan of French singer Johnny Hallyday who falls into a coma and wakes up in a world where no one has ever heard of him.*

Of course, almost no one outside of France has heard of Johnny Hallyday...
Naturally none of this should interfere with your enjoyment of Yesterday, a perfectly crafted summer feel good film. 

And one which will make even die-hard Rolling Stones fans (like me) reconsider the importance of The Beatles.

(*My thanks to the film critic Philip Kemp for drawing attention to this in his review of Yesterday in the July 2019 Sight & Sound magazine.)

(Image credits: The four film posters are from Imp Awards. The photo of the three stars at the premiere is from Reuters. The photo of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis is from the Hollywood Reporter. The Jean-Philippe poster is from IMDB. The purple-background photo of Jack performing is from the Sun Daily. The shot of him singing in a purple suit is from YouTube via NME.)

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