Some films are cotton candy, others oatmeal, and sometimes they’re somewhere in-between, like a bowl of Wheaties but with strawberries and sugar mixed in, or a salad with just a . . . bit . . . too much salad dressing. Other films are basically a Snickers bar, and you’re not you until you’ve had that really ridiculous stupid film.
Other films are that amazing meal that you had at a restaurant 18 years ago in that city you haven’t gone back to. (I still remember ribs from Harrigan’s around 1990 in Lubbock, Texas; I can taste them on my tongue. There was some ice cream I had in Germany around 2002 that I still can remember.)
And then there’s a Fugu film. What’s a Fugu film? Well, I’m glad you asked, as I just came up with that term like 2 minutes ago as I was typing. A Fugu fish (or Pufferfish) is a Japanese delicacy that is either a treat to eat or a deadly last meal. It all depends on how it’s cut, and you better have a well trained professional doing the preparation, or things could go wrong in a very bad way very quickly.
A Fugu film, at least in terms of how I’m defining it for this blog post, is a film that has either the potential to be really, really great or something less than that. It all depends on how the film is cut . . . or we’ll say edited, shot, written, and so forth. That metaphor helps me to articulate how I feel after having seen the film, Yesterday (2019), directed by Danny Boyle. The film is about a dedicated but consistently unsuccessful guitarist and singer, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Jack has a loyal fan base, but it’s really only one person, his best friend, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), with whom he has something not quite friendship but not quite more.
The film starts with what appears to be the end of Jack’s career that never was. He’s come to the conclusion that he’ll never make it, so it’s time to stop singing and go back to teaching. And then it happens, the McGuffin, the inciting incident, the dues ex machina, the jingle in Groundhog Day (1993), the bedknobs and broomsticks in that film . . . what was it called?, the Capraesque, “Mr. Bailey, this is not Your Life” moment, or let’s say, your Mr. Destiny (1990) moment, where you have that opportunity to knock that baseball out of the park, get the girl of your dreams, and be rich and successful.
For Jack, in Yesterday, that moment comes, when there’s a global electrical blackout that causes him to fall off his bike and bump his head–ah yes, the ol’ bump on the head plot device, somehow cliche but still satisfying, like, well, like a Snickers, I guess.
When Jack comes to, he’s missing two teeth, and almost everyone else on the planet except for him has never heard of The Beatles. (No one’s heard of Coca-Cola, either; Is this a horror film, if there are only Pepsi products?) Jack then lives his life like George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), but only if George was freggin’ awesome, or like Larry Burrows (Jim Belushi) in Mr. Destiny.
In fact, that Mr. Destiny is probably a very good comparison because like like Larry, Jack learns a powerful lesson about choosing and giving up, a lesson G.K. Chesterton once warned his readers about in his book, Orthodoxy: “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else [ . . .] Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion.” Jack has a choice to make between two destinies, and it’s not cafeteria style. It’s all one destiny or the other.
When Jack realizes that the Beatles have retroactively dropped out of existence, he goes to confirm his fear with his most trusted confidant, Ellie. We see Jack in the pouring rain, knocking on Ellie’s door in the middle of the night: “Do you genuinely not know who The Beatles are . . . Then I’m in a really, really, really complicated situation.” Jack has the opportunity to become everything he wanted to be, to be as famous and successful as the Beatles, to be The Beatles, but to do so, he has to engage in an act of “irrevocable selection and exclusion.” Does he want to take the blue pill and stay in Lowestoft, UK with Ellie, his parents, and his friends making his music that no one but Ellie wants to hear, or does he want to take the Red Pill and take a long and winding road to fame, fortune, and idol status? He can’t have both. Jack’s facing the situation that Chesterton warned about in 1908.
That’s a really captivating theme right? I mean, that gives the writers, directors, producers, cinematographer, and actors something to work with, right? Does Jack want to go into “the undiscovered country” or stick with what he knows? What is it that he wants? Well, wait, we’ll get back to that in just a moment.
There’s other themes too that this film flirts with.
- There’s issues of authorship. To what extent is Jack the author of songs that aren’t his but wouldn’t exist without him? Is what he’s doing wrong because he’s taking credit for work that isn’t his? Or, from a utilitarian perspective, is it more important that he put this music out there, so that the rest of the world can enjoy it?
- There’s issues of kairos, which is a Greek word that refers to an opportune moment for a message. For instance, the opportune moment for a song like the Beatles song, “Revolution” is 1968. That is the song for that moment in time. If that song came about–via Jack–50 years later, does it have the same impact? Could it even have the same impact? Would it mean the same thing to people in the same way?
- Connected to this are issues of New Criticism/Formalism versus New Historicism, different analytical lenses through which one can analyze texts. Are the Beatles to be understood as transcendent artists whose genius lyrics would bubble to the surface of pop culture under any context? Or, are they geniuses because of who they were in the moment that they came of age, with what was happening around them? In other words, can Jack even recreate whatever The Beatles were, absent who they were and the socio-political and aesthetic moment they emerged out of?
- Would listeners interpret a song like “Lady Madonna” or “All You Need is Love” differently today than earlier if heard for the first time?
- To the extent that The Beatles helped to define and advance what Rock n’ Roll is, what does their music sound like if it’s first heard about 2019? Does it sound retro, or is there no sound for them to echo, if they weren’t there to define that sound to begin with? (kind of like the grandfather paradox)
- Do people–or texts–have stable identities, in which case Jack either belongs in Lowestoft, UK or in California becoming a superstar? Or are people–and texts–malleable, in which case Jack can be whatever his existentialist heart chooses to be? Is the Beatles music destined to define the world of music whoever plays it, and at whatever time and place it’s revealed, or à la Run Lola Run (1998), is there no recreating that magic moment, no reproducing the phantasmal unique genius creation of the Beatles a half of a century later.
These are some of the thought provoking questions that a film like Yesterday could of explored. And the film did hint at many of these, just barely–sort of like when a fast food restaurant accidentally gives you an onion ring with your french fries, and you’re like, “oh crap, onion rings,” but it’s just that one, and now you’re eating your fries, which are fine and all, but that one onion ring had the effect of making you ruminate on what it would have been like if they had given you 20 onion rings. And so you’re just eating your fries, and thinking, “I could’a had onion rings.”
It’s like that.
“But wait!” you say, “You didn’t order Onion rings.” That’s not the point, is it? The point is that they left me with the taste of something awesome and then just didn’t expand on that.
This film could have been great. It could have been the sort of film that works on many layers simultaneously, like Groundhog Day (1993) or Juno (2007) or The Big Lebowski (1998). It could have been a Snickers, and an onion ring, and a freggin’ Fugu fish. It could have been all those things, and more.
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t those things because the film just flirted with those ideas and then retreated into a very safe and comfortable rom-com, not even a Snickers, more like a 5th Avenue Bar. Good, but not great.
I still recommend watching this film. It’s delightful and funny. There’s some truly wickedly funny scenes, like when Jack first plays “Let it Be” for his parents. Kate McKinnon makes an appearance as music producer Debra Hammer and almost steals the show. The music is, well it’s The Beatles, and it’s fun to listen to. It’s an engaging romantic comedy with some great editing, sound, and cinematography.
But it could have been more. It could have been Fugu, but it wasn’t cut right. This film won’t kill you, but it also won’t be the masterpiece it could have been with a different chef.
- The montage of Jack trying to remember the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby is well done, humorous, and endearing.
- Kate McKinnon’s character both heightens the enjoyment of this film and undercuts it–at least for me. She’s plays the character so well, but the character is so ridiculous that it pulls the tone of the film just a little bit in a direction that I didn’t really want it to go, and that felt different from the way it started.
- The use of superimposed text gave the film a fun feel.
- The use of music throughout the film was just about perfect. It wasn’t so little that you wondered where the songs were, but it wasn’t so much that it displaced the story.
- The ending of the film felt rushed and forced and neither plausible nor satisfying, like when a writer is done writing even if the essay doesn’t know it yet.