While most of the world fell in love with The Beatles during their emergence in the early sixties, communist controlled countries like Poland viewed the band’s music as anarchic and a corrupt influence on the country’s youth. That is certainly the situation as presented in the 1985 film Yesterday, written and directed by Polish director Radoslaw Piwowarski, which focuses on four high school students who bond over their love of The Beatles, create their own band and defy school authorities and parents over their appearance (long hair) and behavior.
Framed with an opening and closing scene filmed in black and white that features Pawel (Piotr Siwkiewicz), the group’s drummer, as an older man looking back at his life, Yesterday reverts to color as it depicts a crucial period in Pawel’s life – the summer of 1965. It might be the dawn of the swinging sixties in London and Liverpool but you would never know it from the economically depressed rural village depicted in Piwowarski’s movie. Ivan and his friends encounter sexist attitudes, religious hypocrisy, disapproving parents and communist regime repression at every turn. Music is their only escape and at first it proves to be liberating.
The central figure in this decidedly different coming-of-age drama is Pawel, who is called Ringo by his friends since he is the drummer for his Beatles-inspired quartet The Crazy Lads. Ivan lives with his disapproving aunt Ciotka (Krystyna Feldman) and is so poor that he can’t afford a proper drum set and has to improvise using the family wash basin or use his drum sticks on anything that can produce percussive sounds. His obsession with Beatles music also compels him to stay up late trying to find pirate radio stations or top forty broadcasts from the free world.
Unfortunately, Ivan’s final year at school eventually becomes an emotional ordeal that hastens the end of his youth and jolts him into adulthood. Unlike the ecstatic upbeat pop of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “She Loves You” (which are heard on the soundtrack), the tone of the movie begins to mirror the somber lyrics of the Lennon-McCartney hit “Yesterday” as Ivan’s youthful idealism is slowly crushed: “Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be, There’s a shadow hanging over me, Oh, yesterday came suddenly.”
Piwowarski’s film, which might be autobiographical, emphasizes the massive generation gap breakdown between the town adults and the main teenage protagonists during a pivotal point in Poland’s history. It also critiques male behavior and sexist attitudes by introducing a subplot that involves the poor treatment of Ania (Anna Kazmierczak), the girlfriend of the Crazy Lads’ guitarist (Andrzej Zielinski), who is nicknamed John after The Beatles’ John Lennon. After Ania and John are discovered making love by the school P.E. teacher Biegacz (Krzysztof Majchrzak), they are threatened with exposure. John breaks up with Ania for fear of being expelled from school while Ania is forced to leave home by her father. She is soon taken in by Pawel and his aunt but her reputation as a loose woman precedes her and creates problems for the trio.
Even though a romance blooms between Pawel and Ania, it quickly unravels when the drunken Biegacz tries to put the moves on Ania. In one of the odder scenes in the film, the P.E. teacher threatens to have the four band members expelled from school for playing forbidden music unless Ania performs 20 push-ups in her underwear. She fails miserably at the task so Biegacz jumps down on the floor to demonstrate his athletic prowess. The result? He is too exhausted to have sex and Ania flees his home but the damage is done. Pawel was watching from outside.
Yesterday goes dark several times despite the deceptively nostalgic tone established at the beginning and one of the more disturbing incidents occurs when John is seriously injured by an electrical wiring short while playing guitar. We later see him in a state of paralysis at the hospital with blue-purple discoloration around his mouth caused from the high voltage. Not to worry. He recovers but Pawel is the next to suffer. He has a mental breakdown culminating in an unsuccessful suicide attempt and then a stint in a mental institution. Yet, it somehow ends well with Pawel being released from the asylum. He is allowed to finish his exams and graduate from school and even marries Ania.
[Spoiler alert] Then there is a final twist. The closing scene of Yesterday, which is set in the present, shows Pawel as a world-weary adult watching his young daughter roller skate around the halls of an office building where Pawel is waiting for his divorce from Ania to become final. Cue the wistful tune of “Yesterday” and the movie fades out on a somber note.
Yesterday was well received by film critics and audiences and garnered accolades at various movie events such as the Istanbul International Film Festival, the Polish Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and the San Sebastian International Film Festival where director Radoslaw Piwowarski and actor Piotr Siwkiewicz (as Pawel) won awards.
Certainly Yesterday offers an intriguing look at Beatlemania infiltrating an authoritarian regime but it is not a perfect film. Anna Kazmierczak looks too old and experienced to be playing a teenager despite her excellent performance (she was around 23 at the time) and there are some absurdist moments that don’t mesh with the film’s dramatic arc such as the final graduation party where the Crazy Lads minus Pawel play Beatle songs for the crowd while Biegacz (of all people) pounds away on the drums! Is this meant to be a fantasy sequence or reality or social commentary? Still, the film is briskly paced, the cinematography by Witold Adamek is often stunning (how did he achieve those blood-red skies?) and the music is fabulous, featuring the original and cover versions of the Beatles’ tunes in Polish (I suspect the music rights must have consumed most of the film’s budget).
Yesterday never received a theatrical release in the U.S. and is not currently available for purchase on any format. However, you might be able to stream a good copy of the movie on the Cave of Forgotten Films website if it is still listed on the site’s alphabetical index.
By the way, Yesterday is not to be confused with the 2019 comedy-fantasy Yesterday from director Danny Boyle in which Hamesh Patel stars as the only man in the world who can remember the Beatles and passes their songs off as his own. Nor is it the same film as Yesterday aka Vchera (1988), a Bulgarian film, which is also set in the 1960s, deals with rebellious students and features the music of the Beatles.
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