Yesterday, a high concept comedy that asks what the world would be like if The Beatles never formed or recorded an album, is a genial, engaging enough crowd pleaser, but only if you don’t stop to think about it for even a nanosecond or take into account that it’s made by a filmmaker punching well below his weight class. Largely coasting by on earnestness and more obviously on the songs of The Beatles, Yesterday is a bunch of empty calories wrapped in a thin layer of actual substance. Those underlying themes about the importance of “being yourself” and the ethics of musicians performing songs they didn’t write aren’t particularly inspired, but thankfully there’s more to smile than groan about in the latest film from inventive British director Danny Boyle and crowd pleasing, hitmaking screenwriter Richard Curtis.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, making his big screen feature debut after a healthy career in television), a struggling musician from Suffolk who still lives in his unappreciative parents’ house, is growing frustrated with his lack of success. He has a strong work ethic. His songs are solid, if admittedly a bit forgettable. He’s always playing shows, but none of them are able to draw more than a handful of people at a time. At his lowest point and considering a change in direction, something unexpectedly miraculous happens from an event that was almost a tragedy. During a global blackout that only lasted for a few seconds, Jack is struck by a vehicle while cycling home. When he comes to and is released from hospital, he’s less shocked by the fact that he’s missing a couple of his front teeth, and more flabbergasted that he’s seemingly the only person on earth who remembers the music of The Beatles. Almost immediately upon learning this fact, Jack sets about claiming a massive portion of the band’s catalogue and passing it off as his own.
Yesterday takes a healthy suspension of disbelief and a suppression of nagging questions to buy into it. Once Jack learns that no one remembers The Beatles, he also discovers a different, prominent band that also didn’t exist. Along the way, he finds out that there are plenty of other things and pop culture signposts that were never invented. Yesterday almost launches a bit too quickly into Jack’s feverish attempts to pass George, Ringo, John, and Paul’s music as his own, which is a bit of a double edged sword. Sometimes the quickened pace of Yesterday works in Boyle and Curtis’ favour. It allows for some character depth, but it comes at the cost of any sort of deeper meaning.
While Jack is a massive stan for The Beatles, he can’t explain the meanings of any of their songs if he’s stopped and asked, preferring to play off his newfound “genius” as something that just comes naturally. That’s a nifty wrinkle, especially when it comes to the songs where Jack can’t remember all the words or even begin to comprehend how he would emotionally be able to deliver some of them on stage with any degree of conviction. Once he’s dried up the well of songs he feels confident performing, he has to go beyond his own ability to mimic one of the greatest bands in music history (certainly one of the top three, at least) and put himself into the headspace of the people who actually created the songs. Eventually, Jack begins to understand where these songs come from and why the stresses of fame and fortune led to the band’s increasing disillusionment with the record industry. Stories about everyday people who get caught up in the pop culture and tabloid machine as a result of overnight success aren’t anything new, but it is intriguing to watch someone try to fumble through problems that originally belonged to other people.
Refreshingly, that quest for success is handled with some degree of nuance at the start before giving over to easier, more cartoonish cliches about working in the entertainment industry. Jack has to essentially redefine the music of The Beatles by initially toiling in the same coffeehouses and taverns that he cut his teeth in for years. It’s a realistically slow process, where he first has to cut an independent album under less than ideal circumstances, capture the ear of a major star who’s willing to take him out on tour (played by Ed Sheeran, who’s very good at poking fun at himself, if nothing else), and eventually signing a major label deal with a record executive who’s distressingly blunt and up-front about how she’s probably going to ruin his life (played by Kate McKinnon, who’s decent, but feels trucked in from a completely different, far zanier movie). Watching the steps of the process – even if Jack didn’t write any of these songs – offers a nice counterpoint to the Hollywood myth that overnight success is a real thing that happens. The story of Yesterday might take a healthy suspension of disbelief, but its depiction of the hard work that goes into being a success doesn’t.
The downside to this gambit and the perfunctory nuts-and-bolts nature of Curtis’ screenplay is that Yesterday never once explains what any of these songs mean to Jack on a personal level. The decision to rip off The Beatles comes so abruptly, and neither the audience, nor Jack can point to a single song in the band’s discography and say that it had a huge impact on him outside of him being a musician and the group obviously appealing to other musicians. There’s never a moment where Jack notes that a particular song echoes his professional frustrations. No mention of any songs that got him through rough patches where he clashed with his parents. There doesn’t seem to be any songs that remind him of the relationship he has with, Ellie Appleton (Lily Collins), the childhood best friend and manager who has an unreciprocated crush on Jack. When Jack performs some of these songs on increasingly bigger stages, he doesn’t look like he’s having fun or that he has any connection to the material. The obvious answer as to why is because that connection is entirely absent, and it makes Jack look like a bigger jerk from the start than he probably should. Yesterday is so rigorously chipper in its desire to boldface and underline just how amazing The Beatles were as a band that it forgets to address one of the material’s most tantalizing questions in any meaningful way.
Yesterday is the latest in a long line of jukebox musicals cobbled together from the greatest hits of a single artist, with a few more due for release this year. While it is impressive that the studio would open their coffers wide enough to afford tracks that have notoriously lofty licensing fees, Yesterday doesn’t always know how to use its core materials in the best possible ways. For Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), Yesterday seems like an odd career choice, and one that’s reasoned about as well as the hero’s quest for success. On the whole, Yesterday is the least visually impressive, kinetic, or inventive thing that Boyle has ever produced. While he’s known for his ability to impress and occasionally go a bit gonzo with his style, Boyle’s direction and vision for Yesterday is shockingly straightforward and devoid of many frills. There are a few moments where Boyle threatens to break out of the box he’s been put into – most notably montages where Jack tries to remember the words to “Eleanor Rigby” or the hero looking back at his growing success set to “Carry That Weight” – but this is much more of a Richard Curtis movie than a Danny Boyle picture. The canvas grows larger the longer Yesterday progresses, but the vision is decidedly pat; something one has never previously associated with Boyle. For better and worse, Yesterday reeks of a work-for-hire gig for the director.
Those familiar with Curtis’ filmography as a screenwriter – Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill – won’t be surprised at Yesterday’s second act pivot into romantic territory. Ellie’s mounting frustration with Jack’s inability to notice her love for him is placed front and centre, and the relationship is just as problematic, outdated, fraught, and resolutely male as any of the others Curtis has depicted in his films over the years. Jack’s treatment of Ellie could be seen as psychologically abusive. If she can’t book him on bigger shows, and she didn’t say she loved him when he was nothing, then there must be something wrong with her, right? Wrong. It just makes Jack look like a bigger, more oblivious manchild. Similarly, if Ellie really does love Jack, she never shows it any meaningful way outside of supporting his career. Their relationship even in the happiest moments is based on success and artistic fulfillment, and it never feels like it’s actually about love at all. It’s just another story of a devoted, demure young woman comforting and soothing the raging ego of a brilliant, underestimated man undergoing a major change in his life. It’s the same notes Curtis always plays, and it’s admittedly very tiresome by this point in his career. Curtis keeps his same M.O. here to the detriment of his own material, initially suggesting that Yesterday could be heading into a morally fascinating direction through hints and clues given throughout, only to blow all of that away in a single scene before offering up a crowd pleasing, but ultimately hackwork conclusion that feels assured and unearned at the same time.
Collins does what she can, but there’s not much to work with. The same goes for McKinnon, who often mugs through her role to give it a bit more bite. As for Patel, he has to contend with the wishy-washy nature of Curtis’ narrative (which never once brings up the fact that Jack is a brown man appropriating white music, an idea that could’ve been topical and comedically and dramatically fascinating if followed through on) and his inexperience as a leading man. Patel has good, droll comedic timing, and whenever Jack takes the stage his performance is commanding and confident, but as a romantic lead and everyman, the actor seems confused. Wonder and amazement are two emotions that are decidedly out of Patel’s wheelhouse, making total investment in the character difficult. Whenever Jack is supposed to be blown away by his newfound luck and revelations, Patel makes him seem as excited as someone being asked to perform for children as a community service. It sounds harsh, but the inconsistency of the leading performance further hobbles an already wobbly movie.
Yesterday is one of those movies that falls into the gap between being moderately good and moderately unsuccessful, but I’m choosing to look on the positive side of things overall. It’s heart is in the right place, even if its mind tends to wander. While the main character is decidedly pulling a cash-grab operation, the movie built around him isn’t that cynical. Even though it doesn’t know how to describe the music of The Beatles, Boyle and Curtis are at least putting it to decent use in the film. The performance numbers are top notch. There’s a lot to like and dislike throughout Yesterday, but ultimately the whole thing is so innocuous that it’s hard to actively advocate against it. It’s cinematic comfort food, but the kind that one would likely get from the drive-thru: the order is screwed up, the fries are strewn all over the bag, and they forgot to give you napkins, but it’s still edible, and the mistakes ultimately don’t matter because you went to a fast food joint in the first place. You knew precisely what you were getting into by going there in the first place.
Yesterday opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Yesterday: