“A struggling singer-songwriter wakes up to find the Beatles never existed, and he uses their songs to become a worldwide sensation.” Now that is a great premise for a movie. If you’re a fan of The Beatles, the mind reels at the possibilities. (Note: I’ve been an obsessive fan since I was 12). Heck, even if you think the Fab Four are overrated, it’s a cool concept regardless. But a great idea does not a great movie make, and Yesterday is just as hollow and devoid of quality as the songs that the lead character attempts to pass off as his own.
Yesterday is the brainchild of screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) and director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire). It’s a curious pairing, but the movie amalgamates their styles: a saccharine romantic comedy meets the fantastic. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) longs to be a rock star, but he’s stuck in a rut, playing crummy gigs for barely-there crowds. Jack’s manager, Ellie (Lily James), believes in him, but he decides to call it quits. For some unexplained reason, there’s a worldwide blackout and Jack ends up getting hit by a bus while riding his bike home. When he wakes up, everyone in the world has forgotten about The Beatles, except for him. After some frantic Googling and an examination of his record collection (Bowie’s there but no Beatles!), Jack quickly realizes that he can pass off the band’s famous songs for his own. He does just that and quickly transforms from a complete nobody to the biggest thing since Jesus.
But Yesterday isn’t just a thought exercise; it’s a romantic comedy. Jack’s rise to fame is complicated by his feelings for Ellie, the former manager who confesses her love for him right before his meteoric rise to fame. Is all the money and attention worth it if Jack can’t be with the one he loves? It’s a major plot point that unfortunately reduces what could have been a smarter, more inventive movie into a tired rom-com. It’s obvious where things are headed from the get-go. Sure, you need conflict and characters to root for, but Jack and Ellie’s will they/won’t they relationship seems hollow, forced. Patel and James are both great actors (really, I look forward to seeing Patel in more movies), but their relationship isn’t explored as deeply as it deserves. At the same time, however, the concept of “what would really happen if The Beatles never existed?” is never fully realized either. This results in neither the love story nor the fantasy concept feeling complete — it’s all half-baked. It’s really a shame — you don’t get the cheeky fun of Curtis’ Hugh Grant vehicles, but neither do you get intellectual explorations of Boyle’s better works. It’s neither “She Loves You” nor “Across the Universe,” but closer to some throwaway album filler. This movie is “Savoy Truffle.”
Beyond the core duo, Yesterday features the acting talents of Ed Sheeran, playing himself. He’s having fun, and it pulls the movie into the modern era, but it’s obvious from his performance that Sheeran is moreso a musical talent. His and Jack’s new manager, Debra Hammer, is played by Kate McKinnon, who brings snarky, American humor to the movie. Her matter-of-fact, bitchy performance is more in line with the Judd Apatow/Paul Feig brand of comedy, but it’s welcome, and she has a bunch of funny lines.
There is some visual inventiveness on display in Yesterday. Song titles run across the frame, mimicking vehicles. As Jack attempts to piece together lyrics from memory (e.g. “Eleanor Rigby”), Boyle shows the character’s thought process acted out onscreen. There’s an attempt to charge the movie with a creativity and style reminiscent of The Beatles, but these flashes of brilliance are few and far in between.
Yesterday is a movie built around songs, and it excels in this regard. Patel performs a variety of The Beatles’ hits, and they’re actually quite good interpretations. Many of the times, the songs performed are meta, evocative of the storyline and/or Jack’s mental state, which gives the songs an extra layer of depth.
But while the music itself is up to snuff, the concept is painfully underdeveloped. Would Beatles songs written in the mid-60s really become hits today, no matter how catchy they were? Wasn’t some of their success due to their image, the performances themselves, the musical and pop culture climate at the time? Also, the state of music in 2019 would be exactly the same? Sheeran would still be a pop star? The film doesn’t bother with tackling the “reality” of a world without The Beatles, putting more focus on exploring Jack and Ellie’s sweet-yet-trite romance. Yesterday didn’t need to be a dry, emotionless sci-fi story, but in taking such a basic approach to the concept, it really lessens the impact and results in a watered-down, forgettable experience.
What would the world be like if Danny Boyle never existed? Well, Yesterday might be directed by someone willing to take more chances, and it might have been a memorable, trippy film. As it stands, it’s a slight affair with a few good jokes and some nice Beatles covers. But it’s definitely not a “Revolution.”
John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.