Sometimes I wonder how seriously I am supposed to take a fantasy. Yesterday presents a dynamite premise from writers Richard Curtis and Jack Barth for director Danny Boyle to tackle. I was ready to fully embrace a movie about the whole world suddenly not knowing who The Beatles were, except for one man. That’s the sort of lighthearted Twilight Zone type of set up that should excite anyone looking for more originality in their mainstream releases. Alas, while Yesterday is quite enjoyable, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that much more could have been done with such a rich idea to help it come together better.
Part of the issue is finding a balance. Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter with constant support from his childhood best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James). These two are great together. They have a relaxed chemistry that tips you off into feeling for the possible romance that could strike up at any moment. Putting that against a fantastical concept is not new for Richard Curtis, who handled that with aplomb for the time travel romantic comedy About Time. For Yesterday, however, as warm-hearted as the romance angle is, there is the feeling that it gets in the way of the high concept that turns the world all helter-skelter for Jack.
In a moment of doubt, Jack is injured in a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout. He wakes up to learn The Beatles have been erased from history. Choosing to take advantage of this opportunity, Jack begins passing off Beatles songs as his own, which catches the attention of people in the music industry.
There’s fun to be had in these early sections, whether its watching Jack being flummoxed over how well he can remember the lyrics to certain songs (“Eleanor Rigby” proves especially difficult) or discovering other things that have also been erased from existence (a fun running gag). Ed Sheeran even has a supporting role as himself, effectively showing a real lack of vanity in how he allows himself to be made fun of, let alone become jealous of the fantastic music Jack has purportedly come up with himself.
Sadly, the wrinkles in the story deal less with the existential pressures of being a man trapped with memories and knowledge no one else can share, in favor of a “success & fame vs. true love” plotline that keeps the film firmly in sitcom territory for a good portion of the runtime. Adding to this, Kate McKinnon co-stars as Debra, a music agent who makes no excuses for how she plans to exploit Jack and “his” music, and as funny as she may be, her character feels dragged in from another movie going for some non-subtle satire on the music industry.
This is not the kind of movie that needs overt villains, but you have Debra around to highlight the cutthroat nature of the industry, with a humorous touch. Still, as Jack’s star is on the rise, thanks to Debra’s push for him to become the next huge thing, it comes at the cost of a possible relationship with Ellie. Rather than grapple with the stress of being a fraud of sorts, Yesterday allows a more simple storyline to carry the weight.
It’s not about saying what the film should have done, but Yesterday does seem to be twisting and shouting for more of a look at how the songs Jack chooses affect his state in this new reality. Instead, whenever asked about one of these songs, Jack mumbles his way through a bland excuse. Presumably, it took millions of dollars to have access to The Beatles song catalog, so, unfortunately, it feels as though any classic band could have been substituted into this story. Yes, there’s a benefit in having global icons to provide a universal appeal that would be hard to be matched, but more could have come out of this.
There’s also a lack of thought over exploring what eliminating The Beatles would actually do to the world. Seriously, so much would change if “The White Album” didn’t exist, but it doesn’t matter in this film. It’s why the running joke of other things that have disappeared can be stressful. Given how much impact the lads from Liverpool had, as well as some of the other things that no longer exist, I couldn’t help but wonder how the entire world is still the same. Granted, it’s a fantasy, and the film can do as it pleases, but with choosing a story that ends up being as straightforward as it is, I started to wonder about the world around Jack.
However, with Himesh Patel in mind, it should be noted how good he is here. As Jack, Patel brings a naturally warm character. He has problems and isn’t perfect, but his everyman appeal does keep the film very likable. Yesterday also earns plenty of goodwill by being a mainstream feature that’s never, at all, concerned with having a star who looks like Himesh Patel as opposed to James McAvoy. What matters are his abilities to bring a solid screen presence, along with clear musical talent.
Likewise, the rest of the cast bring what’s required. Lily James falls into the right groove with Patel as far as their banter goes, underwritten as her character may be. Joel Fry serves as fun comic relief, playing up the clueless best friend role to a consistently humorous extent. And the rest of the cast is about as strong as needed to help fill in the necessary parts of a romantic comedy.
Boyle acquits himself decently enough here as well, though I felt he was doing more to service the voice of Curtis’ writing even more so than with Sorkin on Steve Jobs. That’s not to say you can’t see Boyle’s trademark kinetics on display, but this is a lightweight rom-com, rather than a trippy thriller. The odd angle is found here and there, with some clever editing, and superimposed text to highlight specific moments, but I wouldn’t say Boyle was free as a bird to push himself beyond what was needed for this story.
More of a push is what Yesterday could have used. I see this premise standing there and feel it just needed some help. Fortunately, Patel was a great find, and the romance is a sweet one (complete with one of the most inconsequential third-party love triangle additions I’ve seen in some time). It would have been great to see The Beatles factor into the film on a more intellectual level, but save for one delightful scene, I just have to let the movie be what it is. Yesterday is charming and watchable, worth a ticket to ride, but no cinematic revolution.