Yesterday Movie Review: Love is (Not) All We Need
Yesterday is not the first fantasy film based on The Beatles considerable songbook—12 years ago, Across the Universe used their music as a backdrop for a drama about a boy from Liverpool searching for his father in America. There have been a few straight-ahead biopics as well, including 2010’s Nowhere Boy starring Aaron Johnson as future superstar John Lennon when he was a rebellious teenager. The hit-parade musical (Mamma Mia, Rocketman) is more popular than ever, so Yesterday should be a shoo-in for box office glory.
It’s got a lot going for it with a truly unique and intriguing premise, and some of the best music and lyrics ever written. Add to that a visionary Academy Award-winning director in Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), a beloved screenwriter in Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually), two completely charming leads in Himesh Patel (“Eastenders”) and Lily James (“Downton Abbey”), plus an unexpected supporting cast in music megastar Ed Sheeran and “Saturday Night Live” funny lady Kate McKinnon. So, what could possibly go wrong? A lot, as it turns out.
But before I get into that, let’s look at the sci-fi fantasy setup: Twenty-something Jack Malik (Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a small British town who dreams of fame and fortune, but whose original compositions can barely attract the attention of a passerby let alone the public at large. Despite the unending support and devotion of his best friend and part-time manager Ellie (James), Jack is ready to stop strumming the guitar and start punching a time clock. It’s just not going to happen for him. It seems the universe agrees to add insult to injury when, during a freak 12-second global blackout, Jack is hit by a bus which smashes his guitar and knocks out his two front teeth.
Fortunately, he’s not too terribly wounded and in one last-ditch effort to keep Jack’s dreams alive, Ellie gifts him a beautiful new acoustic guitar. During a small party, he christens the instrument with a cover of the namesake “Yesterday” by The Beatles. To Jack’s puzzlement, Ellie and his friends declare it the best song he has ever written. And they’re not kidding. After Googling The Beatles and coming up with photos of actual Beetles and the car, Jack realizes that somehow the Fab Four’s music resides in his memory alone. So, he does what any struggling singer-songwriter would: he records a few classic tracks and puts the tunes online.
Jack quickly catches the attention of Ed Sheeran who invites the up-and-comer to be the opening act on his current tour. Before long, audiences fall in love with Jack and “his” music, leading to lucrative record deals and worldwide adulation. Of course, there’s only room for one rock star in this whirlwind and Ellie is left behind. And of course, the friends realize they’ve been in love with each other all along.
I wasn’t expecting the romance angle (no, I didn’t look to see who the screenwriter was before seeing Yesterday), but I didn’t mind it—until it took over the whole plot and smothered it with schmaltz. Yesterday is far more a Curtis movie than a Boyle one, with none of the director’s signature frenetic, bold visual style in evidence at all.
The first half of Yesterday is fun and thought-provoking, but then it collapses under the weight of its own conceit. There are several puzzling inconsistencies. For example: “The White Album” title is rejected because of “diversity issues” and the lyric “Hey, Jude” is transformed to “Hey, Dude” but in today’s hyper-aware #MeToo era, Jack’s “I Saw Her Standing There” (“She was just 17, you know what I mean…”) becomes a big hit. Also, it seems a missed opportunity to so wholly favor a rom-com angle over the exploration of artistic integrity, the music business, and the butterfly effect. There is “that moment” which one as an audience member hopes for and expects—if you were Jack, wouldn’t you want to find out what happened to John, Paul, George, and Ringo?—but the idea is squandered in a sea of sentimentality which serves only to further the romantic plot.
Having said that, I didn’t completely hate Yesterday. I enjoyed the songs, I appreciated the “what if?” premise, and I thought Patel and James shared believable chemistry. If you’re just looking for a simple jukebox musical meets romantic comedy, Yesterday will serve that purpose. But if you need more than just love, you’ll have to look elsewhere.