Yesterday is a fluffy and ultimately half-baked 'What if?' fantasy that partially gets by on its zestful storytelling and endearing performances.
Yesterday is an altogether curious film; it asks a rather intriguing question - What if The Beatles didn't exist? - but never seems particularly interested in exploring the implications of its premise. Similarly, on paper, the movie itself sounds like an inventive blend of magical realism and romantic comedy, with more than a dash of jukebox musical thrown into the mix. In motion, however, it plays out as a familiar story about a struggling artist who suddenly gets their big break, forcing them to decide what really matters to them; that they didn't actually create their own art too often feels like an afterthought here. Yesterday is a fluffy and ultimately half-baked 'What if?' fantasy that partially gets by on its zestful storytelling and endearing performances.
Himesh Patel stars here as Jack Malik, an aspiring singer-songwriter from a small seaside English town who - despite having the unrelenting support of his manager and best friend since childhood, Ellie Appleton (Lily James) - finally decides he's ready to call it quits on his dream. Just when he does, however, he gets hit by a bus during a mysterious worldwide blackout, and awakens to discover that he's seemingly the only person on earth who remembers The Beatles and their music. Before long, Jack decides to start playing the band's songs and passing them off as his own, quickly catapulting himself to global superstardom after he draws the attention of Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and music agent Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). But when Ellie reveals her true feelings for him, Jack comes to realize that he's now in danger of losing the only person who's always had his back.
Part of the reason that Yesterday never fully takes off is because screenwriter Richard Curtis (drawing from a story that he cowrote with Jack Barth) tends to gloss over fleshing out the movie's alternate reality. The film basically takes it for granted that The Beatles' songs would've been just as wildly popular being released into the world today as they were when they premiered in the 1960s. As a result, Yesterday has little to say about how pop music might've evolved in the 20th century without them, or whether certain Beatles' lyrics have aged more gracefully than others. Instead, it settles for cracking one-off jokes about modern ad executives not "getting" the band's music, and revealing that other major pieces of pop culture don't exist in its setting either (for reasons that, for better or worse, are not addressed). In its defense, the movie really just wants to be a pleasant crowd-pleaser; but with so many fascinating, yet unexamined questions left staring it right in the face, its setup comes off feeling a bit hollow in the end.
The other big issue with Yesterday is its central romance. Curtis' previous scripts for movies like Love, Actually and About Time have long been criticized for featuring problematic love stories, and the same could be said for his work here. Yesterday seems to unintentionally suggest that Jack is obligated to love Ellie back when she reveals the truth about how she feels, and is frustratingly quick to dismiss the value of their relationship as a platonic friendship. That being said, Patel and James bring loads of bumbling charm to their respective roles here - enough so to (somewhat) counter the messier implications of their characters' rom-com storyline, and the way the film avoids digging deeper into Jack's feelings about becoming famous for playing someone else's songs. The rest of the supporting cast are similarly charismatic as Jack and Ellie's quirky friends and family members (like Joel Fry as Rocky, their under-achieving pal), with the exceptions of Sheeran - who plays a relatively bland fictional version of himself - and McKinnon, whose usually-reliable comedy shtick only does so much to make her character feel like more than a disposable "villain".
Behind the camera, Danny Boyle helps to further liven things up with his efforts as Yesterday's director. The Oscar-winner's live-wire filmmaking befits the story here, and elevates what could've been a visually bland movie into a collection of energetic sequences (of both the musical and everyday variety) and playful scenic transitions once Jack starts hopping from one side of the pond to the other. Thing is, as shiny and well-polished as Yesterday ends up looking in Boyle's hands, his style doesn't necessarily add any substance to its overarching narrative. And while his best films to date have gotten much of their personality from his directorial approach (see also: Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours), its Curtis' voice who comes through much more clearly in this case.
As a whole, Yesterday is perhaps best compared to a cover of a Beatles song - one that's generally agreeable and upbeat on the surface, but a bit shallow and quickly starts to fall apart the moment one takes a closer look. Those who are nostalgic for The Beatles' music (like the film is) may find themselves more readily swept up by the movie's blend of romantic comedy and music, and all the more inclined to buy their Ticket to Ride (sorry, had to be done) and simply enjoy the trip. Still, between the talent involved and its fascinating concept, this one is arguably a bit of a missed opportunity.
Yesterday is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 116 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language.
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- Yesterday (2019) release date: Jun 28, 2019