Early in Yesterday, Himesh Patel’s sad sack musician-turned-unlikely-sensation offhandedly describes The Beatles as a pop group — a massively understated description for one of the most influential music groups of all time. But it’s a surprisingly fitting analog for Yesterday as a film: This is a movie as a pop song. Sweet and sentimental, Yesterday gestures toward some greater meaning, only to fall back on lazily written tropes that fail to make anything of its clever concept.
Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis, Yesterday has everything going for it: a soundtrack jam-packed with time-honored classics, charming leads, and the stylings of two respected creatives who together seem an odd pair — Boyle the flashy auteur, Curtis the sentimental savant — but could have made movie magic. Could have. Instead, what Boyle and Curtis deliver is a middling marriage of their disparate styles in a film that wastes its fresh and unique premise for a plot that more closely resembles a generic music biopic.
Yesterday follows Jack Malik (Patel), a struggling singer-songwriter whose 10-year music career is on its last legs. Tired of playing in front of empty pubs and children’s parties, Jack prepares to retire from the music biz when one night, he collides into a bus at the same time that the power goes out all around the world. When Jack wakes up in the hospital, he finds that he is the one person in the world who remembers The Beatles. Realizing that in this bizarre reality The Beatles and their world-changing music never existed, Jack immediately jumps at the chance to use their greatest hits to propel his own music career to stardom — which he eventually achieves after a few false starts.
It’s a fun premise spurred on by some clever twists and charming performances from Patel and the always-effervescent Lily James, who plays Jack’s lifelong friend and music manager Ellie, a mild-mannered teacher who has always carried a torch for him. Their timid romance has the potential to be the central thread that carries Yesterday forward, but it unfortunately gets swept aside in favor of a music biopic structure and some half-hearted comedic interludes. You know how the story goes: Jack struggles to get noticed while playing the Beatles’ best hits, until some agent gives him a chance to record a tape and things snowball from there. Soon, Jack goes viral, gets a chance to tour with Ed Sheeran (playing himself in a stiff but vanity-free performance), and it’s an endless montage of concert tours and recording sessions from there. Yesterday sits uncomfortably between sentimental comedy and satire, as if unsure whether it wants to be a straightforward rom-com with a unique gimmick or if it wants to lean entirely into the absurdity of its premise. In the end it does neither.
It’s the cast who suffer from these shifting tones, despite their enthusiasm. Jack and Ellie are firmly grounded in the Richard Curtis rom-com, and have the makings of a great cinematic pairing. He’s self-centered but sensitive, she’s endlessly kind and open-hearted. There are glimmers of the old Curtis magic in joyful sequences of Jack and Ellie recording his first Beatles tunes, jamming in a rustic recording studio next to railway with only some household items and Jack’s guitar. Together with their colorful group of friends, Jack and Ellie make their humble Suffolk home feel lived-in and tactile, even when Ed Sheeran suddenly shows up on Jack’s doorstep. But it’s when Kate McKinnon, all wide eyes and exaggerated facial expressions, appears as Sheeran’s manager who poaches Jack that the film suddenly shifts into something else entirely. It’s not McKinnon’s fault — the SNL actress is consistently hilarious and her ridiculous, over-the-top dialogue deliveries are some of the funniest moments of the movie. But she feels like she’s in a completely different film from the rest of the cast; she, along with Lamorne Morris as a goofy marketing executive, is in the broad music biopic satire that takes over the second half of Yesterday. It’s downhill from there, as the film juggles its wildly different tones and attempts to wring something entertaining out of its premise. But it takes a long time to make nothing of that premise.
I would be the first to defend Curtis and his brand of treacly sentimentality. The writer-director of Love, Actually and About Time knows how to tug at the heartstrings while delivering moments of genuine authenticity and warmth. Yes, it’s cheesy, but what’s wrong with that? But Yesterday is the culmination of Curtis’ worst sentimental impulses — a film so allergic to conflict that it twists and contorts itself in ways that make the paper-thin plot feel even more slight. Yesterday feels like a film better suited to a Twilight Zone episode, where it’s fable-like nature could thrive and not be stretched out to the point of exhaustion. Though Yesterday cheerily covers The Beatles’ greatest hits, it doesn’t seem all that interested in the band itself. Other than Jack occasionally name-dropping “Paul, John, George, and Ringo” in such rapid succession that it feels like he’s chanting a mantra, The Beatles barely register as a presence in the film — apart from one odd detour with John Lennon. As its title suggests, Yesterday is nostalgic for something, but even it is unsure what or how to interrogate that — like its Baby Boomer-baiting predecessor Forrest Gump, it hides its darker impulses under sentimental references and winks.
This is where you think an envelope-pushing director like Danny Boyle would step in, but he seems confused as to why he’s directing this film. Several times throughout Yesterday, Boyle inserts the odd Dutch angle to apparently spice up a mundane dialogue scene — there’s no rhyme or reason to this, he just seems to be bored. And Boyle is uniquely unsuited to directing the musical sequences; though Patel has a lovely voice and strong screen presence, he’s not interesting to watch because Boyle insists on lifeless shots of Jack strumming guitar before cutting to the audience and then cutting the songs short. Boyle’s signature energy and vivaciousness is missing, and Yesterday suffers for it.
Yesterday is a charm offensive so aggressive that it’s exhausting. Despite a strong first half and charismatic leads, as well as the stacked Beatles soundtrack, the glimmers of potential can’t salvage the lackluster second half. It may make you gently weep, but for the wrong reasons.
/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10
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