Sometimes, all it takes for a film to come to fruition is an intriguing hook. This principle defines much of Yesterday, a movie that poses the following question: what if the whole world suddenly forgot about The Beatles? Talk about a hook that has so many underlying implications. For one thing, modern audiences would be able to experience these iconic songs for the first time. Not to mention, the modern music industry would make it difficult for songs this old-fashioned to exist without making the tunes more contemporary.
Under an assured and creative vision, any of these storylines could make for an effective crowd-pleaser. At the same time, it is also tempting to cover all possibilities and lose focus on what truly matters. So it is a shame that Yesterday falls into the latter scenario in such a swift manner. Not only does it fail to capitalize on its high-concept premise, it often goes out of its way to push it aside in favor of a trite romance. At no point does it become outright horrendous or incompetent. But it is frustrating to see something with so much potential end up as a mixed bag.
To the credit of the filmmakers, its first impressions are fairly promising. Much of the first act consists of musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) as he struggles to make an impression with his original songs. Along with him is his longtime friend and manager Ellie (Lily James), who tries and fails to find Jack the performing gig of his dreams. In these sections, Jack and Ellie make for a charming duo that enjoys being together. It also helps that Patel and James slide into their easygoing roles so effortlessly. For a solid twenty minutes, the movie is breezy and fun without the need to be ambitious.
This changes as soon as a worldwide blackout miraculously causes certain memories to disappear. With Jack as the only person who can recall the Beatles catalog, the script goes in several directions. One of these involves Jack’s supposedly strong songwriting talents as he begins to credit songs like “Let It Be” as his own, while another involves his quick rise to stardom and meeting other famous musicians. From this point forward, Richard Curtis’s screenplay is destined to mention the implications of the memory wipe and never go beyond that.
Some of the scenarios can be amusing from time to time. Most notably, Jack’s rise to stardom makes him cross paths with Ed Sheeran, who is such a fan of Jack’s songwriting skills that he slowly becomes insecure about his own. What’s great about this section is that Sheeran is having a blast playing a heightened version of himself. The movie even makes a few deserved jabs at his awkward attempts to be hip. Better still, it taps into how other artists would reinterpret Beatles music for a modern audience. In the scenes with Jack and Ed, the movie makes a compelling argument that the songs just cannot have the same legacy as it did decades prior.
However, this exploration into old songs finding a new life in modern times turns out to be a distraction for the actual emotional conflict. With Jack gaining public recognition, his working relationship with Ellie is on the verge of being a romantic one. This is not the first time a Curtis screenplay devolved into a series of tired romantic cliches. But the sudden shift toward that makes it feel more damaging. In the last thirty minutes, their interactions consist of the same misunderstandings, arguments, and apologies that plague the genre. To make things worse, it places Jack and Ellie in a love triangle that goes in the most unrealistic way imaginable.
It is shocking how much the script falls apart in the last stretch. In regards to certain revelations about the world at large, it almost seems like Curtis added them just because he thought it would be fun. Nowhere does it seem like they were added because they were necessary. It is difficult to expand on what exactly went wrong since it would go deep into spoiler territory. For the time being, let’s say that it falls in a terrible spot after certain background players take center stage.
Yesterday stumbles in other places too but in a less invasive way. While the portrayal at the music industry has some satirical edge, the goofiness of Jack’s new manager Debra (Kate McKinnon) overshadows everything else. As usual with McKinnon, her odd movements and unnatural line readings are just a strained attempt to score laughs. And while director Danny Boyle tells this story with some flair, his energetic filmmaking style feels a bit inappropriate here. Based on his sporadic use of tilted camera angles, it feels like Boyle does not engage entirely with the material.
Ultimately, watching this movie is like watching someone deflating a balloon and then suddenly popping it with a needle to finish the job. This is not to say that Yesterday is devoid of anything terrific. If nothing else, Patel makes for a genuinely charismatic lead in his feature debut. But it becomes difficult to grasp on what works when it spends more time creating an unsatisfying version of an intriguing hook. The end result is arguably the most unexceptional film of Danny Boyle’s entire catalog.
Yesterday is now available in theaters.
The film stars Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Camille Chen, Maryana Spivak, Lamorne Morris, and James Corden.