Directed by Danny Boyle.
Starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Camille Chen, Maryana Spivak, Lamorne Morris, James Corden, Harry Michell, Ellise Chappell, Alexander Arnold, Sophia Di Martino, David Lautman, Joel Fry.
A struggling musician realises he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed.
There’s no questioning Danny Boyle’s stature as one of cinema’s few masters-of-all-trades; the Oscar-winner has spun movie gold from thrillers, horror flicks, heart-warming family jaunts and biopics, and now he’s turned his hand to the musical, because why the hell not?
Though Boyle brings his typical stylistic flair to the fore, he’s badly let down by a script from one-man Brit institution Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually), which even for his fairly frothy, democratic tendencies feels rather on the lazy side.
But the genius of the log-line is unmistakable; a going-nowhere singer-songwriter is hit by a bus at the precise moment that a global blackout appears to erase The Beatles from the collective memories of every other citizen on Earth. After the initial confusion, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) makes it his mission to reconstitute as many of the Fab Four’s beloved tunes as his memory will allow, while grappling with the morally muddy prospect of becoming rich and famous off other people’s work.
In its first act, Yesterday certainly sets up a compelling domino array for Boyle and his cast to (hopefully) knock down over the film’s undeniably bloated 116-minute run-time, but in almost every case, the subsequent through-line takes the most simplistic and obvious narrative path possible.
Potential insights into the creative process of music, the price of fame and the multi-faceted means through which songs become hits are generally cast aside for a more shallow critique of Big Music, embodied by Kate McKinnon’s (admittedly quite hilarious) cartoon character of a talent agent.
To call the film a love letter to The Beatles is to state the obvious, and in this stead the film still works relatively well even when the script isn’t really up to much interesting. Patel’s musical performances of various classic Beatles ditties are fuzzily familiar yet different enough to intrigue, such that some might be left wishing a little more of the film indulged them instead of the oft-tepid drama.
Speaking of which, Boyle’s film truly comes unstuck when Jack’s romance with his childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) takes centre-stage. Though they share an easy, relaxed chemistry and James is as alluring as ever, there’s an offputtingly regressive, arguably even quite sexist tenor to their burgeoning relationship that just doesn’t sit right. In one groan-worthy moment that could’ve been pulled from one of Curtis’ own rom-coms from the 90s, Ellie complains about waiting years for Jack to realise he loved her, a sentiment that couldn’t seem much more unsatisfying or tone-deaf in 2019.
Moreover, latter portions of the film actually make a fairly compelling argument for these two characters not ending up together, and yet, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that sappier interests prevail. Much of the intended jubilation, however, is rather undercut by the pic’s corny, outmoded approach to romance, not to mention a third act that over-indulges in unfiltered, soppy rom-com tropes.
Is Yesterday a bad movie? Certainly not, but after that promising first act is done with, it’s tough to feel like the rest of the movie does justice to one of the most beguiling comedy premises of the year. Boyle again proves just how well he knows his way around a camera and his cast certainly does the best with what they have – even Ed Sheeran who, despite a few dodgy line-readings, gives an amusingly self-aware performance here – but the overall impression is one of Curtis resting on his laurels a little too much.
There are a few creative risks that may surprise audiences – especially one half-jarring, half-hilarious cameo that’s sure to offend as many as it amuses – but not enough intelligence or heart lent to a concept that, in better hands, could probably have been a low-key awards contender.
A brilliant premise notwithstanding, this broad-to-a-fault musical-comedy feels wasted on both its over-qualified director Danny Boyle and a hugely game cast.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.