Dir: Danny Boyle
I remember having an argument with a co-worker who said “The Beatles were shit”. I explained to them that, no, they weren’t. It’s perfectly fine not to like The Beatles, but they demonstrably weren’t shit, because while there are clearly talentless people who make shitty music or shitty movies yet still meet with success, no truly shit band could do what The Beatles did. They changed the very fabric of pop music. What pop music would look like without their influence is all but unimaginable. That’s why the basic concept behind Yesterday is so exciting.
Jack Malick (Himseh Patel) is an unsuccessful singer-songwriter, toting his guitar from tiny gig to tiny gig with the help of his manager and friend Ellie (Lily James). One night, as he cycles home, there is a worldwide power cut, during which a bus hits him. When he wakes up, Jack discovers that only he can remember who The Beatles were and he begins to use their songs and pass them off as his own, meeting with massive success thanks to this ruse.
Imagine a world without The Beatles, it’s full of possibilities if you try. The problem here is that screenwriter Richard Curtis (working from a story by Jack Barth) only ever uses the concept in the most route one way possible; spinning yet another of his increasingly tired collections of rom-com tropes out of it. There is an early gag, as Jack googles to find out if any other bands have vanished from history, that tells us Oasis no longer exist. Good for a chuckle, but that’s the only time the film even nods to the idea of what music would be like without this most important of bands (it’s certain, for instance, that Pet Sounds wouldn’t exist). Would pop music even sound the same? There’s an angle here that could have seen Jack cherry picking missing songs (if we can argue the world NEEDS Ob la di, Ob la da then it definitely needs God Only Knows). On the other hand, the film could have delved into how the modern musical landscape would try to change The Beatles. Again, Curtis strikes a glancing blow here, with Ed Sheeran (in a brutally extended cameo) suggesting that Jack change the lyrics of Hey Jude to Hey Dude, but it’s not particularly convincing that Sheeran or some other trendy producer wouldn’t try to make the songs sound more modern and, without that, it’s tough to buy the overnight success Jack meets with. Yes, the songs are great, but that’s not all it takes.
But instead of any of this, we have a tediously predictable story of Jack feeling guilty over taking ownership of the songs and realising that maybe he shouldn’t have left Ellie behind. In fairness to them, Himesh Patel and Lily James do what they can with stock characters and a screenplay so obvious that you could write every beat in your sleep. Together, they do have a certain amount of natural charm and chemistry. Patel, in his first film role, does a solid job as Jack. With better gags and a more nuanced relationship story to play, he’d probably be effective. He does perform the songs well too, there’s nothing remarkable about his singing voice, but that may be intentional because this is all about the songs themselves more than the person delivering them. Unfortunately, it’s only on Help, rendered as a scream of frustration, that Curtis and Boyle use the songs to bring anything deeper out of the character; another missed opportunity.
The gags are middle of the road (Jack’s family and their friends continually interrupting as he tries to play them his ‘new’ song, Let It Be) and the characters broad, especially Kate McKinnon as Jack’s money obsessed new manager and his friend and ‘road manager’ Rocky (Joel Fry), who is as thick as two short planks and plays like a rewrite of Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill. The romance, similarly, is tough to care much about because it’s so clear where it’s all headed (especially given the use of one line, from very late in the third act, in the trailer). Lily James is radiant, and it’s easy to be drawn to her just by that, but she doesn’t have anything to play except the supportive ‘friend’ holding a torch. Once again, the frustration is that you suspect there’s so much more she could be doing.
Danny Boyle has always delivered striking visuals, think about Renton sinking into the rug in Trainspotting or the shots of an empty London in 28 Days Later. Aside from the sequence of all the world’s lights clicking off at once and some nice renderings of Jack's attempts to remember the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby, none of that style is in evidence here. Yesterday is as flat visually as it is dramatically and comedically. The biggest miscalculation in script and direction comes in a cameo (played by Robert Carlyle), which manages to be both saccharine and unbearably crass. The latter problem could easily have been avoided by choosing another figure to cameo, the former only by deleting the entire scene (which has no impact on anything in the larger story).
Overall, Yesterday is a terrible disappointment. It takes an incredible songbook and does nothing with it. It takes a great idea and engages with it only for a couple of fairly obvious gags, rather than digging into it. It takes a couple of charming actors and sticks them with very little to play and it takes Danny Boyle and sucks out most of his style and energy. It’s not the worst thing you’ll ever see, and yes, The Beatles are still great, but given that you could just put the Red and Blue collections on, this doesn’t need to exist.