Film Review – Yesterday
We all know Biff Tannen is a butthead, but can’t we at least admit his stealing of a sports almanac in the future to enhance his present is innately enticing? To be the only one on earth with information guaranteed to bring you fame and fortune is daydream fodder we’ve all entertained at one time or another. What if it was me who introduced the world to the iPhone? Or the McNugget. Or the songs of The Beatles. That last notion is brought to limpless life in Danny Boyle‘s Yesterday, an unfortunate example of a banger premise quickly being forgotten in favor of very familiar, very painful rom-com tropes.
The charming Himesh Patel makes his feature-film debut as Jack Malik, a struggling musician striving to make an impression (and a buck) but coming up short. By his side is Ellie (Lily James, utterly wasted here), best friend, loyal manager, hopeless romantic. After a mysterious, 12 second worldwide blackout occurs, Jack is hit by a car and wakes up in an alternate universe in which The Beatles never existed.
His dawning knowledge of this fact leads to an early, touching moment the film is never again able to re-capture when he tries out his new guitar in front of some friends and introduces them to the majestic wonders of “Yesterday” without even knowing it.
Before long, and with the inexplicable help of a constantly mugging Ed Sheeran, Jack takes the world of entertainment by storm and unleashes a litany of Beatles classics, all the while passing them off as his own.
Yesterday is so quick to get us to the packed auditorium singalongs, it rarely takes a moment to ponder what sort of repercussions an incident of this proportion would actually mean. A few toss-off lines and gags does not a world create.
For instance, despite their unquestionable greatness, would a 2019 world universally respond to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” the way our parents did? While I don’t doubt “Hey Jude” would resonate with many, I can’t quite imagine Shea Stadium crowds for it in this day and age. And in one of the film’s biggest asks, we’re expected to believe a song with the opening lyrics “She was just seventeen / if you know what I mean” is a major hit? Come onnn
Supporting performances by Joel Fry as Jack’s hapless friend/roadie and SNL’s Kate McKinnon as an over-the-top manager floated in from a very different movie are there to ostensibly keep things moving, but once we’re on the road, it is revealed to be long and winding indeed.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis is known for penning winning romantic comedies, including Love, Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral and the criminally underrated About Time. About Time in particular manages to juggle a deliciously high concept with a genuinely moving romance without giving short shrift to either.
Yesterday fails spectacularly on this front. Just about the only thing we learn about Ellie is that she is in love with Jack, even once his celebrity inevitably, and sort of hilariously instantaneously, gets to his head. There is not nearly enough substance for the amount of screen time devoted to them, especially when such an interesting premise consequently falls by the wayside.
It’s not without its charms, though. Patel proves himself a very talented musician, so you’ll at least be bopping your head when you’re not shaking it in disappointment. An early scene in which Jack struggles to remember the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” crackles thanks to some interesting visuals provided by Danny Boyle, who otherwise seems asleep at the wheel.
Honestly, I think the more promising idea here would have been to explore a world in which Jack’s knowledge of the Fab Four does not propel him to instant fame and how that affects him. It’d at least be more interesting than this unfortunate humdrum of a result.