Yesterday | Danny Boyle | June 28, 2019
What if you woke up one day and no one else knew who The Beatles were? Would you be able to present the songs as your own and accept the accolades that followed when you just so happened to be able to churn out some of the best songs that were ever written in an instant? It’s hard to believe, but this is a thought I’ve had randomly across the years, whether during school daydreams or just passing through. Naturally, I wasn’t the only one, as it’s the premise of Danny Boyle’s new movie Yesterday, which is based on a screenplay written by Richard Curtis (based on a story co-credited to Jack Barth) and which screened this spring at the Tribeca and Montclair Film Festivals.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician in Suffolk, England who gets ignored when he’s busking on the street and is stuck working a day job that he hates to help pay the bills as he’s chasing his dream. He perks up when his manager and best friend Ellie (Lily James) lands him a spot at the Latitude Festival, seeing it as his potential big break. However, it’s at the small children’s tent, and no one could care less. This is the final blow, and he is ready to pack it all in and go back to being a teacher. Only Ellie doesn’t want Jack to give up, as she sees the true talent that the rest of the world is only waiting to discover. At first, the relationship between Jack and Ellie is not totally clear as I assumed that she was his girlfriend that also took upon the duty of the de-facto manager. But this is on purpose as even other characters assume that they’re together, but in reality, they’ve remained just friends despite some clear chemistry shared between them that hints at something else completely.
Following their discussion about him quitting music, Jack is hit by a bus during a brief global blackout while riding his bicycle home. He wakes up in the hospital with a nasty headache and minus two front teeth … and with the slowly dawning realization that he knows something nobody else does: The Beatles. When Elle gifts him a lovely new acoustic to replace his busted one, the first song he plays for his friends is “Yesterday”, and he’s so stunned that he has to explain to his astonished friends that The Beatles are behind the song, not him.
Jack seizes the opportunity and writes The Beatles’ catalog from memory as best he can (some like “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” are easier than, say, “Eleanor Rigby”) and presents them to the modern world as his own. Wouldn’t you know it, but the songs catch fire and with the help of the internet and Jack’s new fan Ed Sheeran, Jack becomes a rising star who is proclaimed the next great songwriting talent. Things take off scarily fast and during his ascent to the top, his potentially missed opportunity with Ellie weighs heavily on him, along with the guilt he feels for taking the credit for these songs.
If you’re familiar with Richard Curtis’s previous romantic comedies, you probably have some idea of how this will all play out. Himesh Patel and Lily James have nice chemistry together and are an absolute delight in their roles. You actively root for them to find the love that is so clearly left unnoticed. But Yesterday doesn’t have a firm grasp on telling both the story of their unresolved romance and Jack’s moral dilemma that comes with carrying the weight of the monumental songwriting talents this world has never seen. There are enough charming aspects throughout, and it helps to have music from the greatest band of all time at your disposal to play around with in some amusing and creative ways. The conclusion, though, felt a bit too hurried and not fully realized that it doesn’t quite earn or make use of the totally great concept at play.
There are also some great moments shared between Patel, James, and Jack’s parents played by Sanjeev Bhaskar & Meera Syal, as well as Joel Fry’s Rocky, Jack’s longtime friend-turned-roadie. While I usually welcome appearances from the hilarious Kate McKinnon, I found her role as a money-hungry record executive to be a bit too much and the actress’ presence felt a bit forced. The same can be said about Ed Sheeran, who added absolutely nothing to the film, serving as more of a distraction and – quite honestly – an insult to the legacy of The Beatles.
Danny Boyle is able to inject enough of his style to elevate some of the safer aspects of Yesterday and make it a fun and charming effort that goes down quite easy but doesn’t quite land in the way that it ultimately deserves. I can’t say, though, that I didn’t enjoy the ride.