Yesterday (United Kingdom, 2019)

June 27, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Yesterday Poster

Although the idea behind Yesterday was to craft a love-letter to The Beatles, the end result tastes a lot like a typical Richard Curtis rom-com with a generous helping of John-Paul-George-Ringo gravy. Less reliant on pop music than either Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, Yesterday nevertheless throws its hat into the ring of movies hoping to cash in on a nostalgia-fueled bubble associated with rock stars whose music has outlived the era of its birth. As a whimsical fantasy with a romantic element, Yesterday is appealing but for those expecting something more inventive, it may disappoint. And those hoping for wall-to-wall Beatles tunes are directed elsewhere.

Although Yesterday’s marketing focuses heavily on the music of The Beatles, the Fab Four’s influence is more of a gimmick than an organic element of the movie. Although around 20 songs make an appearance, most are accorded 30 second cameos. Only a couple of numbers are given full renditions. Perhaps the best way to view the incorporation of Beatles material into Yesterday is as an influence rather than a critical element. Certainly, the film isn’t interested in exploring how different today’s musical landscape might be had The Beatles never existed.

There’s a similarity to many of screenwriter Richard Curtis’ films and his imprint is more evident than that of director Danny Boyle. Yesterday resembles a gender-flipped version of Notting Hill. Instead of “normal” guy Hugh Grant entangled with superstar Julia Roberts, here it’s average Suffolk woman Ellie (Lily James) pining for rising singing force-of-nature Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). In both films, fame becomes the chief impediment to a “happily ever after” ending. Another (unfortunate) similarity: Yesterday, like Notting Hill, falls apart in the last act.

The movie offers a sci-fi/fantasy twist as part of its setup. After introducing struggling musician Jack and his manager/best friend, Ellie, and establishing the unacknowledged romantic tension between them, Boyle slips the protagonist sideways into an alternate universe. All around the world, the electricity goes out for 12 seconds and during that interval, Jack is hit by a bus. When he awakens in a hospital bed, nothing seems to be awry except that certain staples of his life like Coca Cola, cigarettes, and The Beatles don’t exist in this reality. And, while there’s nothing he can do about the first two, the last one opens a gateway to opportunity.

Jack’s powers of recollection are amazing. He is able to reconstruct (both in terms of lyrics and music) seemingly the entire Beatles catalog (although he has trouble with “Eleanor Rigby”). The strength of the songwriting gets him noticed – first by a low-level record producer, Gavin (Alexander Arnold), then by recording artist Ed Sheeran, and finally by executive Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). Jack eventually realizes that his feelings for Ellie run deeper than friendship but the demands of his rising star impede any future relationship.

Although the chemistry between Himesh Patel and Lily James is fitful, there’s enough of a spark to keep us hoping that this is one of those Curtis screenplays where love finds a way. Both actors are capable with TV actor Patel making a strong motion picture debut and James once again proving that the camera adores her. Kate McKinnon, as is her wont, steals more than a few scenes by dialing up the acerbic wit to an “11.” Ed Sheeran, despite playing himself, calls to mind the cliché of “don’t quit your day job.” He’s not as atrocious as he was in his Game of Thrones cameo but it’s hard to imagine an acting Oscar in his future.

Yesterday is better when it skews lighter. Jack’s occasional Google searches are comedic highlights. His soul searching about whether it’s ethical for him to pass off The Beatles’ songs as his own feels contrived and a late-film “surprise” is nonsensical, convenient, and underused. Yesterday’s ending gets the job done but it’s not the film’s strongest reel. Boyle has made smarter movies before but this one is more about emotions than intellect and it delights just enough to provide a satisfying antidote to the usual midsummer ear-splitting, seat shaking fare. Weaknesses aside, it’s a feel-good experience with more to recommend it than the obligatory nostalgia trip associated with half-century old songs.

Yesterday (United Kingdom, 2019)

Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Alexander Arnold
Home Release Date: 2019-09-24
Screenplay: Richard Curtis
Cinematography: Christopher Ross
Music: Daniel Pemberton
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2019-06-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: Romantic/Fantasy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1