Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Richard Curtis
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 | Minutes: 157
Release Date: June 28, 2019
A world where The Beatles do not exist would be a strange one. But it is one small part of the entire premise of the fantastical romantic comedy Yesterday. Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis, the film explores such a world where only one man remembers the music of The Beatles, and how his life will dramatically change. But underneath such a simple premise lies a sweet love story and a quandary of what would happen if you had all that knowledge yet you knew that it wasn’t truly your work.
Though it may be narratively flawed by not fully exploring an interesting concept and plays it safe at times with the rom-com aspects, Yesterday relies on the direction of Boyle and Curtis’s script – though their voices may inadvertently clash at times – along with Lily James‘ cheery performance to carry the film all the way to end. My full review below.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend Ellie (James). Then, after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles have never existed … and he finds himself with a very complicated problem.
It may play it safe by only scratching the surface of such a fantastical premise by having reliable tropes such as Jack trying to solve the perplexing dilemma of telling the truth about where his newfound success really originated from. Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel an ounce of guilt by taking advantage of everyone else’s ignorance to the fact that the songs aren’t really his and profiting off of it. Because Jack wants to tell the truth, but fame and money prevent him from doing so. He’s never been in such a position. But at the same time he knows full well that he will lose all that wealth and dreams of being a famous musician will be crushed in an instant.
So the film teeters back and forth with Jack struggling with the ethics of claiming something that is not his with the world not knowing that fact. But it is not as though he has full knowledge of the musical and lyrical structures of each song. Some come at him in an instant. Other times he needs to be inspired during a simple conversation or a trip to Liverpool. Whatever the case may be, the film shows how Jack puts these songs together.
And while it may play it safe with Jack having to confront these dilemmas and navigate through the treacherous waters that is corporate music, it does have the love story to fall back on. Curtis’s script is charming and sweet, and while the fantastical premise may take center stage, deep down, Yesterday is a love story about two characters who belong together but aren’t because of Jack’s bloody inability to see what is right in front of him and sacrificing that friendship to claim fame and glory. At times the latter does get in the way of what the film should really be about, which is Jack and Ellie’s relationship.
Ellie is Jack’s constant source of support. As his manager, her unrelenting optimism has helped him through times of struggles. She can book him all the gigs, but no one is there. And yet, she stands by him through thick and thin. And during that time, she has developed a love towards him. But at the same time, she isn’t going to give that away freely. Not only does Jack have to return these feelings, it has to be honest and sincere. Ultimately, she gives him the choice of having a happy life or choosing fame and success.
This is where things get interesting for the film, because it presents the idea that happiness and success may not be two different concepts. It all depends on how you define it. It may sound so simple, especially in the bleak and selfish world that we live in now, but sometimes we have to remember you can have both if you are willing to make some sacrifices.
Yesterday‘s real flaws come through in how it plays things by the numbers in terms of what Jack does with the knowledge that he has and no one else has; how corporate takes advantage of his naiveté, and the struggles of fame and fortune and true love. It’s not as though we haven’t seen a film like this before, but the use of such an absurd premise — and the music that the audience knows but the characters of that world don’t — does change some things up.
And even when Jack is confronted with accusations that the songs aren’t really his, Yesterday doesn’t really dive deep into the fallout or repercussions. It’s there for the world to hear and see, but there is no real follow through. While it may only add to Jack’s internal struggle, it would have been nice to see what would have happened when the people who claim to be Paul McCartney and Ringo Star accused him of stealing those songs.
It also doesn’t help that some of the corporate villains are a bit one-dimensional and have a one track mind. Kate McKinnon‘s Debora is an agent who sees what she has before her and does everything in her power to make use of Jack’s talent for profitability. She goes as far as admitting to him that she will take most of the money so that she can buy more beachfront property. So while the cutthroat and icy-hearted Debora may come off as funny at first, it becomes dull and stale only minutes after. Like a bad joke that is told over and over again, there really isn’t much more to Debora’s image than that she is conniving person who will exploit Jack and force him to set his life aside so that she can profit off of him.
Despite those flaws, a lot of the good does outweigh the bad. Boyle’s vision and voice comes through in terms of camera angles and pacing, and Curtis’s voice comes through in terms of the endearment and sweetness of the characters like Jack and Ellie. So it does make for an interesting creative combination. But you can’t help but feel that it doesn’t quite gel. There can be a disconnect between the two, but it is not as though they are at war with each other. Because when it works, it works.
Yesterday may not be the best romantic comedy out there, and it surely doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it has got plenty of charm and sweetness to lift it. So much so that all of the good from Boyle’s direction, Curtis’s script, and James and Patel’s performances outshine the glaring flaws.
And while I wished there was more follow through and aspects of the plot fleshed out further, Yesterday reminds us that sometimes happiness and success can only be defined by you.