Updated: Feb 9, 2020
What if you woke up tomorrow and nobody had ever heard of your favorite artists? Besides your own memories, it is like they never existed. What would that mean for their industry? If you were able to accurately replicate it, how would everyone else respond to experiencing these songs/books/films/paintings for the first time? These ideas are present in the sweet romantic comedy Yesterday, about a struggling musician who wakes up from a car accident to discover The Beatles have been erased from history. It has charming leads, some funny moments and good music. However, it never takes the opportunity to ask those questions, let alone answer them, and it really drags in its middle portion with too many repetitive scenes of its hero amazing people by coming up with these brilliant songs. It made me feel good without being a particularly satisfying experience.
As the story begins, Jack Malik is playing original music in small, nearly empty venues. He is ready to quit, but his adoring friend/manager, Ellie, pushes him to keep going. Then, during a brief worldwide power outage, he is hit by a car while riding his bike home. After his recovery, he learns no one remembers The Beatles and decides to recreate their songs as best he can, passing them off as his own.
Yesterday (109 minutes, minus the end credits) just wants to have fun with its premise and present a nice little love story. A couple of the running gags are successful (the one concerning everything else that has disappeared contains a few good jokes as are his attempts to recall the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”) and I liked Himesh Patel and Lily James together. However, once Jack becomes famous, it is “Jack plays a song, everyone loves it, he is conflicted about his fame.” Over and over again. It leaves Ellie off to the side as well as wastes much of the possible intrigue in its concept. Screenwriter Richard Curtis is known for his rom-coms (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually). Director Danny Boyle has been able to add complexity and a fitting visual style to a wide variety of genres (Trainspotting, 127 Hours). So it is surprising to find that this movie underwhelms with its romance and feels pretty flat overall.
I try hard to avoid criticizing a movie for what it does not do. After all, if it did those things, it would be a different movie. That said, it was difficult for me to watch Yesterday without thinking about the possibilities that could arise from this situation. What if Jack forgets the words to the songs or decides he could improve them and starts making stuff up instead? What if people, having not grown up with them, do not appreciate the songs? The screenplay accepts The Beatles’ music as universally beloved, sacred text. Despite their seemingly everlasting popularity, I have met a decent number of people who dislike their music. If they were being introduced now, is it not conceivable many would dismiss them in favor of the latest assembly-line pop hit? Yesterday never entertains that idea, not even as a joke. Every single person who hears Jack’s music thinks it is spectacular. That takes any potential drama (or humor) out of the equation.
I know it just wants to be a light comedy, but I got tired of the screenplay constantly treating John, Paul, George and Ringo like untouchable geniuses. There is a really interesting movie buried somewhere inside Yesterday. The final product is cute and slight, with several nice moments between the stars and funny support from Joel Fry as Jack’s clueless roadie and Kate McKinnon as a blunt agent. It is a crowd-pleasing fantasy that is very pleasant without ever becoming anything memorable. It is disappointing that two talented filmmakers have come together to create something likable, yet so instantly forgettable.
3 out of 5
Himesh Patel as Jack Malik
Lily James as Ellie Appleton
Joel Fry as Rocky
Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer
Ed Sheeran as Ed Sheeran
Directed by Danny Boyle
Screenplay by Richard Curtis