Yesterday is an example of one of the most frustrating types of film: the “good enough” movie you sense has greatness in its reach, but isn’t quite committed enough or brave enough to get there. It is often quite funny and quite clever, and occasionally quite touching, without ever being as genuinely witty, thought-provoking, or transcendentally emotional as it could be—and as the talent involved suggest it ought to be.
The film brings together two giants of British popular culture—director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis—to tackle the biggest of them all: The Beatles. Rather than a biopic, however, the pair have made a film based around a premise that will surely resonate with any musician who idolises the Fab Four: what if their genius could be yours? That’s the question with which struggling Suffolk-based singer-songwriter Jack Malick (Himish Patel) is confronted.
After an underwhelming set at Latitude Festival (the film captures the discomfort of an under-attended daytime festival slot perfectly), Jack is about to throw away his lifelong dream of stardom, when a twelve-second global blackout mysteriously strikes just as Jack is hit by a bus. Awakening in hospital, a series of strange incidents lead him to realise he’s now in a world where The Beatles never existed—and where he alone remembers them. Sensing an opportunity, Jack records and passes off the group’s songs off as his own. Inevitably, this leads Jack to international stardom, but also jeopardises his connection to the one person who’s always believed in him: bubbly schoolteacher Ellie, his lifelong friend and manager, who (this being a Curtis flick) has been in love with him since they were children.
One of the film’s best aspects is how (as in his arguable best work About Time) the proudly right-brained Curtis refuses to get hung up on the hows and whys of the speculative conceit: there is minimal speculation on the cause and nature of the blackout, and little attention is given to how history is different in this new world save for when it makes for a good joke. Like any good fable, Yesterday knows that its emotional and thematic implications are paramount over logic. What holds Yesterday back from greatness, however, is its lack of focus in examining said implications.
The film is good at mining cute incidental gags from its high concept, like the reveal that Oasis would never have existed without the Beatles, or a running joke of Jack trying to remember the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” (complete with accompanying visuals). Patel is good at selling this material with everyman astonishment and moments when discomfort or guilt play briefly across his face (his singing is very strong too). The film’s biggest laughs come from a self-effacing protracted cameo by Ed Sheeran, who gets one of the best line readings when he suggests that Jack change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude”, and from Kate McKinnon as Jack’s ruthless, hilariously blunt new manager Debra Hammer (her damning assessments of Jack’s shortcomings gleefully cut through the film’s cosiness). The film flounders when asked to go deeper, however. Upon occasion, it will stumble upon a real question about authorship and artistry (as in a poignant scene wherein Ellie hears “In My Life” and assumes it’s about her) or a smart comment on the modern music industry (as when a record executive shoots down prospective album titles like The White Album and Abbey Road), but these notions never develop beyond single scenes. How might today’s popular culture react to “Revolution 9”? How would it feel to be hailed as a genius for songs that, no matter how much they mean to you, don’t actually say anything about you? The film is almost completely uninterested in these questions.
Early on, Yesterday plays with the tantalising notion of Jack’s “new” songs not being as instantly beloved as he expects they will be, which gestures toward the nuances of what makes a pop star, and comically exaggerates the bitterness of the unsuccessful artist—isn’t every acoustic guitarist in every pub on some level convinced they’ve written the new “Let It Be”? But this disappears as soon as it is suggested. The film frankly feels like a collection of “wouldn’t it be fun if” scenarios assembled with little cohesion.
It doesn’t help that half the runtime is spent on a formulaic romance which doesn’t thematically tie into the central concept in any meaningful way. Neither Ellie’s pining for Jack nor his dilemma between her and his dreams register on any emotional level, because we’re given absolutely no reason to care about their history or root for them to get together. Scene after scene features either Ellie herself or other characters discussing at length her obvious devotion to Jack, a painful attempt to compensate for the lack of actual development of a relationship the film occasionally decides is its emotional centre. In Ellie’s almost absurdly idealised character and appearance and the film’s romanticising of her martyr-like devotion to Jack, Yesterday comes close to being exactly the kind of creepy male fantasy dressed up as charming romance that Curtis’ detractors often accuse him of wallowing in.
But if Curtis succumbs to his worst instincts, Boyle seems asleep at the wheel. He’s never been a subtle filmmaker—he’s all about big sensations and wry visual conceits—but here his direction is shockingly artless. Much of the film has the flat lighting and too-close shooting style of a sitcom, while Boyle’s occasional attempts to inject some of his trademark larger-than-life stylistic flourishes fall horribly flat—most location changes are accompanied by intrusive screen-filling text, while an attempt to visualise Jack’s social media success in a kaleidoscope of screens is gauche and frankly clunky. The result feels like a student filmmaker or out-of-touch advertising executive trying to imitate Boyle’s signature tics. The concert scenes are solidly staged (a punkish rooftop rendition of “Help!” is the musical highlight) but have none of the audio-visual flair you’d expect from the man who reintroduced “Lust for Life” to a generation with the opening to Trainspotting.
What makes Yesterday’s failings all the more frustrating is that, toward the end, the film does seem to wake up to its potential. A running background subplot featuring Sarah Lancashire and Justin Edwards pays off surprisingly in a sweet, funny scene that articulates the cultural and emotional power of music better than anything else in the film. In one of its final scenes, the film finds an unexpected twist on its alternative-history conceit so smart and poignant it basically justifies the whole film by itself (it would almost work as a stand-alone short). It’s the kind of emotional swing-for-the-fences that makes both Boyle and Curtis such compelling voices, and lends a genuine heft to a climax that might otherwise have rung hollow.
Yesterdayis not exactly a bad film—it’s too good-natured to be unenjoyable, and for those simply looking to hear songs they love layered over a familiar narrative it will work. It is a frequently disappointing one, though, largely incurious about its most interesting ideas and too willing to sacrifice its individuality to formula. It’s the equivalent of a world-class band performing a so-so tribute act.