REVIEW – Yesterday

Despite a large amount of talent behind it and a strong attention-grabbing pitch, Yesterday turns out to be just a subpar romance that doesn’t capture the spirit or magic of what made The Beatles so great.

Yesterday has all the ingredients for a great movie. It assembles some of the best British talent. You have Danny Boyle who has directed films like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire. It has a script by Richard Curtis who made a name for himself writing romantic comedies like Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, and About Time. You have the music of The Beatles as your soundtrack. This should all come together to form magic, yet in the end it awkwardly comes together in a rather standard forgettable film, which is not something that should be described for the work of Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis, or The Beatles.

Yesterday has a simple premise: what were to happen if you were to wake up in a world where only you remember The Beatles? That’s a strong idea for exploring multiple storylines and concepts. What does a world without The Beatles look like? How much does the world change? Does the music have the same impact in 2019 as it did when it first hit in 1960, and if not why? Was this music unique to the artist and their upbringing? What is the greater purpose or story that Beatles music tells at its core? How can music connect and speak to people?

The film doesn’t actually want to explore these bigger ideas, except for maybe a sprinkle of tidbits about this alternate reality that are cute but also very odd (like why does Coca-Cola stop existing but multiple recording artists don’t?), or what happens if someone remembers The Beatles but can’t play an instrument? Those bigger ideas weren’t where they wanted to take the story, and that’s fine. There are a lot of ideas to be explored that would be too much for one film. It doesn’t want to think through some of the bigger implications because it just wants to be a sweet charming story (but seriously guys, “I Saw Her Standing There” would not play the same way for the first time in 2019 as it did in the 1960s, and that seems like a big oversight on the filmmakers’ part). You can use it as the jumping off point for a smaller story. The issue is they want to tell a love story, which you would think given Beatles music should be easy, but it takes a lot of work to get there. Why go through all this world building for this story? Similar to how the first Purge movie sets up this interesting concept and universe but does it just to justify a simple home invasion film.

Richard Curtis’ previous film About Time also had a big twist premise to its romance (what if you could time travel), but used it to explore very human desires and fears. The film felt relatable on an emotional level. You can’t travel back in time…but what if you could? And if you could what would you do? Would you make the same choices? If you have the power how do you ever say goodbye? The high concept element complemented the themes and characters. Yesterday doesn’t. The story they are telling doesn’t mesh or quite justify with all the steps the script are making for it.

It does raise the question: why The Beatles? If you took the Beatles music out of this movie and just made it about a guy who got big with either original songs or another musical act (from Bob Dylan to One Direction to Gorillaz), what changes? Aside from the needle drops, nothing. The Beatles music doesn’t really do anything to enhance the story or tell a greater purpose, which is tragic because not only are Beatles songs some of the best, but you can actually construct an interesting story from their body of work (see Across the Universe). Even the fact that this is a love story should go hand in hand with Beatles music, since they wrote some of the greatest love songs in the world. “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “All You Need is Love,” “I Need You,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” are all great love ballads that, strung together, could tell a story. But the filmmakers don’t seem that interested in that here. They have a standard rise to fame story with Beatles music in for legitimacy.

It seems weird that this is the first time that Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis have worked together, given they are such big names in British entertainment, yet it does appear that their two styles don’t fit together naturally. Curtis is sentimental while Boyle is more edgy. Curtis films often are credited as conventional while Boyle is known for being unconventional. This could make for an exciting collaboration of how these two different formats come together. Boyle seems oddly restrained here. He is trying to do some interesting (if distracting) camera angles that don’t serve to enhance Curtis’ script. Boyle’s style does come out in small bursts, namely in some trippy styled visual representation of the lead character’s rise to fame. This doesn’t enhance Curtis’ smaller intimate romantic story, which seems like Richard Curtis on autopilot. The romance, one of Curtis’ best known writing trademarks, is stiff.

The film does have one interesting moment with a un-credited cameo that raises some interesting questions about the in-film universe that is both the sweetest and most poignant moment in the film. It’s very similar to a moment in Richard Curtis’ Doctor Who episode ‘Vincent and the Doctor.’ Easily the highlight of the whole movie, and the actor for the scene (a Danny Boyle favorite): perfect casting.

The performances are fine across the board. Himesh Patel works in the lead role, and for his first major motion picture, carries it pretty well. Could see him showing up in more films in the foreseeable future. He also proves himself a talented musician and does some pretty good covers of Beatles songs, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. Lily James is adorable and continues to shine as an on-screen presence (and Queen of the June 28th release date, as Baby Driver also opened on that day). Yet despite how good they are individually, their romance always seems forced.

The other two standouts are Kate McKinnon and Ed Sheeran. Kate McKinnon plays a funny over the top music executive that is ridiculous to a cartoonish degree, but she made me laugh every time she was on screen. Ed Sheeran might be the best part of the movie, though. This shouldn’t be a shock really. People seem to really have it out for this guy; a lot of people freaked out when he was on Game of Thrones and I think his status as sort of a pop star makes people dismiss him. Here he is actually really charming, playing a fictionalized version of himself who seems to have a good laugh at his own expense. He gives a sense of laid back charm that could be well utilized in numerous other films.

The film is charming in its own right. It’s a breezy entry and a pleasant time while you are watching in the moment. But afterward, you aren’t left with much, which is odd and wrong for something like the work of The Beatles. The Beatles music is fun and poppy but also connects for a reason. There was energy to them. Given the talent involved and knowing the potential it had, it is hard but not to feel let down by Yesterday. Because the standout moment in the movie was the end credits when they played The Beatles version of ‘Hey Jude,” and the audience stuck around to listen and sing it. The Beatles are important; they matter. They still speak to people who were born years after their music hit. It is a shame the film couldn’t bother to even ask the question: why? It didn’t need to have the answer, it just needed to try.