Review: Danny Boyle’s Yesterday Is a Romantic Comedy with a Rubber Soul

The film curiously avoids exploring the complexities of introducing the Beatles’s music into a radically different milieu.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Decades after their breakup and well after the end of rock’s rule over the music charts, the Beatles still loom large over popular culture. So synonymous is the group with musical evolution, technological recording advances, and the concept of the pop star as a legitimate artist that it’s impossible to imagine what today’s musical landscape would sound like had they never existed. And it’s no easier to imagine that scenario after seeing Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, which depicts a planet that suddenly loses all memory of the Beatles after an unexplained global blackout but ignores the butterfly-effect fallout of the sudden gaping void in the middle of pop history in order to focus on the lucrative opportunity afforded to the one man who happens to remember John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

We meet Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) as a failed singer-songwriter who’s had enough of happy-hour gigs mostly attended by his obliging friends. After getting into a cycling accident during the global power outage and regaining consciousness, Jack slowly discovers that he’s the only person on Earth who knows the Beatles. And after briefly wrestling with his conscience, he decides to pass off the Fab Four’s songs as his own. Jack’s career trajectory skyrockets as local gigs lead to a low-budget recording session and a helping hand from Ed Sheeran, who invites Jack on tour and gets him a deal with a major record label. The film moves through Jack’s meteoric rise at a rapid clip, effectively compressing the Beatles’s own extended stretch of stardom to the span of a few months as Jack simultaneously raids eight years of masterpieces.

In this rush, though, the film neglects to explore the implications of its premise. At first, Jack’s covers go nowhere, performing as he does to the same disinterested crowds of bar and restaurant patrons that he did with his original compositions. There’s a kernel of insight there in terms of the Beatles’s music possibly sounding old hat if recorded for the first time today, but soon things blow up for Jack. His success is taken as inevitable, and the film makes no attempt to parcel out whether playing Beatles songs in 2019 in a landscape dominated by R&B, hip-hop, and electronic pop would just naturally rise like cream to the top of the charts.

As Jack’s star rises, Yesterday curiously avoids exploring the complexities of introducing the Beatles’s music into a radically different milieu. (Can you imagine “I Saw Her Standing There,” which is played several times in the film, being released today and not inspiring countless think pieces for its opening refrain of “She was just 17, if you know what I mean”?) This is music that was crafted with a level of creative autonomy that’s unheard of today in an over-managed, focus-tested entertainment industry. Yet there’s no mention of having to license music for commercials or find a corporate sponsor for touring, with the film’s ostensible satire restricted to gags like a marketing meeting to craft generic album titles or a tweak to turn “Hey Jude” into the more banally universal “Hey Dude.” In general, the depiction of the music industry is laughably toothless, with all the venality and exploitation of the business reduced to the casually insulting behavior of a label executive (Kate McKinnon, doing her SNL shtick of turning a flat piece of dialogue into a punchline with caricatured facial expressions).

And this being a film written by Richard Curtis, Yesterday ultimately gets bogged down in mawkish romance, here between Jack and his lifelong devoted friend, Ellie (Lily James). James’s bright, guileless screen presence seems made for Curtis’s sentimentality, but it’s beyond her abilities to convey any sense of natural longing when Ellie bemoans that she’s a lonely teacher pining for “the world’s greatest singer-songwriter.” Too much screen time is given over to tending to the ill-judged romance between Jack and Ellie, effectively sidelining the film’s high concept. Only toward the end, when the implications of a world without the Beatles are taken to a wild and unexpected extreme, does Yesterday briefly hint at the sort of film it could have been beyond this fluffiest of musical tributes.

 Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Lamorne Morris, Sophia Di Martino, Ellise Chappell, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, James Corden  Director: Danny Boyle  Screenwriter: Richard Curtis  Distributor: Universal Pictures  Running Time: 117 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2019  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Review: Ophelia Fails to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon

Next Story

Review: Ari Aster’s Midsommar Masterfully Feasts on Extremes of Feeling