Movie Review: The Beatles’ legacy props up soppy ‘Yesterday’
An aspiring singer-songwriter wakes up in a world where The Beatles never existed in Yesterday, an enjoyable if expectedly soppy romantic comedy from writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time) and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) that almost drowns in saccharine sentimentality during its second half.
Still, the movie has two things really going for it: a star-making turn from lead Himesh Patel, longtime Eastenders star making his feature film debut, and wall-to-wall use of wonderful (and, presumably, expensive) Beatles tunes inventively re-imagined by an artist struggling to precisely remember them.
Patel’s Jack Malik is that musician, who wakes up after a bus accident - and a mysterious global power outage - in a world exactly like ours, but one in which The Beatles never existed. Or Oasis. Or Coca-Cola. Or…
A struggling musician who plays pubs and children’s parties, Jack does what anyone in his shoes would in this Twilight Zone situation: recall and recreate every last Beatles song he can, and reap any rewards that might come his way.
The songs aren’t really his, of course - - but does it matter? Jack is either completely delusional, or has slipped into a Mandela Effect alternate timeline. Either way, Yesterday has created a world where everyone isn’t going to suddenly wake up and remember The Beatles and discover that Jack is actually a fraud.
But Yesterday puts Jack through the ringer anyway, laying on the guilt through gotcha dream sequences and a pair of wide-eyed extras who hint that The Beatles may not be as forgotten as everyone else seems to (not) remember. But Jack is bringing joy to the world through The Beatles’ music, and if he happens to accrue some fame and wealth along the way, well, is that so bad?
Yesterday eventually hits the right notes regarding the main Beatles storyline, and the inventive covers - all sung by Patel - help keep the movie afloat even when the light sci-fi concept turns too vague or weird to fully comprehend.
But this wouldn’t be a Richard Curtis movie without a sickly-sweet romantic subplot, and it’s in this area that Yesterday starts to melt. The romance angle involves Jack’s childhood friend and longtime manager Ellie (Lily James), who drops a bombshell on him just as he’s about to embark on his Beatle-themed journey: she’s been in love with him for the past 20 years.
Jack is shocked, and takes time to fully process what his best friend has just told him - - he clearly cares about Ellie, but needs to evaluate exactly how he feels about her. By the time he realizes that he, too, is in love with Ellie, it’s too late. In the script’s biggest misstep, Ellie goes as far as to issue an ultimatum: stick around in small-town England, or go and become the world’s biggest pop star and lose me forever.
Back Jack has done nothing wrong throughout the entirety of Yesterday, a fact that Patel’s empathetic performance helps underline: his appropriation of The Beatles’ music may be morally dubious, but his treatment of Ellie is certainly not. The manufactured drama surrounding their relationship helps sour much of the second half of the film.
That’s still not enough to sink the film, however: a rare down-the-middle mainstream rom-com from director Boyle, Yesterday is undeniably a toe-tapping crowdpleaser, and one that has a lot of fun with its high-concept premise. For any fan of The Beatles and their music, the new arrangements sung by Patel here are just about irresistible.
Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and Kate McKinnon (as Jack’s devious L.A. agent) appear in key supporting roles.