Cinetopia Review: Endearing 'Yesterday' lacks wow factor
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Could you imagine a world without The Beatles? A rock band who wrote and performed many of the greatest songs of all time. “Yesterday” - a spunky musical fantasy written by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually” and “Notting Hill”) and directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is a film that wants to celebrate the magic and transcendence of the iconic group, but at the same time fails to give the audience a scene that warranted the same kind of high “A Hard Day’s Night” brought in its opening sequence.
Granted, we aren’t watching “Yesterday” to see The Beatles perform live, rather we’re witnessing how millennials today would react had the catalog of such masterpieces never been released. This can often result in a flurry mix of hijinks that has terrific exposition, but fails to see the bigger picture.
In reality this is a crazy “What If?” scenario, all revolving around the modest Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a spunky 27 year old Indian-British singer-songwriter who struggles to get butts in seats whenever he books a gig. One night a blackout all over the word that lasts approximately 12 seconds (a freak accident that never gets explained) - in which during that time Jack is struck by a moving bus. When he gets out of the hospital, he’s gifted a stunning a new guitar and decides to christen the instrument by singing a rendition of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and his friends can’t believe their ears. Well that’s because they’ve never heard it.
Supposedly, during this “blackout” it created an alternate universe where the world as we know it is one where The Beatles never existed. This puts Jack in quite a spot, as he’s now the only person who knows the groups songs (give or take a few lyrics). Of course, he figures this out by doing a quick Google search of “the Beatles”, and the only results he gets are insects, followed by the title of “Sgt. Pepper” (and all that comes up are red peppers). Even the dozens of records he owns no longer contain his vast library of vinyl pressed originals. But it’s not just The Beatles that are a casualty of this event, somehow the world no longer remembers Coca Cola (only Pepsi) and cigarettes (but that’s not really a bad thing) - even the 90’s cult band Oasis gets zapped from existence.
Those omissions are never explained - one of the many flaws in Curtis’s genuinely likable and wholesome story - and Jack starts busting out the tunes at a record pace and before long, he’s the hottest thing in the industry. This solidified after Ed Sheeran (playing himself) asks Jack to come on tour with him after hearing “In My Life” and is knocked out by Jack’s capabilities to write these songs with little to no preparation. When Jack performs “Back in the U.S.S.R” for a concert in Russia, his response is simply: “Well, we were heading to Russia, so I thought I’d write a song about Russia.”
It’s all in good spirits and “Yesterday” essentially pokes fun at what 2019 would think of The Beatles. For example, Ed hilariously suggests they change the song “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude” and after poor test results with focus groups, Jack’s debut record entitled “The White Album” has to be rebranded. That’s the extent of the creativity that flows with Curtis and Boyle, and Patel is given a beefy and worthy role for his big screen introduction, except he’s stuck playing a one-note character. This all becoming more convoluted as soon as the over-the-top and beguiling Kate McKinnon makes her appearance playing the money hungry manager who, like all rock biopics, can’t see the artistry in the songs, only the marketability. McKinnon tries to crank the meter of slimy cheese, but she ends up feeling like an annoying nuisance.
Danny Boyle is nice to include fan service in the form of “Meet The Beatles” or the ongoing struggle Jack has remembering the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” - but there’s never a moment in “Yesterday” where any of those songs takes the viewer on a journey. I kept waiting for any singular moment to take me out of my seat and float me away. Not to mention the film sticks to the basics in terms of Beatles lore (opting for the more popular tunes as opposed to something like “Lovely Rita”) - which, unintentionally or not, makes “Yesterday” seem more like a karaoke jukebox than a musical fantasy.
To be sure, the love story that blossoms between Jack and Ellie (Lily James - having a banner year) saves the second half of “Yesterday” from becoming self-indulgent (and a last second cameo that sits better than more I think about it - imagining a future where all members of The Beatles are still alive). “Yesterday” is a flawed and hokey mess that’s light on its feet, colorful, somewhat endearing, and the sort of crowd-pleasing delight audiences will be craving. If you don’t think about the narrative ramifications that hard, odds are you'll be singing along too.