A great premise and an ace soundtrack aren't enough in this British rom-com, which ponders a world without The Beatles.
Dreaming of music stardom but spending a decade gigging around seaside Essex pubs, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is nobody's John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr. No one's except his lifelong friend and dedicated manager Ellie (Lily James), who thinks he's the fab four all rolled into one, and has remained by his side with a devotion that can only be explained by romantic affection (although Jack, of course, is blissfully unaware). Then, after a disastrous festival appearance, the aspiring singer-songwriter is hit by a bus during a global power outage. It's chaotic, and yet it's also a stroke of good luck. When he next whips out his guitar among friends, strumming and crooning The Beatles' 'Yesterday', he discovers that no one recognises what he's playing. "It's no Coldplay," one pal remarks.
A lack of music knowledge doesn't explain his mates' obliviousness. As a quick internet search shows, the world knows nothing of John, Paul, George or Ringo (or Oasis, understandably). So springs Yesterday's terrific concept, as well as Jack's clearcut path to fame and fortune. Passing off The Beatles' work as his own, all his troubles seem so far away — if he's ever had a ticket to ride, this is it. Ed Sheeran (playing himself) hears his tunes, takes Jack under his wing and unleashes him on the public. A gleefully amoral Hollywood record executive, Debra (Kate McKinnon), helps capitalise upon his growing popularity. Releasing tracks like 'Let It Be' and 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand', he's soon bigger than, well, the band that no one has ever heard of.
Arriving in the same year that has seen The Twilight Zone make a comeback and Black Mirror keep kicking on (and taking on pop music, too), Yesterday's premise is rife with smart satire, not to mention commentary about how the times are a-changing and cultural history along with it. The key word there is 'premise'. It's worth remembering that this jukebox musical is written by Love Actually's Richard Curtis, who has made feel-good romance a staple of everything from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Notting Hill to About Time. As a result, all his latest film and protagonist really need is love, apparently — and Jack and Ellie's will-they, won't-they dance is the least interesting part of Yesterday. It's easy to forgive the script for thinking that today's listeners could hear 'She Loves You' and 'Hey Jude' at basically the same time and think they're equally excellent, as unlikely as that would be. It's much harder to overlook the fact that the film just uses its promising gimmick (and excellent soundtrack) for nothing more than an average rom-com.
Patel, playing the latest in Curtis' long line of flustered everyman characters, radiates genuine charisma. He's a joy to watch — and the fact that Yesterday embraces diversity, unlike the writer's previous work, is a pleasing development. James, nowhere near the star of the show as she was in the similarly music-driven, nostalgia-dripping Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is less convincing, but her chemistry with Patel is enough. It's telling, though, that both are outshone by McKinnon. Watching the SNL star upstage everyone she's working with has become a regular occurrence, and she's operating on such a zany comic level here that you can be excused for wishing the movie took her lead. Indeed, in a film about a man first squandering his potential, then finding an opportunistic way to make the most of an incredibly strange situation, Yesterday seems all too content to stay in the first category.
None of these issues make Yesterday a bad movie — just a blandly pleasant, overly sweet, happily lighthearted and hardly memorable one. It's the cinematic equivalent of tapping your toes to an ace playlist that you know is trying to entice you onto your feet, but just never being inspired to get up and dance, let alone scream, twist and shout. But perhaps the picture's most perplexing element is its choice of director. Or, more accurately, the lack of impact that the usually vibrant and energetic Danny Boyle has. Only in swift scene transitions, large titles splashed across the screen, upbeat montages and a few instances of recreating Beatlemania does the filmmaker behind Trainspotting come close to making his presence felt.
Boyle has dallied with love and music before in both A Life Less Ordinary and Slumdog Millionaire, and they're each vastly more vivid and lively. His skill with the soundtracks to his prior movies, including the pulsating drug-fuelled film that brought him to broader attention, is worlds above his work here. If Yesterday slots into his usual oeuvre, however, it's because it's a heist flick of sorts. The director keeps making them, focusing on characters who take what isn't theirs for their own gain, and pull the wool over someone's eyes in the process. And while this alternative-universe piece of Beatles worship blasts the same kind of tune, clearly, it's also guilty of playing just as fast and loose with the audience — selling them a quirky 'what if?' caper, but delivering a corny, business-as-usual romance.
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