There is plenty to love about Danny Boyle’s latest, Yesterday. From the conceit to the overall theatrical debut performance of lead actor Himesh Patel and his chemistry with Lily James to the editing, it starts out feeling like something we haven’t entirely seen before. However, it devolves a bit into two holding patterns that make it suffer, and that’s a real shame.
Yesterday stars Patel as Jack Malik, a former teacher and struggling musician; and James as Ellie Appleton, his lifelong friend, would-be manager, and unrequited love interest. On his way home from a gig one night, all electricity in the entire world blacks out for twelve seconds, and during this event, Jack gets run over by a bus. After a stint in the hospital, he comes to find out he now lives in an alternate reality where the Beatles never became popular, and so he uses their music to become the greatest singer-songwriter of all time.
Patel grounds the movie in his portrayal of Jack, but James is the emotional center. Without her, the movie feels fun, but not real. When Ellie drunkenly confesses her feelings for Jack in his bedroom – “Why don’t I get to be in the ‘And I Love Her’ column?” – and when she realizes she has to get over her feelings for him – “I have been waiting my entire life for you to wake up and love me…” – she somehow, in a movie about a man who rips off arguably the greatest band of all time, gives the movie emotional weight when she’s on-screen. Her performance is music to my ears more than the Beatles covers will ever be.
The movie also features fun turns by Ed Sheeran, playing an exaggerated version of himself a la Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar movies; Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon as Jack’s money-hungry manager Debra Hammer; and, because the movie is directed by Boyle, a surprise cameo by Once Upon a Time’s Robert Carlyle. All of them bring something special to the proceedings.
As previously mentioned, the movie suffers in two respects for me. Firstly, it falters in the same way a lot of movies that rely on music falter: like Top Gun and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, it stops being about the story and starts being about the music; they become visual albums. This tactic can theoretically be used effectively, but I don’t feel like any director has so far mastered it to the point of effectiveness.
Secondly, the movie abandons its conceit of “The Beatles don’t exist in this alternate reality” for a running gag where Jack brings up something he remembers, another character asks him what it is, and then he Googles it to find out that that also doesn’t exist in this reality. It’s meant to be funny, but it fell flat to me, mainly because I was attached to the premise, and so when these jokes came up, I could only think, “Well, why would erasing the Beatles stop that from existing, too?”
With summer movie season now in full effect, and some big budget sequel, reboot, or rebootquel coming out practically every weekend, Yesterday stands apart from the pack as a fun, original, indie flick. Yet, I don’t quite think it is good enough to stand apart for any other reason.
Yesterday hits theaters on Friday, June 28, 2019, with
2.5 out of 5 Beatles tunes