The majority of movies have to fight to earn our allegiance. However, Yesterday really does have a foolproof premise because, from the outset, it can bank on a viewership who will already have memories crowded with the Beatles and as the Fab Four play a key role in the story, you already have a huge cross-section of humanity as a potential fanbase.
Then, for good measure, you have Ed Sheeran for any of the younger folks who might not be old enough to remember the good old days. If its goal was to come out a little better than even, it would almost be there before the movie began. Although this might be too cynical an outlook for such a delightfully sentimental endeavor like this, and Sheeran is actually quite likable having a go at playing himself.
Regardless, Yesterday is the definition of a high concept storyline. Imagine something like this. You woke up tomorrow, after a freak of nature, and you were the only person in the world who knew The Beatles. All credibility aside, it does tickle one’s fancy and Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis work accordingly during some of the movie’s best bits.
There are endless possibilities to explore including other pop cultural staples also getting disrupted in a similar vein. The film chooses a few that feel completely arbitrary but no less enjoyable: cigarettes, Coca Cola, Oasis, and you guessed it, Harry Potter.
The other component a Beatles saturated audience will appreciate is Jack Malik’s (Himesh Patel) daily struggles to drum up all the lyrics to tunes like “Eleanor Rigby.” Because, of course, he doesn’t have the safety net of the internet to help him recall “she was picking up rice in the church” or that “Father McKenzie was “darning his socks in a night where there’s nobody there.” He must go at it — quite comically — by trial and error.
In this way, Yesterday manages to touch the surface of its potential though it admittedly doesn’t feel complete — at least in a satisfying manner. Granted, I only feel an obligation to point this out since it proves such an agreeable film, directed by a veteran like Danny Boyle, that also happens to be bolstered by the catalog of the greatest band of all-time.
Richard Curtis remains the great British romantic, and we see this throughout the movie. It always seems to be his greatest asset and also his major undoing. In his favor, Patel and Lily James have an unadorned if altogether amiable chemistry. There’s little legwork to get us to like them, and so we can cheer for them unabashedly.
We can say much the same about their peanut gallery (including Sheeran), although there are a few misses. Their roadie Rocky ups the oddball quota as the dysfunctional sidekick while Kate McKinnon, a particularly irksome American road manager, feels like less of a much-needed antagonist and more of a pale imitation to lampoon a self-possessed music industry.
The core romance is a crucial piece, but it felt like it might have come off more substantially had there been more supplementary elements. I can think of a couple areas going beyond simply playing with the new reality more extensively. Themes of fame, art, and authorship in a generation drunk on social media, 15 minutes of fame, and remixes also come to mind. We start to see how it impacts Jack, but it never feels like it gets to its fully-realized potential.
The closest I can come to explaining it is the fact Yesterday never earns its Groundhog Day finale. Because, like Phill Connors, Jack is given an extraordinary power — in this case the Beatles’ catalog — but it never feels like he reaches the same depths of despair before he is granted his revelation and the love of his life.
It feels like Yesterday takes liberties or short cuts with its story, since it thinks we already understand, and instead of wanting it to go anywhere more challenging, we’re here for the music (which isn’t entirely false).
Whereas Jack is only one individual, what made the Beatles was the fact there were four of them. He sings the whole catalog and yet they belong to this group who rode the wave of Beatlemania, fame, critical success, and impending discontentment together.
Malik does get a brief moment with two people who at least share the same knowledge he has and yet in all other regards, he’s by himself as a singer-songwriter. We never really comprehend what one would imagine is the sheer debilitating weight of loneliness in its full force.
I am intrigued by Jack Barth’s original story and where it might have taken the conceit. Logistics or licensing aside, what if Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr actually did come out of the woodwork to oust the imposter (instead of merely being teased in the James Corden dream sequence).
What if the two Beatles fan who actually did still remember the old songs came not bearing olive branches in the form of a yellow submarine, but some malicious intent? It’s not much and yet would it have at least given Jack more hurtles to work past?
As is, a lot of the movie feels like clip shows featuring montages played to iconic tracks. It’s easy enough to get away with it because the songs are beautiful, Patel is charismatic and a fine vocalist and nothing else ever ruins the mood.
SPOILER ALERT: What could be better than bringing John Lennon back from the dead to share a bit of sage advice to the pilgriming stranger he doesn’t know? He feels like a wonderfully insignificant man of 78 living a peaceful life of contented solitude. It’s another agreeable invention.
And yet, if I’m honest, I’d rather listen to McCartney’s own remembrance “Here Today.” Then, instead of seeing Jack go gallivanting around Liverpool for inspiration or trying to fake to Ed how he was inspired to write “Hey Jude,” I’d rather see Paul return to his roots with James Corden in Car Pool Karaoke.
That’s it isn’t it? The Beatles are so much about context and what we bring to them. In one way, Yesterday works so well because even the titular track allows us to wax nostalgic by tapping into what we carry with us.
But it can’t quite get us over the hump, because it is an imitation; it is not the real thing, and part of what makes these songs great is where they come from and the lads who brought them into the world. Their fingerprints are all over every one and so history is not some plug-and-chug phenomenon where any four fellows could have been stuck together to become the Beatles.
Jack realizes something along these lines, which is part of the reason he makes the final decision he does — to crowdsource them, in a sense. But for the sake of the movie, there’s nothing to be done about it. We’ve spent the entire film listening to a stand-in, though the love story does leave us some breadcrumbs to pick up and feel warm and fuzzy about.
It was partially a joke when I told myself the end credits were the best part, but I got to listen to the real “Hey Jude” for seven glorious minutes. There’s nothing that can beat that. If you’re a Beatles fan with a generous streak Yesterday might very well be an unmitigated delight. There’s a lot to like. Whether it’s entirely greedy or not, I found myself wanting a bit more.