by Ken Bakely
Consider the plot of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday: Jack (Himesh Patel), a struggling musician in a small town in England, is hit by a bus during a global power outage. Upon recovering, he discovers that the world remains mostly unchanged, except for the large difference that many pop cultural phenomena, including the Beatles, have been entirely forgotten. He cannot find a single other person who has ever heard of them or their music. From memory, he then introduces this strange new world to the band’s songs. After slowly gaining local traction, a chance encounter leads to Ed Sheeran (playing himself) discovering him, and overnight, Jack becomes a global sensation, where he is branded as a genius singer-songwriter. The consequences of this sudden superstardom are numerous, including jeopardizing his relationship with Ellie (Lily James), his lifelong best friend and manager of his small-town gigs; being thrust into the center of a major music industry with market forces and players larger and far more powerful than anything he has ever encountered before; and the continual guilt of being credited for the work of others and the constant paranoia of getting caught. All of this amounts to a truly fascinating conceit, with innumerable possibilities and complications that could surface. Unfortunately, the film cleanly avoids most of them, making the movie the most middle-of-the-road realization of its concept one could imagine. It’s one where the impacts of this alternate universe are largely played for throwaway jokes, most of the tension and conflicts raised go unresolved or are haphazardly wrapped up, and the considerable talent and charm seen in the performances of Patel and James feel underused.
One of the main issues is Richard Curtis’s script, which adheres rigidly to formula at every turn. Each emotional beat is well-worn, where the slightest glimmers of peril and conflict are only used to move us onto the next scene, and the characters remain a collection of romantic comedy tropes, rather than recognizable human beings. To be clear, there is a particular art to a committed genre exercise, and even the oldest tricks in the book are still satisfying when done with gusto and fervor (and there’s something uniquely great about a good, solid romance done well). The problem with Yesterday is that the film not only plays as staid, but underwhelming. There’s no getting around the extremely high concept, the possibilities that it presents in relation to Jack’s inner and outer conflicts, and how the movie is so reticent to explore its own world. A tiring rhythm of Jack’s performances, increasing fame, personal conversations, and vague concern lulls us into an uneasy mediocrity. Boyle’s direction is bland and blurry, as the film quickly melds in our minds into the daunting field of the unmemorable, where our recollection of it runs together, unable to produce any real moments of lasting inspiration. This is particularly disappointing, considering how dependent the movie is on selling us on music that it’s convinced is universal: the entire point here seems to be that the Beatles’ songs would be hits in any era, any context, and any setting. But what good is such a propulsive and passionately thought-out message if it’s delivered with such surface-level sameness?
Yes, there are enjoyable qualities and aspects that are worth praise, and there are some clearly talented people involved. For one, Patel is a capable lead actor can work well in smaller, dramatic scenes and in broader comic moments, with some funny juxtapositions found in a subplot involving Jack’s bewilderment with Debra (an always welcome Kate McKinnon), his new, high-pressure agent. But through the bulk of Yesterday, I found myself in the same uncomfortable territory that many a mediocre music film has left me in, in which enjoyability and familiarity of the music must stand in for the lack of feeling onscreen. What’s been learned about the Beatles at the end? About music in general? About these characters or their emotions? Some critics have complained that the film’s realization of a world without the Beatles’ music is essentially unchanged from our own, but what’s more telling is that after everything is said and done and the music has been introduced, it stays that way. It pays lip service to its premise, makes a lot of jokes about the cultural references either directly missed or wiped away by the Butterfly Effect (certain colas and famous boy wizards have also been erased from a world where no one has heard of John, Paul, George, or Ringo), and builds to a whole lot of nothing. Its efforts at building us up to a satisfying finale fall flat, because there wasn’t much to build from to begin with. All in all, this is a generic star-is-born narrative, mixed with some romantic plotting the movie doesn’t seem to believe in all that much. There’s a lack of spectacle that’s just numbing.