Let’s play a game. Head around the Internet and count up how many Beatles song puns there are as headlines or subheaders for reviews of the movie Yesterday. I mean, I went with one, obviously, and the few other reviews my peepers have landed on throughout the week mostly did as well. It’s exactly the kind of cliche clever thinking you’d expect from a bunch of film critics believing they’re being original and smirking to themselves when in fact, it’s not actually that special or clever. It’s been done before and will be done again when the opportunity arises.
The same can be said for Yesterday, a film from Danny Boyle that you get the feeling everyone making it felt was super original and creative but, aside from an inherently clever premise, turns out to have been done before and will be done again when the opportunity arises. Despite it’s auteur director and killer Beatles soundtrack it turns out that Yesterday is just the same romantic comedy played out a million times before.
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Director: Danny Boyle
Release Date: June 28, 2019
Yesterday requires a heaping dose of suspended disbelief even beyond its basic concept that the Beatles never existed. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an unsuccessful singer/songwriter about to give up his career to teach despite the fervent encouragement of his manager Elli (Lily James) to keep pressing on. Elli is also in love with the completely oblivious Jack and has been since grade school, but suffers the indignity of being ignored by basically doing everything for him in life. Then one night all the lights go out across the world and Jack is hit by a bus. He wakes up to find that somehow the Beatles never existed, along with a plethora of other things like Coca-Cola and cigarettes. The idea is that the entire world is pretty much exactly the same except for these few key things that just don’t exist.
There’s the suspension of disbelief. Forgetting the other world-changing things that are gone, the mere fact that the Beatles never existed seems to have no effect on the world other than Oasis having also not existed (an admittedly funny moment). It’s insane. I get the argument that unpacking every little detail that would change without the Beatles would be impossible, but the mere fact that pop music even exists in its current state is highly improbable without them. Hell, Ed Sheeran, who has an extensive cameo, probably wouldn’t exist. It is a major logic jump but could be forgiven if the rest of the film justified it by confronting interesting themes and ideas.
It doesn’t. The romantic story becomes the driving focus but Lily James is the epitome of the manic pixie dream girl trope as she appears onscreen almost entirely to praise and reinforce Jack’s talent and skill. We’re not really given a reason why she is so insanely dedicated to him throughout the film, with him rejecting her for nearly two decades, but she is. It feels forced overall, with the eventual turn of our protagonist to realizing he does love her feeling utterly out of character and not inline with the rest of the movie. The big romantic moment at the end is far more awkward than anything else and falls pretty hard on its face as Boyle attempts to tie the high concept of the film’s story into a bog standard romance.
It begs the question why the romantic angle is even in there. Screenwriter Richard Curtis has, throughout his long career, delivered some of the best romantic comedies ever written, but this one feels like he just stapled all his own tropes into another film that didn’t need them. The very idea of the Beatles not existing and one man “stealing” their work because of it is a film in and of itself. Why we’re forced to sit through a relatively uninteresting romance alongside the far more interesting ideas of ownership, art, and creativity presented by the film’s main conceit is beyond me.
There is a fantastic through line in the film involving Jack’s increasing guilt over becoming famous for songs he didn’t write. This story line is relentlessly interesting but keeps getting run over by the relationship one. The movie routinely raises questions about if what he is doing is acceptable and what it means to create something. The answers it comes to might surprise you and are actually compelling and dramatic but the more philosophical side of the film just gets run over by the romance. There’s a daring and emotional twist near the end that gets totally lost thanks to the film’s contractually obligated “big romantic moment.”
Do we even need to talk about the soundtrack? It’s fantastic. It’s the Beatles, and their songs are used fantastically throughout, though not to their full potential. A heavier rendition of “Help” near the end of the movie is just incredibly spot on and Himesh Patel makes the songs his own without overpowering them. Then again, the movie can feel like a checklist of Beatles hits as it jumps from one to another, using the band’s greatness for punchlines more than introspective thought. It’s a strange balance but what can’t be argued is that the music is catchy and Boyle is a good enough director to keep the film toe-tapping throughout.
This is, however, an incredibly un-Boyle film. The direction is strikingly straightforward for the often kinetic and intriguing director. There’s none of the drug-induced visuals we’ve seen form him previously. None of the clever building and direction that ties he’s structurally complex films together. It’s like he simply placed the camera down and decided that the music could do all the heavy lifting. There are a few moments here and there where the Danny Boyle we know and love peeks through but they feel more like another director paying Boyle homage than something he would do.
Yesterday could be something special if it ever tried to be something special. Instead everyone involved seemed to think they could put forth half the effort since they have a soundtrack full of some of the greatest music ever made. It doesn’t work like that, though. If you’ve got great music you need to make a great movie. The expectation is to be something more than standard but Yesterday can never get there. Sure there’s clever references to Beatles history and a few good jokes littered throughout but unlike the music present throughout the movie is the kind of film quickly forgotten and lacking in import.
Insert your own clever Beatles musical reference for a conclusion here. If Boyle didn’t feel the need to try all that hard, I’m not going to either.