A movie’s concept means nothing without execution. The dumbest ideas can become strongest films, and something that sounds amazing on paper can fizzle out on the screen. There’s a third combination: a dubious idea can become an incredibly dubious film. Cue Yesterday: a man wakes up from a coma into a world where the Beatles never existed, but almost everything else is the same. Any drama that springs from this idea is contrived at best, and there’s no twist to be seen.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, TV’s Damned) works in a wholesale warehouse and plays guitar on the weekends, driven around by his childhood friend and manager Ellie (Lily James, Little Woods). On the verge of giving up, Jack is hit by a bus at the moment that all of the lights in the world go off for twelve seconds. When he wakes from his coma, no one has heard of the Beatles. With the help of Ed Sheeran, Jack begins to record the Beatles’ catalogue as his own. As Jack is on course to become the biggest recording artist in the world, he begins to drift further from Ellie.
Yesterday is notable for being the first collaboration between screenwriter Richard Curtis (most recently given story credit on Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and director Danny Boyle (T2 Trainspotting), but more so for not using any of their skills. Curtis brings a lukewarm romantic comedy with few jokes and a criminally retrograde female support, and Boyle has forgotten the visual flair that made the original Trainspotting so memorable and brought Slumdog Millionaire to Oscar victory.
The romance at the core of Yesterday is not laughable so much as completely wrong-headed. Richard Curtis has at least given a semblance of being able to write women before, even though almost every woman in Love Actually gets a bad ending, but Ellie is not one of them. In 2019, a woman should not say to her potential love interest “I’ve been waiting half my life for you to realise you love me.” Not only could Curtis give us a pro-active woman, but also a scenario which isn’t a zero sum game: there is no reason that Jack has to choose between fame and romance, that brings about the value judgement that the movie makes that has no meaning in the context of the world that it presents.
Because the other drama that arises in Yesterday is never properly addressed: the idea that Jack is a fake, a plagiarist. This is known to no one but himself, of course, and apart from some vague anxiety and a James Corden induced nightmare (and in whom has Corden not induced nightmares?), his dilemma remains almost entirely uncommunicated. Literally no one in the world of Yesterday has any reason to think that Jack is anyone other than who he says he is, and there is no one to challenge him. In a film with practically limited possibilities for unexpected consequences, the professional conflict in Yesterday is as artificial as the romantic one. Even if Jack did not write 280 Beatles songs, the fact that he was able to channel them across the universe should be impressive to anyone; they did not exist and he brought them back into being. Curtis’ script is entirely lacking in curiosity and it is reflected in the indifference of the finished product.
The music, which cost ten million dollars to license, is presented uniformly without joy. There is only one real moment that suggests people are “discovering” the music that Jack is putting out there, when he performs the titular song. After that, not once does anyone really care about the work — or the “product”, as Kate McKinnon’s (TV’s Saturday Night Live) charmless and unfunny record executive puts it — and the movie doesn’t even have the decency to become a delivery engine for the songs that audiences know and love. Yesterday crosses Abbey Road, but it is less than pedestrian: Boyle, who can make dead babies crawl across ceilings, can’t even make live extras twist and shout in this film. There is no visual flair to any of it: more of the film is composed of archival footage of world locations than one might reasonably expect; the songs are treated as throwaway, so Boyle makes none of them stand out, and onscreen text does more heavy lifting than it should have to. While there’s nothing to wow a viewer, there’s not even comfort in the cliché; Yesterday sits on the screen like a fool on a hill.
Yesterday is a movie that renders its actors irrelevant. Patel, a soap veteran, has a role so underwritten that he cannot save it, and James’ Ellie is a piece of work even from surface examination. Rare highlights are Sanjeev Bhaskar (TV’s Porters) as Jack’s father, and Sheeran as a dopey sort of parody of himself. There is nothing to elevate in Yesterday, and so it remains sunken throughout.
Yesterday‘s simple premise cannot fill its 116 minutes. None of the characters are invested enough in their situation to invite the viewer into their world, rendering all of the action at a remove. With this much squandered talent you would expect something that at least makes some sort of impact, but Yesterday falls flat from the start. Jack may believe in Yesterday, but by the end of Boyle and Curtis’ foray into Beatlemania, life goes on.
Yesterday opened in Australian cinemas on June 27, 2019.
Directed by: Danny Boyle.
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Kate McKinnon.