If the works of The Beatles are integral to a movie’s narrative, but the movie doesn’t acknowledges it, do The Beatles make a sound?
That ends up, unintentionally, being the thought-experiment driving the vastly underwhelming “Yesterday,” rather than its elevator pitch for the ages: What if you, a struggling musician, woke up to a world in which The Fab Four never existed? Directed by the typically-reliable Danny Boyle, “Yesterday” is a two-hour long and winding road through two stories with clashing styles and sympathies, yet the most confounding thing about this project – one that would’ve worked better as either a 3,000-word experiment in “The Atlantic” or an 8-episode Netflix experience – is that neither justifies the existence of the other.
The struggling musician in “Yesterday” is Jack Malik (played delightfully by the fresh talent Himesh Patel), a British crooner managed by Ellie Appleton (Lily James, in a typically charismatic turn), a schoolteacher and the only one enamored by Jack’s music ever since hearing him bust out “Wonderwall” at an elementary school show. She was the only one paying him any attention then, and she’s the only one listening now (that fact, paired with the awkward rejection of a friend’s suspicion that the two are intertwined by more than friendship, tells you everything you need to know about where “Yesterday” eventually goes). This prologue to the actual movie lasts about as long as it took you to read this paragraph—“Yesterday’s” eagerness to get to the headlining act wouldn’t be much more obvious if Jack had attended a Beatles tribute show in the opening minutes. I suppose that’s what I was waiting for too, though the film’s later acts lay bare the movie’s inattentiveness to fleshing out Jack and Ellie’s relationship early on.
It’s when Jack declares he’s officially out of time to jump-start a musical career that a strange blackout envelops the world for 10 seconds, a window of time that’s just enough for the bus driving in the bike-riding Jack’s general direction to plow into him with no warning. He wakes up in the hospital the next morning, Ellie checking up on him, and her show of confusion at a simple Beatles reference on Jack’s part (“Will you still feed me when I’m 64?”) practically a wink from screenwriter Richard Curtis.
After singing the opening, soul-crushing lyrics of the title song to Ellie and friends upon his release from the hospital, they’re immediately floored (remember the first time you heard the song?) and the movie lurches into motion…in every possible interpretation of the word.
The supersonic speed at which “Yesterday’s” narrative advances could be forgiven if Curtis’s screenplay showed even a mild interest in exploring the moral dubiousness of “Yesterday’s” conceit—the natural storytelling choice to take the movie’s premise from “What if?” to “Would you?”, to justify its unfolding over the length of a movie and not a 15-minute viral video. Instead, Jack – a pretty thoughtful guy, from what we’ve seen! – immediately takes to transcribing lyrics to the greatest songs ever written, his intentions clear and explicit.
In the meantime, he’s exhibiting nary a sign of internal conflict. You’d think the movie would engage in that, but Jack’s immediate course of action is part and parcel with the film’s, which recoils at the slightest hint of consequence for itself or its characters. Aside from some creative flourishes that don’t unapologetically and wholeheartedly rely on the timelessness of “The Long and Winding Road” or “Let It Be,” as well as couple deeply unsatisfying fake-outs for legitimate suspense, “Yesterday” doesn’t just excuse itself from dive into its core premise—it blows up an inner-tube and merrily floats across its surface.
While the screenplay does him no favors, Danny Boyle doesn’t help himself either. Despite the director being only a few projects removed directing the razor-sharp and magnetic “Steve Jobs” – still one of the decade’s very best films – there’s extremely little to indicate he cared very much about applying a deft hand to “Yesterday.” The movie is constantly operating at either 200 bpm or 25, making consistent-yet-unrequited use of the musical catalogue at its disposal without taking a moment to reflect on the value of art or the toll of commercially-pressured creativity. There’s moments when it comes close – about 80 minutes in, Jack is asked about his inspirations in a moment rooted more in envy than admiration – but mostly the movie hews closer to spoof than drama in those attempts, a blemish embodied by Kate McKinnon’s too-over-the-top manager.
I’ll say this about “Yesterday” and its most reconcilable elements: The movie affirms that Lily James should be a star by now, and Patel has the stuff to be one as well. Of all the haphazard filmmaking decisions populating “Yesterday,” James and Patel are the ones consistently bringing the appropriate amount of energy to any given line reading, and most any interaction. Much more than their chemistry was needed to save the movie’s indefensibly illogical conclusion, but in a story that often mistakes emotional epiphany for lack of care of its characters, Patel and James give as sweet a pair of leading performances as you can ask for.
As Jack goes from recognition to opportunity to global sensation with a little help from his new friend, Ed Sheeran (playing his true-to-popstar-self, in a role that’s more than simple cameo), it becomes as clear as “Yesterday’s” sunny visual palette that instant superstardom is the only concept it is thoroughly – or at least consistently – enticed by. The problem with that is that in an age when Tik Tokkers and YouTubers go viral overnight, and seemingly on a nightly basis, it’s hardly a fresh idea on its own merits.
And it doesn’t make much of a difference that it’s The Beatles at the center of it all. It’s amusing when Jack comes off as cocky by comparing his initial playing of “Let It Be” to the painting of the Mona Lisa, and of course I tapped my foot to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” blasting through the cinema, but in a movie that doesn’t keep the same tone for more than 10 minutes at a time, it turns out it’s hardly a legitimate ask of it to make use of the Beatles’ work in any interesting way beyond scattered head-nods to the band’s cultural omnipresence. Discovering the Beatles for the first time is a personal experience bordering on nirvana; I may have felt semblances of that wonder in trickles while watching “Yesterday,” but there’s little to suggest it also manifesting in the seas of fans screaming along to Jack on stage as if he was any other musical icon. Nothing about those scenes changes if Jack is singing “Old Town Road” instead, revealing the movie’s charm as artifice.
By the time the movie decides that it’s, first and foremost, in fact, jarringly, a story of delayed romance, “Yesterday” has confirmed exactly one thing about the Beatles, other than their music still absolutely slaps in 2019: Perhaps the very weight of the band’s historic impact can’t allow anything to transcend it, to give it new meaning.
On the one hand: “Yesterday” doesn’t even try to. On the other: Then what’s the point?
“Yesterday” is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Sophia Di Martino, Ellise Chappell
Directed by Danny Boyle