I was intrigued when I heard the concept of this movie; it’s a clever idea, which is why I was surprised that Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” ended up being so glaringly underwhelming and featuring two of the most unlikeable and irritating romantic leads I’ve ever seen.
Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a young British musician who can’t catch his big break and performs at kids’ birthdays and noisy pubs. His plucky friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) sticks by him and tells him to keep at it and that the world needs to hear his songs, but you can tell by the way she looks at him that it’s not just his songs that she loves. On his way home on his bicycle, the whole world’s electricity conks out and in that same moment Jack is hit by a bus. For some reason, when Jack wakes up, everyone else in the world has no idea about the Beatles or their music. The rest of the film is Jack becoming revered as the most incredible singer/ songwriter of his generation with some help from Ed Sheeran, and his conflict between choosing fame or love.
There are a few things wrong with all of this.
The core idea is a cool one, but the film very quickly degenerates into what is essentially an uninspired and generic love story. Patel and James don’t necessarily give bad performances, it’s just that their characters aren’t particularly likeable, funny, interesting, or even relatable and I didn’t care if they got together in the end or not. Danny Boyle tries hard to portray them both as ordinary people, and the message that fame and fortune won’t buy you happiness is rammed down the audience’s throat relentlessly. Ellie is supposed to be free spirited and quirky, but to me she just came across as annoyingly cutesie and self righteous. She refuses to go on a world tour with Jack because she has parent teacher interviews the next week and couldn’t bear to disappoint Year 10, and all I kept thinking was that not one of those kids would have cared for a second. Jack in particular doesn’t seem to have any meaningful character arc at all, he’s mopey and dull from the first scene and is exactly the same by the closing credits.
Even Kate McKinnon, who plays Jack’s brash American agent, is nowhere near as funny as she should have been. Everything in this film is just a little bit off, a little bit annoying and completely forgettable. It doesn’t even serve the Beatles songs that well, because Jack simply isn’t as good a singer as the Beatles were and because we’re only given (with one or two exceptions) ten second snippets of the classics. The most moving moments in the whole thing are when Jack sings Beatles songs to people for the very first time and you can see their physical response to the music. I suppose some of the song numbers Jack performs to the big crowds are handled fairly well too. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t come close to capturing what the Beatles meant to pop culture, or what they meant to the world during the 1960s. Instead it becomes a self serving and smug proclamation that happiness in life can be achieved by “telling the girl you love that you love her and to tell the truth to everyone as often as you can”.
The movies that frustrate me the most are the ones that have potential and don’t live up to it. “Yesterday” to me embodied mediocrity in every way, which is such a shame because somewhere in there is a story worthy of the Beatles and their legacy.
By Jock Lehman