Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is reminiscent of an unreleased track on a B-Sides and Rarities album, the framework for greatness is there but its beats are too scattered for its own good. Just as its protagonist, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), finds it hard to remember the lyrics to The Beatles’ hit Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday struggles to connect the dots between its brilliant premise and its overly simplistic message of love.
After a series of poorly attended gigs, Jack begins to wonder if it is time to hang up his singer-songwriter aspirations. Frankly the only one who seems to believe in his talents is his childhood best friend Ellie (Lily James) who, when not in the classroom educating young minds, moonlights as his manager. Of course, part of Ellie’s unwavering devotion to Jack stems from the fact that she has been pining for him for nearly two decades.
Since Ellie’s pleas for him to follow his dreams fall on deaf ears, it takes a little divine intervention for Jack to see the light. When a freak 12 second global blackout leads to Jack being hit by a bus, he awakens in a hospital and quickly realizes that he, for some inexplicable reason, is the only person who remembers The Beatles.
Determined to preserve the musical memory of the Fab Four, Jack sets out to write down the lyrics to all of The Beatles songs he can recall. What starts off as an earnest gesture quickly becomes a moral dilemma when the pathway to stardom opens up before him. Why educate people on The Beatles when he can simply claim their songs as his own?
In pondering whether Jack can pull the ruse off, Yesterday had the opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to the brilliance of The Beatles. However, the film seems less concerned with The Beatles as artists than it is with them as a plot device for cheap laughs. While it is amusing to observe Ed Sheeran, who is delightful in his supporting role, propose that “Hey Jude” should be named “Hey Dude”, the film is filled with too many of these irreverent moments.
Part of the problem is that the film never commits to exploring any idea in-depth. Its entire foundation is built on the wobbly crutches of an uninspired love story.
Considering that screenwriter Richard Curtis has redefined the blueprint for romantic comedies with hits like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary, one would expect this film to be full of richly drawn characters. Unfortunately, Jack and Ellie are so thinly sketched that the film fails to provide adequate reasons to invest in their perpetually stunted relationship.
Patel and James are charming in their roles, but can only elevate the material so much. While Patel at least has his wonderful renditions of classic Beatles tunes, James is stuck twiddling her thumbs on the sidelines. Ellie is devoid of any personality of her own and is frequently defined by the men in her life. A clumsily tacked on love triangle subplot further emphasizes this point.
The bland love story would be bearable had Yesterday delved into a fraction of the numerous avenues its ingenious premise opens. However, the film never strives to be anything more than a paint-by-numbers exercise. Instead of exploring what a world without The Beatles would truly be like, the film simply throws its hands in the air as says “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on.”
This begs the question, if forgetting The Beatles’ legacy has no impact on society or the music industry then why build a film around celebrating their supposed importance?
What makes the film especially disappointing is the fact that Danny Boyle is the perfect director to tackle such material. He is a master when it comes to telling tales about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Whether it is individuals unexpectedly coming into money (Shallow Grave, Millions), or tales of finding love in the face of danger (Slumdog Millionaire, A Life Less Ordinary), Boyle has always brought a unique angle to his filmmaking. However, here his directorial flourishes feel more like a compilation music video than a nuanced piece of art.
Lacking the spectacle of Julie Taymor’s Beatles inspired musical Across the Universe, and genuine heart of Curtis’ previous works, the film never finds the right notes needed to separate itself from others in the genre. Yesterday may carry The Beatles sentiment that “all you need is love”, but its flaccid central romance does not justify the “ticket to ride.”