Yesterday, from director Danny Boyle, is a fish-out-of-water story about a musician who, after a freak global power outage is the only one who knows The Beatles songs. The story tries to balance success and fame with romance, and it doesn’t always work.
If you mention The Beatles to anyone, they instantly perk up. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were all household names long before I was born (and hopefully long after I’m gone). They wrote catchy tunes and played music that touched people in just the right way.
What if they suddenly didn’t exist and only one person in the entire world knew about them? That’s the question that Danny Boyle’s Yesterday tries to answer.
Boyle is a rather interesting choice, given the variety of films that he’s done, but if I recollect correctly this is his first romantic comedy. His approach here is more dramatic than I would have expected, given Richard Curtis’s screenplay. Audiences will no doubt know Curtis for his work on Mr. Bean and Blackadder, the sort of droll, dry humor that relies on visual gags more than on the spoken word.
Making his debut, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik. A teacher by trade, he has a dream of making it big one day. For now, he covers Beatles songs in local Clacton-on-Sea pubs. Lily James plays Ellie Appleton, his manager and longtime friend. It’s obvious that the two are smitten with each other, but Jack is more interested in making his music than he is at building a relationship.
Curtis’s script tries to balance the physical comedy with the love story and the drama that ensues. Ellie and a small group of friends seem to be the only ones who take an interest in Jack’s covers of classic Beatles songs. A global power outage leads to a bus accident involving Jack and when he comes to, the world is not aware of who the Beatles are, leaving Jack in an interesting predicament.
Curtis and Boyle focus on Jack’s decisions and the drama that comes along with those decisions, but the story spends more time focusing on the reaction and the implications of those decisions in the form of Debra Hammer, played by Kate McKinnon. Her straight-laced, no-nonsense attitude is all about creating the image that will surround Jack as he brings the Beatles’ songs to the world for the first time. McKinnon plays very well into the types of characters that Curtis writes.
Boyle’s use of the camera is especially interesting. There’s an energy, especially during the concert scenes that elevate the film. One of my favorite sequences, from a technical standpoint involves the first time that Jack and Debra sit down in her beach bungalow. The house features post-modern angular construction with a sunken half arch couch facing the Pacific. It wasn’t so much the views as much as what this particular location symbolizes as a transition for Jack.
Speaking of Jack, the camera absolutely loves him; he is dynamic, even when he’s speaking. His magnetic personality oozes through the screen, especially when he is together with Ellie.
The challenge with Yesterday is that the story focuses so much on the music part of Jack’s journey that he doesn’t really earn the payoff with Ellie; both characters know that they love one another as friends and we know that they know that they each want something more, but neither is willing to take the risk.
Ultimately, Curtis and Boyle made the decisions that they did to wrap the film up. Jack’s reaction is inherently noble, but Jack also doesn’t seem like the knight-in-shining-armor-type. Some of the humor felt forced which also detracted from both stories.
Despite myself, Yesterday is a clever and quirky romantic comedy. Much like the mysterious global black out that sets Jack’s adventure in motion, the rest of the story relies on the antics of a world not knowing who the Beatles were and Jack’s rise to fame because of it. The story doesn’t work, but Himesh Patel’s first performance was magnetic and he and Lilly James really lit the screen up. If I had an MVP pick for this film, it would go to Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s trusty sidekick.
Yesterday is now in theaters and has been rated PG-13.