Struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is close to giving up on his dream of becoming a world-famous musician. After suffering an accident during a blackout, he wakes up to find that everyone, except him, has forgotten the existence of The Beatles and their songs. He decides to use this to his advantage and with Ed Sheeran (as himself) taking him under his wing and a new manager in Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), Jack’s career takes off. However, his loyal best friend Ellie (Lily James) is being left behind.
Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis are not two names you’d put together, even with their British origins and the fact that they previously worked together, briefly, on the London 2012 Olympics Ceremony. Boyle is the man behind ‘Trainspotting’, ‘The Beach’, ‘28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Steve Jobs’, Curtis behind ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Notting Hill’, ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ and ‘Love Actually’. How would those sensibilities coalesce?
The pair work in tandem better than you’d imagine, as one quickly notes the presence of Curtis’ quirky, British sense of humour and gang of eccentric supporting characters; while Boyle’s directing style is evident primarily in the way the film is framed. The cinematography recalls ‘Steve Jobs’ especially, and is first noticeable when Jack realises he’s the only one who remembers The Beatles. Later, the visualisation of the band’s lyrics also recalls Boyle’s previous aesthetics. One should also remember the paramount role that music has played in all of Boyle’s works, particularly in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which ‘Yesterday’ is comparable to.
The other major talking point of the film is of course the main concept. What would the world be like if The Beatles, one of the greatest bands of all time, was wiped from existence? Boyle and Curtis do a good job at portraying the guilt Jack feels in taking The Beatles’ work as his own, and Himesh Patel, whose biggest credit before this was ‘Eastenders’, maintains an indispensable likeability in the character. Plus the guy can definitely sing. Jack initially feels frustrated by people’s lack of appreciation for the genius of ‘his’ music, but he also develops a sense of responsibility as he’s the only one who can bring these songs to the world. There is an interesting exploration of how The Beatles’ songs would fit into this era (Ed Sheeran suggests the title ‘Hey Jude’ be changed to ‘Hey Dude’) and what the implications of the songs coming from one artist rather than a band are.
The renditions of Beatles classics are excellent, emphasising their elation and broad appeal while also doing something that bit different with them. However, there are some flaws to ‘Yesterday’ as well. There’s little for certain supporting characters to do, which is a shame given Curtis has written such great ensembles in the past. While Sheeran impresses more than you’d think, McKinnon’s sense of humour feels misplaced, hilarious as she normally is. Really the film is carried on the shoulders of Patel and Lily James, both charming and quaint. The main issue with the film though is that for such an outlandish concept, it takes itself too seriously, and you wish there were more laughs and it poked fun at itself a bit rather than being so disconcertingly earnest.
It’s bittersweet at times and tonally reminiscent of Curtis’ ‘About Time’. There’s even a ‘running after the girl’ segment that feels inspired by ‘Notting Hill’. However, ‘Yesterday’ never quite measures up to the screenwriter’s prior works. Still, it’s winsome and such a lovely, warm viewing experience that it’s impossible to go too tough on it.