The following review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago Critics Film Festival.
The Pitch: What a day for struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). He woke up. Got out of bed. Dragged a comb across his head. And discovered he could plagiarize the entire Beatles catalogue. How? How could a man copy the most well-regarded and widely known band of the 20th century and get away with it?
One night, Jack gets hit by a bus while riding his bike. Don’t worry, he’s fine. But weirdly enough, this accident coincides with a global blackout. When Jack wakes up, pop-cultural mainstays have disappeared. There’s no more Coca-Cola. Cigarettes don’t exist. And The Beatles never came together. No John, no George, no Paul, no Ringo. Yesterday, we had The Beatles. Today, Jack is about to cash in.
Directed by Danny Boyle from a screenplay by Richard Curtis, Yesterday is a magical realist comedy-fantasy romantic cacophony about the Beatles that poses a cute-enough ‘what if?’ scenario. Too bad it’s not all that funny, or romantic, or even entirely convincing as a celebration of the band.
Ain’t That A Shame? Yesterday exists in a weird moment, where a transparently saccharine onscreen love letter like this tends to have an antagonistic effect on audiences. The script, from rom-com kingpin Richard Curtis (Love, Actually) is wrong-headed not only in that it’s a celebration by way of worry, but that it’s layered with lazy gags, implausible romance, and little beyond fan service to offer.
More precisely, Yesterday suffers from its own gregariousness and unyielding devotion to the greatness of The Beatles. And to be 1000% clear, the Beatles are still great, but the film comes across as self-important. If the adage is that all you need is love, it turns out that you also need a little more, at least onscreen. Perhaps some wit, some insight, or some passion might have helped. Yesterday finds itself lacking in the script department, only occasionally stopping to have fun with its loopy central idea.
Save for a few ideas, Yesterday is dragged down by its groan-inducing flaws. For one, it begs, pleads, and screams with its viewers to consider the greatness of the Beatles, without ever giving a precise reason why beyond viewers’ pre-existing fandom. At times the movie’s total evangelism verges on a thinly veiled threat: Purchase and download your Beatles hits, for who knows what could happen. FOMO is a powerful tool, but in this movie’s clumsy claws, the idea is both under-explored and unconvincing.
The band is the closest thing to a universally liked item we still have, so wouldn’t this have been a fun chance to really appreciate their gifts in musicality, or the precise creativity of their songwriting? Curtis fawns, Boyle shoots, but no one digs all that hard into the history. The closest Yesterday gets to explaining “why” on the band’s behalf is Ed Sheeran (in a mumbling cameo) stating that Jack’s songwriting is amazing. People are in constant awe of Jack’s ‘miracle’ music-making, but there’s no time for reflection on why it connects with so many different people so deeply. Lots of heartfelt snippets of the songs and zero time to pause is the m.o., and Yesterday is like throwing on a solid Beatles playlist if it kept skipping to the next track every 30 seconds. (And not in that cool last-leg-of-Abbey Road kind of way.)
The only time the concept is effective is when it’s challenged through humor (which is rare). Jack, in a rush to record, is begged by his parents to sing, and he’s excited to introduce his new universe to “Let It Be”, but can’t get it strumming because of modern distractions. It’s funny enough. So is Sheeran suggesting that Jack change the name of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude”. Snort. But that’s about as far as the movie goes. Eventually, Yesterday reveals itself as a call to go out and buy the hits. It’s almost kind of crass, if you stop to really think about it.
Boyle’s film wants so badly to gets its pre-fabricated audience high, and it attempts this through constant acoustic hits playing across the soundtrack, layered atop an uninteresting romance between Jack and his childhood friend Ellie (Lily James). It’s marked by standard beats about creative genius and missed chances to say “I love you.” Hallmark hollow, we’d call that, even if this Hallmark card plays “Here Comes the Sun” when you open it.
The idea just feels like a half-assed attempt to drum up sales and support, since it’s been over a decade since Across the Universe and we’re running out of 50th anniversaries and Deluxe Edition reissues to promote. This is a Beatles commercial, plain and simple. And look, we’re not arguing with the product. We’re just saying the advertising is a little tacky.
Fools On a Hill: Boyle works atop Curtis’ screenplay, and the pairing is a bit off. Boyle, an uptempo stylist with gifts in the music selection department, is unusually tame here. He directs like a much less vivid filmmaker, buried under the high-concept premise. There’s nothing wrong with feel-good, but he showed far greater signs of life and curiosity in that realm with Slumdog Millionaire and Millions. Yesterday is sincere, plain, and disappointing in that regard, and the blame lies with the unadventurous script. It’s a movie made of record company stooge gags, “L.A. is crazy” jokes, and Jack’s perpetual love and enthusiasm for (and guilt about) biting the Beatles in the world where they never were. It’s all too bloody cute.
The Verdict: Yesterday is too trusting, too confident in its silly dream, and not fun or passionate enough. The Anthology docs feature thesis-level intrigue. Yellow Submarine and other Fab Four movies of that era are ebullient. Yesterday, by comparison, is a real Nowhere Man in the Beatles-on-film canon.
When it comes to The Beatles, their music, and their legacy, the movie is flat. Perhaps it’s trading upon the Disney Vault/Joni Mitchell logic, the fear of an artwork’s loss being monetized. (Which, look, that is an incredibly digital-era fear and theme, but expand on that if you’re gonna use it.) It’s such a cheap ploy, and the music’s still here instead, right at your fingertips on vinyl, compact disc, and streaming. Let it be, as they say.
Where’s It Playing? Yesterday is currently playing the festival circuit, but hits U.S. screens nationwide on June 28th.