Review: Yesterday Takes The Beatles Out of Time

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel from BBC’s EastEnders), a struggling singer/songwriter, lives in a small English seaside town. Years ago, He left his career to pursue music encouraged by his manager/best friend Ellie (Lily James, Baby Driver) but after ten years of toiling in obscurity, Jack’s ready to throw in the towel. Just as he admits his dreams of fame and fortune will never come true, Jack is in an accident. During a twelve-second global blackout, Jack gets hit by a bus and re-awakens in a world where no one remembers The Beatles or their extensive discography. Jack’s suddenly facing a dilemma: does he use the Beatles music to make himself a star? After a bit of hilarious Googling and testing his friends, Jack decides to present songs from the Beatles catalog to the world as his own.

Himesh Patel in Yesterday, courtesy Universal Pictures.

Music Makes The World Go Round In Yesterday

Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) and written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, War Horse) and Jack Barth (The Fabulous Picture Show), Yesterday is a time travel romantic comedy that presents an ethical dilemma as the gateway to lessons in learning to appreciate what you have even as you year for more. The music of the Beatles is showcased to great advantage (and solidly performed) even while the script pokes gentle fun at the grandiose way in which some put it on a pedestal. The story doesn’t shy away from bringing current music stars to properly frame its musical message. Ed Sheeran playing himself leans into the hype around his songwriting ability and unconventional rise to stardom. He’s witty, ironically prickish, and all the way on board with making fun of his own myth. His story arc – intertwined with Jacks rise from obscurity and fear of being discovered – is a subtle but necessary element to making a story built around the Beatles work; particularly for non-Beatles acolytes. It’s a fresh take on the singer/songwriter phenomenon and a peek behind the veil of music marketing.

Himesh Patel in Yesterday, courtesy Universal Pictures.

Why The Beatles?

When you think of great bands and musicians, whether your a fan or not, The Beatles is on that list. Their musical impact spanned the globe and changed the landscape of pop music in the mainstream. I add that coda because outside mainstream culture, The Beatles may well not be the penultimate group to build a time travel movie around. The story assumes the audience will “get” the emotional impact of waking up in a world without The Beatles and that can be a bit of a non-starter for younger viewers (and non-fans) but Boyle leverages this unique premise masterfully making best use of Curtis’ and Barth’s writing to set a believable and hilarious stage. There are a few minor story arcs that amount to misdirection but the payoff is worth the side trip almost every time. The film’s strong supporting cast does a stellar job of filling out this world with genuine humor and a standout performance by Kate Mckinnon makes this the most compelling storyline throughout. Building a world around The Beatle suddenly makes sense (especially the hat-tips to the groups most iconic moments based in Liverpool) and then the script fumbles at the finish line. So, be prepared for the culmination of this story arc to irritate.  For some inexplicable reason, the final act lets down the entire plot. The end of the third act is so off balance it vividly demonstrates that Yesterday’s writers failed to read their own room well. Rom-coms are never perfect but the multiple moments of cognitive dissonance towards the end completely take away from the great job the first two-thirds of a great unfolding story.

Yesterday Leans Into ‘The Don’t Know What You’ve Got’ Theme

As a down-on-his-luck musician, Jack is pretty blind to the people in his life who are there for him no matter what. Jack spends so much time dwelling on the negative and worrying about what’s missing he repeatedly makes short-sighted and/or self-destructive decisions.  Himesh Patel gives a solid performance and infuses both the dramatic and musical elements with life and believable emotion (something that makes or breaks a romantic comedy). Ellie believes Jack has something special but it quickly becomes obvious that her feelings aren’t those of just a friend. Lily James gives a masterful portrayal of a good person in the midsts of unrequited love. Under Boyle’s direction, the chemistry between Patel and James is a subtle – easily missed – thing deliberately awkward and unassuming. There are moments that will have you hoping against hope that Ellie makes a break for it because Jack’s clueless (and more than occasionally callous) advantage-taking is relatably uncomfortable to watch.

Himesh Patel and Lily James in Yesterday, courtesy Universal Pictures.

In The End, Yesterday Sends Mixed Messages

Yesterday is officially on my list of films making best use of a music catalog thus far this year. But Yesterday‘s messaging about what Jack owes the world (and The Beatles) unravels at a pivotal moment necessary to ultimate buy-in to this storyline and exposes the out-moded outlook at the heart of its romantic ambitions. The production is compelling from the location choices to the featured songs. So, go in prepared to shake your head at the persistently stupid decisions while enjoying the great comedy and solid multi-layered performances (this is most certainly a British-flavored story) that entertain. Because despite its rom-com failings, I enjoyed it.

Grade: B+

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