Movie Review: 'Yesterday'

Directed by: Danny Boyle 
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran
Rated PG-13
116 minutes

On its surface, “Yesterday” is easily digestible. The premise, at least, is simple—a global power outage mysteriously wipes out the world’s memory of the Beatles, leaving an aspiring singer-songwriter as the only person who remembers the biggest pop group of the 20th century. In an effort to preserve their music, and hoping to get somewhere with his own music career, the singer, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”), begins the task of rewriting all the Beatles’ music from memory, in the process becoming a celebrity of a magnitude not seen since, well, the Beatles themselves.

Lily James and Himesh Patel star in “Yesterday."  (Courtesy photo)

The complexity of “Yesterday” comes in the form of various questions that pile up as Jack’s career explodes. First and foremost, is it ethical for him to pass off the Beatles’ work as his own, to ride their coattails all the way to his own moment in the spotlight? But then, wouldn’t it be worse to let their music disappear? The movie also wonders aloud at how the world might have responded to the Beatles’ music if they had debuted in 2019, instead of the early ’60s. (Unquestionably, the movie decides, they would have been just as big a sensation.)

Jack’s renditions of the Beatles’ songs, it’s worth noting, are vastly inferior to the originals. This is fitting, of course—the movie never suggests that Jack is anywhere near as talented as the Beatles, merely that he is fulfilling his duty of preserving their music for a world unaware of what it’s lost—but also disappointing. For a movie deeply indebted to and enamored of the Beatles’ discography, “Yesterday” puts little effort into recreating the group’s actual sound, focusing instead on reciting lyrics and replicating basic melodies. Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”) makes Jack’s performances a little rough around the edges, even sloppy, replacing the Beatles’ precision and detail with a rawness that somehow feels canned. This may be a music movie, but it’s not a showcase for actual music.

In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint what “Yesterday” does showcase. Certainly not its acting—while not unlikable, Himesh Patel is not a commanding lead, and his co-stars, Lily James (“Cinderella”) and the singer Ed Sheeran (playing himself), offer little resistance. James is saddled with one of the sorriest love interest characters you’ll see all year, a passionate woman somehow deeply devoted to the mediocre men in her life, while Ed Sheeran plays a cardboard cutout of himself, his presence here no more than a ploy to get teenage girls to buy tickets. Only Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live”), playing a caricature of a recording executive, offers any sort of vibrancy, but her character is flat and her antics out of place.

The movie can’t stand on its writing either; after the initial novelty of its premise wears off, “Yesterday” settles into a routine story of fame and romance, and one devoid of serious conflict at that. In an inexplicably tacky lapse of self-awareness, the story takes Jack to a seaside cottage to meet an elderly John Lennon (who, having never been famous, has lived into his 70s instead of dying at the hands of a deranged fan in 1980). The scene, which comes late in the movie and is intended to reveal how Jack has strayed from the right path, comes off as an aimless and half-hearted pep talk; it’s not so much an inflection point in the story as an item to check off the screenwriter’s list of what-ifs.

No, the movie’s only real saving grace is its premise. Look no further than the movie’s portrayal of a man of Indian descent singing the Beatles’ songs in studio recordings, on arena stages, even on a rooftop (mimicking the Beatles’ infamous final concert). This is the movie’s most ambitious statement, a simple, inclusive, and casually presented image that recalls without pretense the optimism of Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s hard to be mad at a movie like this, one that has no anger in it, that sees the world through rose-colored glasses and gets away with it. As a thought experiment in alternate universe goings-on, though, “Yesterday” never makes good on its promise, raising several questions without suggesting that the answers could matter. It’s as innocuous and harmless as most pop songs, but it doesn’t get stuck in your head.

  Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate,
lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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