You know Summer 2019 is coming up short on quality cinema when even Danny Boyle is delivering average fare. Whereas fusing Danny Boyle’s direction with the writing of Aaron Sorkin turned out to be a match made in heaven in 2015s Steve Jobs, merging his directorial skills with the writing of Richard Curtis (of Love, Actually fame) in the new feature Yesterday turns out to be a match made in…certainly not Hell, but somewhere in between (Milwaukee, maybe?) Though Yesterday has one of the more unique premises for a mainstream movie in a blue moon, the execution of that premise leaves much to be desired.
This romantic comedy is about a man, Jack (Himesh Patel), who struggles as a musician alongside his manager/best friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James) and is preparing to give up on his dreams when two things suddenly happen simultaneously: a worldwide power outage occurs and he gets hit by a bus. Waking up after this accident, Jack quickly realizes that, after that mysterious power outage, he’s now the only one on the planet who remember who The Beatles are. Now that only he knows the lyrics to songs like Let It Be, Jack begins to sing all of The Beatles tunes and claim them as his own, which takes him on the road to fame and fortune, but away from Ellie, who may just harbor more passionate feelings of romance for him than he expected.
Yesterday takes a high-concept premise about the world forgetting about one of the most iconic bands of all-time and proceeds to do a very basic rendition of the plot of High School Musical 2 (which was already pretty derivative when it comes to this plot that’s been done so many times before) wherein a normal dude becomes wealthy and alienates the girl he loves. The formulaic nature of the premise wouldn’t be much of a problem if the script by Richard Curtis could execute that premise in an entertaining and/or romantic fashion, but Yesterday comes up short on both fronts. Primarily, this is due to Ellie Appleton just not working well as a character, despite the fact that she’s portrayed by Lily James, a performer who’s been rocking it with a string of memorable performances in everything from the grim countryside neo-noir Little Woods to the burst of pure joy that is Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again.
James exudes a charming exuberance and realistic goofiness in her performance that leads to some humorous moments, but she’s underserved by a script that never gives Ellie much in the way of a personality or her own individual motivations. She doesn’t come across as a person in the story of Yesterday and that’s a problem, the best movie romances rely on the connection between two human being, not one person pining for another barely defined character. To the films credit, Yesterday does get one of its best scenes out of just relying on the chemistry between Himesh Patel and Lily James in a sequence depicting their two characters just running through a large tunnel and singing songs in Liverpool. If the rest of the Yesterday had been kept this simple, then the more thinly-sketched characters would have worked just fine. But when it goes any more complex (and it usually does), well, the immense talents of Lily James can only do so much in such an underwritten role that ends up making the critical romance part of the Yesterday screenplay feel far more underwhelming when it should
Much of the rest of the supporting cast, including a generic wacky best friend for Jack or a sneaky music agent played by Kate McKinnon (the latter role being the one indicator I’ve seen so far that McKinnon’s talents on SNL might not translate to certain big-screen roles), suffers from the same kind of uninteresting one-dimensional writing that plagues the Ellie character. Yesterday has such a delightfully unique starting point, why do so many of its characters (as well as a number of its joke), then, feel like they could have wandered off from any o’l movie? There’s also a strange tendency in Richard Curtis’ writing to have potentially interesting conflict within the story of Yesterday just sputter out without going anywhere, a trait that becomes especially apparent in the third act, a stretch of the story also containing a clumsy scene involving Jack getting sage life advice that aims for poignancy but just comes off as weird in execution.
Lest I sound like a grouch who would have thought the music of The Beatles was “too noisy” back in the 1960s, allow me to say that Himesh Patel makes a mighty fine debut as a cinematic leading man here. His depiction of Jack being more consistently conflicted about changing his looks and songs for the prospect of fame & fortune is the sole distinguishing factor in Yesterday’s depiction of a tired & true storyline about the cost of getting famous. Patel also has a beautiful singing voice that makes the various times where he bursts into renditions of Beatles songs a treat, in fact, I wish there had actually been more prolonged scenes of just him singing. Like Sing from a few years back, Yesterday has a tendency to just hurry through or even skip over musical performances that feel like they should be more critical to the story, but whenever Patel gets the chance to sing, he does so beautifully.
A welcome surprise in Yesterday is how often the camerawork and direction does feel like it hails from a traditional Danny Boyle film, particularly in the repeated use of tilted low-angle wide shots that feel akin to similar types of shots seen in his past directorial efforts like the two Trainspotting movies or Steve Jobs. Boyle’s direction isn’t just pleasantly consistent with his prior films, it also lends the feature a unique look among modern-day romantic comedies. Unfortunately, Boyle’s talents behind the camera can’t overcome a shockingly clumsy script that doesn’t make Yesterday as good of a movie as either the talents of actors like Lilly James or the high-concept premise that inspired it deserved. Hey Jude, maybe go see something else.