By Thom Ernst
Imagine waking in a world where The Beatles don't exist. And yet somehow you have memory of every note and word to all their songs.
Such is the premise of Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s whimsical fantasy film for grown-ups. In Boyle's altered universe, a competent but minor-league musician named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) becomes an international songwriting sensation after a bike accident, combined with a planet-wide blackout, leaves him as the only person on Earth familiar with The Beatles. Not only is this Boyle's gentlest film since the under-seen and underrated Millions (2004), it's also his most improbable, imperfect, and delightful work.
The title is somewhat misleading. Yes, it appropriates a familiar Beatles love ballad to reference a significant plot divide, but it also implies an overt nostalgia that isn't quite there. Boyle, with a little help from his friend, screenwriter Richard Curtis, avoids steeping the film in old-school longing.
The charm of Yesterday is not in the worship of things gone-by but in celebrating what's never left. If there is a purpose to Boyle's film, beyond engaging us in delightful speculation, it's to confirm the endurable influence of the music from John, George, Paul, and Ringo; a point most likely to be appreciated within a specific demographic, while not alienating those whose pop-music references are more recent.
To that point, in steps singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran to stabilize any wayward Beatle sentimentality. It's through Sheeran that Boyle links past with the present to both dramatic and comedic effect. Boyle's admiration for Sheeran doesn't fall prey to pandering to the musician's celebrity. Sheeran plays Sheeran as a supportive but flawed character equally capable of jealousy as he is of generosity, and indeed Sheeran provides the film with some of its best comedic moments.
Yesterday can be seen as the third in an unofficial (and unrelated) trilogy of recent films celebrating pop stars. Although this is not a Beatles biography, it's as much of a tribute film to The Beatles as Rocketman is to Elton John and Bohemian Rhapsody to Freddie Mercury. What Yesterday isn't is A Star is Born, where ultimate success means ultimate destruction, a trope so consistent in films about quick rises to fame, that by not subjecting Malik to misery, corruption and excess, seems almost like inept scriptwriting.
Almost, but not entirely. After all, this fantasy is a love fantasy; one where fame, success, and accolades do not diminish Malik’s inherent decency, nor tamper with his affections for the one woman who means the most to him. That in itself seems like a fantastical, but lovely, notion.
Yesterday is written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Life Actually) so no surprise that the romantic leads are nothing if not moral, dedicated and sweet. Patel's Malik has a natural charm that permits us to root for him despite his shaggy-dog cynicism and dim-witted failure to recognize the affections poured on him from his best friend and manager, Elly Appleton (Lily James). And if it's easy for us to side with Malik, it's impossible not to adore Appleton.
James evokes quiet independence and confidence in Appleton that elevates her from the shapeless role of the endlessly, compassionate idealized girlfriend. The closest the film gets to anything or anyone remotely villainous is Kate McKinnon's Debra Hammer, the seasoned L.A. manager who steers Malik's career towards higher venues. Hammer's over-the-top severity and bullying tactics seem familiar yet somewhat overstated. It's hard to determine if McKinnon's performance is authentically ruthless or merely a caricature oblivious to her glaring dysfunctions.
With all that the film has going for it, it's disappointing then that Boyle should abandon the story's creative-out and shuffle towards a schmaltzy reconciliation that is as unrewarding as it is unnecessary.
So, with Yesterday, Boyle makes an imperfect, but highly enjoyable film. In an era of repetitive cinema getting passed off as being original, that Boyle manages something new is a bit of a miracle. Yesterday is a gentle, feel-good comedy that sidesteps the more cynical edges seen in Trainspotting or Slumdog Millionaire. And for those who are willing to listen, it's a beautiful reminder just how significant the music of The Beatles was.
I believe in Yesterday.
Yesterday. Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, and Kate McKinnon. Opens wide June 28.