Some movies never get much beyond the great idea that spawns them. These sorts of films are often more disappointing than mediocre films which began without a great idea at their core. Something that is merely passable throughout somehow feels better than something that starts with genius and then quickly slides to passable. Unfortunately, the Danny Boyle directed, Richard Curtis written, Beatle music offering “Yesterday” never does more than offer its great idea.
And, it truly is a great idea – a not terribly good musician, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), finds himself hit by a bus when the world suffers a blackout. Upon waking up, Jack discovers that he’s the only one who remembers The Beatles and quickly sets about becoming famous using John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s tunes.
That’s it; that’s the idea. It is weird and magical and simple and full of potential. In this case, unrealized potential.
There are so many places that a film could go from this moment, but “Yesterday” doesn’t really travel down any of the paths. It certainly head fakes towards many of them, but there is a whole lot of wheel spinning and scads of time to devoted to the could-have-been romantic relationship between Jack and his former manager, Ellie (Lily James).
The film’s depiction of Jack’s whirlwind rise is tremendous. His working on putting together what he can remember of The Beatles song’s is funny, depicted cleverly, and Malik’s performance here is winning. The appearance of Ed Sheeran (played by himself) as Jack’s mentor and guide to singer-songwriter stardom is brilliant as well. Even Jack hiring a new manager, Debra (Kate McKinnon), is wonderful. No small part of this is due to McKinnon’s incredible work. She is, as this reviewer has said on more than one occasion, a national treasure, able to make people laugh or cry or think with little more than a look and few brief words.
So, what then is the problem? This all sounds great, right? Well, this is all taken care of in the first half of the movie. After that… there’s a whole lot of nothing. Scads of time are taken up with the will they-won’t they question of Jack and Ellie, which is bad because not only does everyone know the answer, but more importantly, the relationship doesn’t work. There is no chemistry between James and Patel, and neither has much of a character to fall back on. It is just a series of meetings and partings that feel as though they exist to pad the length of the movie.
One of the more interesting choices “Yesterday” makes is the manner in which it discusses the worldwide blackout and disappearance of The Beatles. While Jack is quite interested in what other knowledge has disappeared from the world, the film itself isn’t. Then, there’s the fact that the entire population of the world quickly forgets that the power went out all over the Earth for several seconds. There is no questioning of this once Jack leaves the hospital following his accident… it just drops away.
The dichotomy here is awkward. As the movie isn’t interested in what happened or why or the results of it beyond using it as a springboard to get Jack out of his rut, Jack’s being concerned about it all vacillates from fleeting to all-consuming. There are a moment or two when the mystery expands, but then it’s forgotten about just as quickly, almost as though the film returns to it simply in order to move the plot forward when Boyle and/or Curtis didn’t know how else to proceed.
Even the look at fame offered by “Yesterday” is uninteresting. It is a wholly superficial take on the music industry, one which only works as well as it does due to McKinnon and a brief appearance by Lamorne Morris, but beyond mentioning the machine that is the music industry, there is no commentary offered.
Whatever else it may pretend to be, whatever illusions it may initially provide, at its heart, “Yesterday” is the most bland of romantic comedies. Some of the jokes land, and the audience certainly wants to see this awkward couple make it work, but it’s not enough to keep the viewer engaged. None of the myriad of potentially interesting ideas are explored and the best the whole thing can do to keep the audience engaged throughout is offer up another Beatles song. It isn’t an horrible strategy, they created some of the best music the world has ever known, but it isn’t successful either.
photo credit: Universal Pictures