A movie whose premise hinges on the entire back catalog of The Beatles should really be more clever than this. What we have instead is something written by the writer of Love, Actually (Richard Curtis) and directed by the director of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), to create a product of combined influences that is shockingly tepid for something featuring such historically vital material.
The strangest rub is, in nearly every aspect except the story, Yesterday has ample charms. It’s clearly made by competent people, very well shot, and the acting almost elevates the spoken material. Almost. Himesh Patel, as Jack Malik, evidently the only person in the world who remembers The Beates from an alternate reality apparently lost during a 14-second global blackout, gives a winning performance. He’s a talented singer and he plays The Beatles songs well. And the songs, the music — of course, those are always a blast to hear. The movie is really only particularly fun when Jack is playing Beatles songs.
That’s of no fault of Lily James, who is also lovely as Ellie, Jack’s longtime local manager and subject of unrequited love. It’s just that their backstory isn’t that interesting. Before the aforementioned blackout, Jack is a struggling musician who writes his own songs, and his songs are entirely forgettable. The result of being introduced to them as such characters is that, until Jack starts singing “Yesterday” and discovers no one has ever heard of it, their story is entirely forgettable too.
Honestly, even the use of Beatles songs is a hugely missed opportunity. There is so much contextualizing, and investigating of how the meaning of these songs of unparalleled influence might be changed by their never having existed until 2019. Instead, Yesterday keeps it’s focus on how they are widely regarded as the best songs ever written, and on that basis alone, even in 2019 it results in Jack becoming an overnight superstar. I have my doubts as to whether it would really play out that way, and particularly so quickly.
I don’t suppose that matters, for some. If the movie is fun then it’s fun, right? And surely, casual fans of The Beatles will find this movie fun, people who don’t think much about the history and import behind them. But I would consider myself a casual fan of the Beatles, but also a pretty hardcore fan of movies, and I prefer movies make some sort of sense. I don’t require and explanation for every little thing; this movie provides no information whatsoever as to how or why this global, 14-second blackout happens, and I’m fine with that. But I am also aware of the broader history of pop culture and the place The Beatles have in it, and therefore have a desire for an alternate universe in which it doesn’t exist to interrogate more than just how that music brings fame and fortune. That seems to be the only thing about The Beatles that this movie is interested in.
Sure, it has its cute moments. Ed Sheeran plays a significant supporting role as himself, the guy who discovers Jack’s “talent” and helps launch him into fame. Kate McKinnon is an easy satire of money-hungry Hollywood agents. Jack keeps discovering random other things this no longer existing in this alternate reality: Coca-Cola, cigarettes. And to be fair, for many viewers it will be easy to appreciate what this movie is, as opposed to what it should or could have been. I still wouldn’t tell even those people it needs to be seen in a theatre — you can enjoy it just as easily on your streaming service of choice in a couple of months. But I fall firmly in the camp that can only see this movie’s unrealized potential. In a better writer’s hands, it could have been something great, something actually worthy of the buzz it generated when the trailer first started appearing.
You might wonder why that buzz never lasted. Those of us who have seen the movie can easily see why. It’s because even though Yesterday is fine, no movie based on the hits of The Beatles should ever be just fine. They deserve better.