Yesterday | Review
Never Underestimate Beatlemania: Boyle Is The Walrus
Like McCartney without Lennon, Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is long on whimsy, short on content—but it works. An entertaining one-note fantasy rom-com packed with every Beatles joke and fan-service imaginable, the winsome premise tells the tale of a struggling songwriter who discovers he’s the last man on earth who remembers The Beatles’ music—and capitalizes on it by performing their songs as his own. From start to finish, Yesterday milks this idea for every last drop of comedic wish-fulfillment making for genuinely funny musical escapism—basically, a nostalgic joyride with decent Beatles knock-offs—but Richard Curtis’ text offers little character growth or inherent drama.
Jack Malik (talented newcomer Himesh Patel) has a mellifluous voice, but his songwriting is uninspired. Despite support from his manager, Ellie (the always fab Lily James), Jack decides to throw in the towel—until a bus conks him unconscious. When he comes to, he’s astonished to find that all memory of the Beatles has somehow been erased: a discovery that comes too quickly for logic, but thankfully speeds his fate away from boredom. Now, Jack must choose between fame and integrity, a dilemma we’ve seen before, as recently as the remake of A Star is Born.
This parallel becomes even more glaring when Yesterday sidesteps obvious character flaws. Why is Jack so rewarded with so little consequence? Why is Ellie so criminally underwritten, with no seeming purpose beyond adoring Jack? The film’s redemption lies in its unexpected supporting roles. Singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, playing himself, is the film’s most complete character: a truly hilarious mix of self-obsession, self-doubt and self-effacement. Kate McKinnon, as a delightfully avaricious music industry agent, and Joel Fry, as Jack’s dunderheaded best friend-cum-roadie, also deliver some of the film’s biggest laughs.
Yesterday is undeniably fun, especially when Jack uses Google to see what else, besides The Beatles, has gone missing—or when it owns up to its fan-made fantasy, with lightning storms that herald the mystical. But even so, some of it feels cheap after viewing, like the aftermath of a bad hookup. It fails to examine the music beyond its obvious surface … including how it might be received in the 21st century. Unfortunately, this film lives in a purgatory between its two better selves: one, an all-out comedy that doesn’t reach for third-act sentimentality; or two, a reintegration of The Beatles’ essence into contemporary culture, where Jack has to learn what their songs really mean.
Critique notwithstanding, never underestimate the power of Beatlemania. The same way JJ Abrams reanimated The Force Awakens, Boyle has revamped the Beatles for modern audiences. Fans will enjoy Patel’s spirited covers and the film’s nonstop laughs: plenty good reason to ignore its flaws if you, like so many others, are yearning for Yesterday.