For many ardent fans of The Beatles, it is virtually impossible to imagine a world where the world’s most famous band of all time never existed. The highly influential band, along with its catalog of albums that continually redefined modern popular culture, has become synonymous with the medium of music itself. A world without The Beatles would look very different, indeed.
Yet this strange Beatles-less world is what struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) wakes up to following an accident that took place as the entire world simultaneously experienced a 12-second power outage.
The Suffolk-based singer-songwriter is aghast to find that everyone else, including his confidante-cum-manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), is suddenly unfamiliar with the band and its larger-than-life quartet of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
When Jack sings classic Beatles record “Yesterday”, a friend tells him that although it’s a beautiful song, it’s nowhere close to being as brilliant as “Fix You”. Apparently, Coldplay has replaced The Beatles as the world’s most influential band in this twisted alternate universe.
And so Jack takes on the tall task of preserving the memory of The Beatles by recording their music and introducing it to the world, while becoming a mega-famous solo act in the process.
The central conceit that powers the unlikely collaboration between director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis is certainly ripe for several comedic beats, most of which involve people’s bewilderment at the mere mention of The Beatles. Of course, the inhabitants of this alternate dimension are only familiar with actual insect beetles instead of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Curtis, known for his popular romantic comedy films such as Notting Hill and Love Actually, wrote Yesterday as a feel-good narrative grounded in his whimsical modus operandi. As such, you may expect a lot of recycled bits from Curtis’ previous works. Some of these have not aged well, while a few others – including the obligatory dim-witted sidekick – still serve as essential dishes in Curtis’ third-act meal.
The outdated components of Curtis’ writing stick out like a sore thumb in an otherwise delightful film. His usual storytelling mode – which places a typically naïve, straight male protagonist as the sole audience proxy – feels retrograde this time around, especially considering that it reduces Jack’s love interest Ellie to a shallow archetype.
The screenplay’s paper-thin rumination on the cultural legacy of The Beatles and the current state of the music industry is to be expected, since Curtis treats it as an uncompromising romantic comedy first and foremost. Everything else is secondary.
Boyle – fresh off a botched directorial outing for the 25th James Bond film – elevates Curtis’ otherwise pedestrian script, gracing almost every frame with his signature visual bells and whistles. His knack for striking composition turns what may read as trite lines on paper into eloquent cinematic expressions of the characters’ desires. There’s an extended shot where Jack and Ellie share a passionate kiss in front of a blank television screen that I consider to be among the most memorable in Boyle’s entire filmography.
The capable cast members bring Curtis’ caricatures to life, complementing them with warmth and genuine emotions.
Patel, in his debut film role, delivers a fine performance as the story’s protagonist. His nonverbal reactions to absurd scenarios are simply priceless. His covers of hit Beatles songs are simply sensational; the man knows how to sing.
James does what she can as Patel’s platonic friend. She’s predictably gorgeous, but I hope she’ll soon flex her acting muscles by taking on a role that requires her to operate outside of her comfort zone. It’s about time; she has been doing this girl-next-door shtick for too long now.
Kate McKinnon, who plays Jack’s manager later in the film, acts as if she’s in a completely different film. Her mean-spirited snark contrasts with the rest of the relatively well-behaved characters, which is why she’s consistently hilarious.
All things considered, Yesterday is a traditional Curtis picture with a fresh coat of paint, courtesy of Boyle. It is energetic and visually inventive, yet also occasionally saccharine and sloppy.
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