The hardest reviews to write are the ones for greatly anticipated movies that ultimately fall short of expectations. Such is the case with Yesterday, a film that, based on its premise and leading creative credits, should be one that delights from start to finish. Written by the wonderful Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral; Love, Actually; About Time and the best episode of the rebooted “Doctor Who” series, “Vincent and the Doctor”) and directed by the equally talented Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), Yesterday centers around Jack Malik (a charming Himesh Patel) and his meteoric rise to stardom after a global incident renders him the only person who remembers The Beatles and their chart-topping music.
Co-starring Lily James as Ellie, Jack’s best friend, manager and not-so-secret admirer, so much of Yesterday is wonderful, it would be perfectly fine to carve out time over the weekend to check it out. Packed from start to finish with some of the best music ever written (seventeen Beatles tracks in all, which Billboard estimates must’ve cost at least $10 million to license), that alone makes it a joyful couple of hours at the cinema. Unfortunately, the narrative that’s shoehorned in between the tunes is far from Curtis’s best, an uncharacteristically superficial farce that whiffs any attempt to impart a bit of wisdom or even common sense into the proceedings. Perhaps worse, Curtis seems to reuse conventions (and characters) he’s long since exhausted, giving the whole thing the disappointing air of having been phoned in.
Jack is a struggling musician playing the smallest stages at music fests and repeating his one decent song at the pub where he’s a regular; despite Ellie’s unfailing confidence in him, he’s ready to call it, to give up on his dream entirely. Biking home one night, the whole planet suffers a momentary power outage, long enough to crash Jack into the pavement, knocking out his front teeth while the world gets knocked a bit off its cultural axis. In an effort to cheer him up, Ellie and friends get him a new guitar, on which he strums the first song that comes to mind: “Yesterday,” by The Beatles. His friends are dumbfounded by its beauty, and Jack just figures they’re pulling one over on him when they say they’ve never heard it before.
All of this is in the film’s trailer, as is the presence of a modern day star who, arguably, is as big as The Beatles: Ed Sheeran. How all this ties together is where the head-scratching begins, as Sheeran, a global superstar, literally shows up on Jack’s doorstep one day, inviting him out on tour. Everything has to happen fairly quickly in order to get Jack from those dead-end gigs to opening at the world’s biggest venues, but the liberties the plot takes would rival Spring potholes in Chicago. The attempt to keep a parallel storyline going around Jack and Ellie’s relationship, plus a mysterious sidebar that gets resolved in such an unsatisfying way it should never have been there in the first place, makes the whole affair muddy and confused. And though there are more than a few fun touches to the world created within the film (turns out The Beatles aren’t the only cultural touchstone to go missing), each step forward seems thwarted by an inexplicable misstep (a particular “cameo” reeks of bad taste).
Boyle does his bit to keep things on track, directing the film in ways both grand and approachable. From Jack’s trek through the pouring rain to check in with Ellie to the third act’s climactic concert scene in a massive open-air stadium, we’re always in good hands. This is a filmmaker as comfortable with the adventurous takes as he is the standards, knowing just when to deploy each. It doesn’t hurt that leading man Patel is a natural (making his feature film debut, he’s been working in television since 2010), bolstered by James and a supporting cast that includes Kate McKinnon, James Corden and more.
Though Yesterday won’t prove to be an enduring favorite like some of either Boyle’s or Curtis’s earlier works, Patel—and those seventeen classic songs—might just be reason enough to see it at all.