Starring: Himesh Patel (EastEnders), Lily James (Baby Driver), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), Ed Sheeran (Games of Thrones), Joel Fry (Paddington 2)
Director: Danny Boyle (127 Hours)
Writer: Richard Curtis (Notting Hill)
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release Date: 28th June (US, UK)
A movie directed by Danny Boyle, written by Richard Curtis, and featuring the music of The Beatles? If this film were any more British, you’d probably have to crown it king or something. Those credentials would be enough to sell many film fans sight unseen, but Yesterday’s premise of a musician who is the only one in the world who remembers the legendary Liverpudlian band that makes this team-up that much more special. Unfortunately, whilst there are individual elements of Yesterday that shine, the final product is a cinematic trifle with conflicting flavours.
Yesterday wastes no time in getting to its killer hook, but it’s in so much of a rush it forgets to satisfactorily establish its main players. It’s plainly obvious from even the opening scenes that the film has been heavily trimmed in the edit, with transitions between beats often feeling abrupt, along entire scenes and even characters featured in the marketing being nowhere to be seen. The individual pieces are fine enough, but it doesn’t help make the story flow in a natural and satisfactory way. Additionally, once you take away its unique selling point, this is a little more than a standard rags-to-riches music industry story. In a landscape currently overcrowded with films like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman to name a few, there’s little other than its cute fantastical twist to set it apart.
Luckily, what the film lacks in storytelling it makes up for with humour and heart. There’s thankfully no attempt to explain how or why The Beatles (and several other mainstays of pop culture) have been suddenly wiped from existence, and it’s a gag that manages to keep evolving every time it about to get stale. It also takes its fair share of jabs at the music industry and British culture in general, some of which are expected whilst others are hilarious gag marathons. When the film decides to get sentimental, there’s a lot of the usual tugs at heartstrings Curtis is known for, and as tired as they are they’re still surprisingly effective. However, there is one reveal towards the end that I expect will floor certain people, which I won’t dare spoil here.
If nothing else, Yesterday should serve as a starmaking turn for lead Himesh Patel, who shines in the lead role of Jack Malik. His befuddled British everyman charm brings to mind the best parts of early Hugh Grant, but he gives them a modern cynical edge that works equally for both comedy and drama. Lily James is as charming as ever and has fantastic chemistry with Patel, though her character feels a little underwritten at points and their romance often comes off as contrived. Kate McKinnon also feels neglected as conniving manager Debra Hammer, delivering a performance that neither lets her be her usual unhinged self nor shows us a new dramatic side; she’s just the expected asshole music exec with little requirement for McKinnon’s idiosyncratic talents. Surprisingly, the two most enjoyable performances come from Joel Fry as Malik’s dimwitted roadie Rocky, and Ed Sheeran playing himself. Sheeran is by no means a great actor, but his reserved and matter-of fact performance often delivers quietly comedic gold, and his willingness to lampoon his own persona and career adds a needed layer of self-deprecation.
From a filmmaking perspective, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis are actually very different when you think about it. Whilst Boyle loves to experiment with genre and technique, rarely delivering an expected product, Curtis is usually quite happy with the basics whilst letting the writing and actors take focus. These two styles sometimes blend brilliantly in Yesterday, whilst at other points they fail to mesh. There’s a lot of visual flair like gaudy scene transitions and constantly varying lighting and colour grading, which often clashes with the conventional content of most scenes and lacks motivation. For example: when Malik and Rocky first meet in the story, there’s a quick scene establishing their friendship whilst walking through a music festival. So far, so basic. But for some reason, this basic character exposition scene has been entirely shot at an extreme Dutch angle for no real reason. Nothing said is eerie or odd, nothing fantastic is going on screen. It’s just two guys walking and talking about their lives. Why does this scene need to be shot this way, other than to show off?
Now for a movie featuring extensive covers of classic Beatles tracks, you’d hope the filmmakers would do something really special with the material. The result is respectful and occasionally daring, but is mostly pretty unremarkable. There’s a few tracks that have been modernised in a cool way, but otherwise they don’t sound that distinct from any average bloke strumming them on their own guitar. None of them particularly ruin the song, but very few manage to stand out either, and for a movie about music that’s a big letdown. The film doesn’t do a great job of weaving them into the narrative either, settling to do either the expected (playing “Back to the USSR” when they go to Russia, for example) or just throwing in a song somewhere because it’s recognisable. The plot does make the point that Malik doesn’t fully understand the context of many of the songs, but it’s hardly an excuse to just throw songs in without proper motivation.
Yesterday shows so much potential to be fun and joyous when moments are taken in isolation, but as a whole the experience is jumbled hodgepodge. The humour is spot-on, the actors give it their all, and even if the covers aren’t spectacular it’s still The Beatles, but it just never adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, the film feels like yet another victim of post-production meddling, yet from the final product it’s actually hard to pinpoint what was the source of the disruption. If I had to guess, I’d say it comes to down to Boyle and Curtis’ styles not meshing, and I think the film might have ended up feeling more cohesive if it fully belonged to one filmmaker or the other. If the premise has you sold or you’re a Boyle/Curtis completionist, I can’t say you’ll have a bad time. For everyone else, maybe it’s best to just let it be, at least until the home release.
FINAL VERDICT: 6.5/10