Review: Yesterday (2019)

Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is built around a fun topic for debate – if The Beatles never existed, could their songs still carry a social impact in the modern day? Unfortunately, the possibilities are squandered in the service of a generic and frustrating romantic comedy.

Himesh Patel is Jack Malik, a failing musician on the verge of quitting when he wakes up in a world where The Beatles popped out of existence. Though he briefly struggles with some of the best songs ever written now under his name, he quickly becomes one of the biggest stars in the world.

This turns out to be a problem because he’s madly in love with his former manager Ellie and is completely incapable of just saying it – you’d think since she is open about being in love since her childhood and he returns those feelings, he could simply promise to come back after the tour or even offer to move her out with him once he receives the loads of cash that seem imminent if he stays course. The romantic tension of this movie rides entirely on the two being incapable of saying the most basic things to each other, and the fact it isn’t resolved until the end feels entirely inorganic. All this does is cast Jack Malik as a socially inept buffoon.

The problem with a mainstream story that could question The Beatles’ legacy is that it has to play within certain rules. To feature a character playing their music requires legal agreements, which means the music is treated as an objective good. As Jack dots the walls of his room with Beatles’ song titles, one of the first we see is “Revolution 9” – even their generally agreed upon lesser tracks are spared any criticism.

A big issue at the heart of this film is convincing us that Jack is capable of reproducing these songs to nearly the same level. We’ve all heard lesser cover versions, and I’m sure one of them would pass as great without the original to compare. What stops me from believing the way it’s presented here is that Jack seems to largely work alone. How does he pull off their more elaborate work? The movie largely sticks to showing their simpler songs, and it was never clear if Jack himself was doing the same, realizing his own limits.

Even accepting that this movie is going to paint The Beatles as ‘objectively’ good, it could have at least explored Jack’s morals in this scenario. We teeter on the edge of interesting scenes when a few people ask how he came up with the songs and he simply can’t explain, but these moments are rarely pursued. Imagine how much more engaging this story could be if the public grew aware he was somehow plagiarizing seemingly non-existent songs. But again, this movie is a simple fluff piece with no deeper thoughts.

The use of Ed Sheeran in this movie seems rather out-of-touch. While he may be a megastar as far as sales go, his music lacks critical acclaim. Is this the closest equivalent they could think of in the modern scene? It again highlights a central flaw, the belief that this music can exist without the context of its time; there are, in fact, modern bands that do a phenomenal job capturing the sound of the Beatles. However, bands like Tame Impala rarely break through to the mainstream despite their adherence to this once classic sound. This is a film that correlates quality with an overly simplistic understanding of popularity. If The Beatles wrote the exact same songs yet never achieved as much success, would these same works somehow be lesser?

Luckily, Danny Boyle is still a stylish director. Musical sequences are full of energy, and it manages to be enjoyable despite all its shallow elements. That doesn’t add up to much, though, as I’d sooner recommend his other works.

Yesterday is a mediocre romantic comedy with Beatles as a stuffing. The leads are too annoying to sympathize with, despite their actors being fine enough. These performances are backed by an even more annoying Kate McKinnon and the groan-inducing presence of Ed Sheeran throughout.

The saddest bit? They get the severely underappreciated Michael Kiwanuka to cameo at the beginning. Could they not have graced us with anyone of his level instead of Sheeran?

2 Stars Out of 5

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