Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Kate McKinnon, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Harry Michell, Sophia Di Martino, Ellise Chappell, Ed Sheeran
Imagine a world where your favourite band/artist did not exist, where you’d never hear their music or see them perform in any capacity. Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? This is exactly what happens in Yesterday, a fictional world in which the Beatles (and many other musicians, brands, fictional characters etc.) never happened. That might not bother a lot of people who aren’t particularly fans, but for the majority of the population of the world it would be a disaster. Does director Danny Boyle’s latest production give us an entertaining and somewhat thoughtful glimpse into such a world, or could we just as easily live in a world where this movie never existed?
Jack (Patel) is a struggling musician living in Brighton with his parents. Ellie (James) is his long-time friend and manager who also works full-time as a teacher, as Jack once did. One night, after a gig, Jack is cycling home when there’s a sudden electrical blackout that affects the whole world for a few seconds, and Jack is hit by a bus, knocking him unconscious. After coming to and recovering in hospital, Jack plays an acoustic rendition of ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles and leaves his friends stunned, as they believe he wrote the song. After questioning his friends and searching the internet, Jack comes to find that he has awoken in a world where the Beatles and their music never happened. In order to ensure the world still gets to hear their songs, Jack begins playing as many as he can remember, which results in a record deal backed by Ed Sheeran (appearing as himself). As the world believes the songs to be his, it begins to play heavily on Jack’s conscience, and he finds himself going deeper and deeper into the lie.
Boyle is well known for making films that are not only entertaining but interesting, often visually stimulating and usually thought-provoking in some way or another. Yesterday can be considered entertaining and thought-provoking, but it’s not the most cerebral or well-put-together of his films, nor does it provide any particularly stunning visuals. The story itself, with its cheesy romantic aspects and often light-hearted dialogue, also seems distinctly un-Boyle-esque; it’s really quite an odd pairing to have Boyle direct a film that’s screenplay was written by king of British rom-coms Richard Curtis. The original story (written by Jack Barth and Mackenzie Crook) was apparently a lot darker, and Curtis was brought in to lighten it up. Perhaps Boyle could have been more suited to this original darker version, but what we’ve ended up with is a director and story that don’t quite gel onscreen.
It can often be a little obvious when someone has been brought in to fiddle with a pre-written script, for better or worse, and in the case of Yesterday it’s the plot holes that absolutely scream that it was for the worse. Granted, it may not be easy to remember what you’ve written out of history or pop culture when creating a new world, but it does become glaringly obvious to an audience. One of the biggest ones is not knowing anything about the supposed blackout that occurred – nothing to explain how or why it happened. There are multiple other instances of such a thing happening, but to go through them all would be verging on spoiler territory. Then there’s the cliff hangers that are never fully resolved or explained. Without giving anything away, even the ending itself leaves a lot to be desired. It would be fair to say that audiences don’t always need to know what happens after, but in this instance, it would have been better to have an explanation of many things. Instead of leaving us questioning things in the conversation-inducing way we often might after seeing a film, it leaves us frustrated and questioning the entire point of the film, in spite of its over-arching theme of appreciating what we’ve got.
Yesterday could quite easily have been worse if it weren’t for the lead performance. If you’ve ever seen Patel’s previous work (particularly in Eastenders), you can get a feel for someone who’s got a natural comedic streak under his more dramatic abilities, making him absolutely perfect for this kind of role – he can be serious when he needs to be but his real talent lies in exceedingly dry wit, a type of humour that can easily be done poorly to the point that it’s annoying. Luckily Patel has that fully under control. His talents as a singer and instrumentalist also shine in this film, allowing him to really deliver the full package as Jack and truly make the film what it is. When it comes to James, anyone who has read previous reviews I’ve written about films she’s been cast in will know that I don’t generally enjoy her performances unless she’s creating a caricature of some kind, such as in Cinderella, or when she has to utilise an American accent, such as in Baby Driver or Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, an accent that calls for a little exaggeration and over-the-top acting; these kinds of roles are perfectly suited to her, however when it comes to straight-laced roles such as Ellie, she comes across as though she doesn’t understand her character or which emotion to portray. Ultimately, I am a fan of James, and I will always root for her and see any movie she features in, but sometimes she picks the wrong roles. Her performance isn’t terrible, but audiences can be left feeling very indifferent towards Ellie. She is a good character, and James is a good actress, but, in the same way as Boyle and Curtis, these two weren’t made for each other.
Having Sheeran appear as himself (original casting was Chris Martin of Coldplay but this was unable to happen due to scheduling reasons) was a bit of an odd one. Of course, his fans would be delighted to see as much of him as they do in this film, but it does feel like the film is just riding the wave of his current popularity. His inclusion as a character does help to propel Jack to superstardom, but he wasn’t entirely necessary. McKinnon was perhaps your stereotypical token American as Jack’s agent, and she does bring a lot of that American humour to entice American audiences, but the real MVPs of the supporting cast are Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jack’s parents; a pair of stalwarts in British comedy, they’re instantly recognisable and you know when you see them that you’ll be giggling within seconds.
There are a lot of things right with this film, but also a lot of things wrong. A world without the Beatles would be a very different world indeed (for many of us), and it is interesting to see an exploration of that, particularly through such a fun and well-rounded and -performed character such as Jack. Although not executed in the best way, there’s enough in this film to be able to enjoy it as some light entertainment, particularly if you do enjoy the music of the Beatles and couldn’t bear to think of our world without Paul, John, George and Ringo.