Yesterday Isn’t a Perfect Love Letter to the Beatles, But It Doesn’t Have to Be
Over the course of their remarkably prolific career, the Beatles wrote 27 songs that reached Number 1 on the U.K. and U.S.’s major music charts. It’s no surprise, then, that the band and their music have inspired more than twice that number of movies. Yesterday, a romantic comedy written by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) and directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), is the latest film to join the ranks. And while it’s not the best Fab Four flick to hit the cinemas, it certainly is one of the most inventive, and an absolute joy to watch.
Outside of the five films that actually starred the Beatles, the glut of these works consists of documentaries detailing the heyday of Beatlemania. Stories range from coverage of their international trips (The Beatles in Australia) to intimate profiles of the lesser-known people who proved crucial to their success, such as Freda Kelly, the Beatles Fan Club president immortalized in Good Ol’ Freda.
Fictionalized biopics often centered on the gone-too-soon John Lennon, as in 1991’s The Hours and Times and 2009’s Nowhere Boy. Often, these films attempt to capture a singular moment in one of the band members’ lives, offering speculative insight into one of the greatest creative forces in modern history.
It’s in the movies inspired by their music, however, that we find the most magic. Rather than putting the focus on the lads from Liverpool, these stories attempt to paint a picture of what the Beatles’ songs mean to us. Robert Zemeckis’ directorial debut, 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, for instance, uses the frenzy that captured teens at the onset of Beatlemania to craft a comedic coming-of-age adventure.
In I Am Sam (2001), the Beatles’ music punctuates the emotions of a man with an intellectual disability, as he struggles to keep up with a daughter whose development is fast outpacing his own. The 2007 musical Across the Universe uses the band’s lyrics as part of a greater narrative involving the anti-war protests of 1970s America.
For Yesterday, Curtis and Boyle posit a fascinating question: What if the Beatles had never come together? Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malick, a struggling singer who one day wakes up to find that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know who the Beatles are. Desperate to give his career a boost, he starts piecing their songs from memory and passes them off as his own. Their music eventually turns him into the biggest star in the world—as well as one of the greatest cases of impostor syndrome imaginable.
Despite its intriguing concept, the film’s plot is fairly by-the-numbers: Girl loves boy, boy becomes famous, girl gets left behind, boy must choose between fame and love. The ending comes with exactly zero surprises. Thankfully, the script is filled with enough cleverness to keep viewers laughing throughout, and Boyle’s direction moves things forward at a pace that makes most flaws easy to forgive.
Patel is a serviceable lead, but where he truly shines is in the movie’s musical scenes. His voice meshes perfectly with the film’s stripped down versions of Beatles songs, with “Yesterday” and “In My Life” being particularly noteworthy. His chemistry with Lily James’ Ellie Appleton (i.e. the “girl” in “girl loves boy”) helps to create genuinely tender moments between the two, making it difficult not to root for them, regardless of how generic Ellie may be.
Prodding the plot along is Kate McKinnon’s Debra Hammer, a ridiculous caricature of every money-hungry agent stereotype you can think of. McKinnon appears fully aware of how terribly unrealistic her character is, and makes the wise choice to camp things up. Her Hammer is equal parts hilarious and unbelievable, which honestly fits just fine in a movie with such a fantastical conceit.
The film also stars pop singer Ed Sheeran as a parody of himself, and the many jokes made at his expense, oddly enough, benefit from his cardboard performance. It comes off as though he were the only one who wasn’t in on any of them, which lends to some of the film’s more comedic moments.
But therein lay the greatest issue with the film: Viewers need to be in on the joke to actually enjoy Yesterday. Virtually half of the jokes hinge on the audience knowing just how influential the Beatles were in real life. Scenes where Patel is appalled at characters who don’t recognize the songs can be likened to an elder scolding children for “not knowing what real music is.” The fact that it’s the Beatles might make the humor easier to pull off for general audiences, but the film fails to acknowledge that generations who might’ve just heard a song or two of theirs exist today.
The script also a glaring plot hole that revolves around the two leads’ backstory—one that is intimately tied to Yesterday’s premise. The film overlooks its own logic out of convenience, and the inconsistency is jarring enough to snap one out of the movie’s world.
Thankfully, the Beatles’ music is the perfect thing to pull one back in, through the many covers and the rousing instrumental score based on their songs. It becomes difficult, at points, not to sing along, even when things stop making sense.
Watch the trailer below: