As if to totally overthink a five-minute Friday night pub joke to the point of enormous Hollywood investment, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’s uber-broad summer rombuster Yesterday asks “What would you do if nobody except you could remember the music of The Beatles?”.
To enhance the subjectivity of the experience they’ve cast an almost tediously likeable newcomer as everyman Jack, a struggling singer-songwriter in rural England who — after a simultaneous worldwide electrical blackout and bike accident — finds himself the sole possessor of The Beatles’ back catalogue (as well as knowledge of Oasis, Coca Cola and ‘cigarettes’): Himesh Patel from 566 episodes of EastEnders is both the most endearing protagonist conceivable and one of the least impactful performers I’ve seen in a film: I struggle to recall a single second of his performance from memory.
Fruitfully he’s paired with the bewitchingly lovely Lily James, cast somewhat below her pay-grade as his childhood sweetheart-but-just-friend; their dynamic is so pointlessly complicated that it takes up almost half the running time of a film with literally a bottomless pit of fascinating alternate universe magic at its disposal; this is Richard Curtis being impossibly attached to the idea of keeping the simple rom-com alive. I don’t spite him for it, but I wish he’d been reigned in just a tiny bit.
Boyle does a lot to make the best of Curtis’s script: arguably the strongest director working at balancing an array of genres, even the broad summer comedy is eligible for the Boyle treatment. His approach to a story tends to be along the lines of “What if I showed EVERYTHING?” and he makes a feast of Yesterday’s more visually compelling element. The blackout that initiates the NoBeatlesVerse is never mentioned again but it’s extremely cool while it’s happening; Daniel Pemberton’s beeps and boops reprise some of the manic tech energy of Boyle’s best film, Steve Jobs.
Of course, Pemberton’s score is largely neglected in favour of some music by… y’know… The Beatles, 19 of whose songs the film has licensed. Horrifyingly, Yesterday is also swollen with the catalogue of one Ed Sheeran, effectively the film’s third lead and a horrid stain on an otherwise sweet product. He’s not even bad in his role. it’s just exhausting to endure Shape of You for the third time when you know the film has 19 absolute bangers by the fab four waiting to be played in full. It’s perhaps a deliberately cruel act of ironic gesture on Boyle’s part: reminding the audience of The Beatles’s brilliance by juxtaposing them with the purest form of mediocrity.
Yet, unfortunately, Jack’s low-energy covers of the Beatles tunes are right up Sheeran’s alley and the film’s optimism is polluted by the obviousness of the horror of what he’s doing. The film veers fully into horror territory with a third-act sequence that’s both brilliantly executed and almost criminally weird. Only Danny Boyle could, and would want to, get away with the direction this film goes. Yesterday lasts about 40 minutes more than you’d expect. It features a heinously awful Kate McKinnon performance and a bunch of flat-noted pop music satire that’s been done infinitely better elsewhere. And the premise could undoubtedly have been explored perfectly fine in a 45-minute Twilight Zone episode for CBS All Access.
But Twilight Zone episodes need a dark twist ending, and Yesterday concludes on such a camp, colourful and artificially-breezy note that it almost justifies its form as Universal Studios’ biggest release of June. Also, keep in mind, if this was about the music of Queen instead of The Beatles, I would have just written the most insulting cruel review ever known to cinema. But these songs just happen to be really good.