Last year, I saw the second trailer for Welcome to Marwen, and by the end of its wonderful 2-minute runtime, Marwen was my most anticipated film of the year. By the end of the movie’s 114-minute runtime, I had barely made it through my worst experience in a movie theater in a decade. I was not ready to love again. Then I saw the trailer for Yesterday, a high-concept comedy which seemed, like Marwen, to have a bunch of really great ingredients; You have a script by the legendary Richard Curtis of Love, Actually fame, starring a charismatic new actor in Himesh Patel, and a fabulous director in Danny Boyle. All the ingredients promised something great. After the betrayal I had experienced the previous year, I was nervous to risk going through this a second time.
With a tremendous sigh of relief, I can say that Yesterday, while not quite living up to the anticipation, is nevertheless a funny, breezy, and at times joyous film that is very much worth seeing.
The concept was the biggest draw from the get-go: A man wakes up after an accident and finds that he’s the only person who remembers The Beatles. It was simple and elegant, and it hadn’t really been done before. And, in execution, it’s a very entertaining premise to see unfold. As we see Patel’s Jack Malik attempt to figure out what’s going on, he’s as baffled as you or I would be. Can you imagine a world without the Beatles? Trying to get people to understand? Jack comes to the conclusion that he could make it big by “writing” the Beatles’ songs as his own.
Besides The Beatles’ legendary music, Patel is probably the film’s biggest asset. In a funny exchange about Jack’s marketability, his agent Debra (played with abrasive fervor by Kate McKinnon) points out that he’s “Not attractive,” and “skinny but somehow round.” While that is hurtful to Patel’s character, those observations point out precisely what makes him fun to watch. Jack isn’t a supermodel or a sex symbol. He’s someone who you could imagine walking by on the street without a second glance. But in addition to his everyman charm, Patel impresses with impeccable comic timing, a soulful pair of eyes that punctuate a great deal of his performance, and the voice of an angel. More on that last bit later. He gives a great turn, and if studios know what they’re doing, his star should rise pretty quick.
The supporting cast does an admirable job as well, particularly Lily James, who I’ve warmed to since first introduced to her in 2015’s Cinderella, where she was lovely but given very little to do. Here she gets to show a little range and even sing a bit. She does a spot-on job of embodying the best friend who’s also the love of your life, without feeling like she’s just a plot device for Jack’s and the audience’s personal fulfillment. She’s beautiful and lovable, but also strong and sweet. McKinnon is reliably funny, and Ed Sheeran’s role turns out to be much more than a cameo, which I was fine with because his awkward charm is the highlight of a few scenes.
Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t have thought to pair Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle up as writer and director, respectively. Boyle’s creative use of graphics and preference for a frenetic editing style, on paper, wouldn’t seem to jive well with the more languid, lightweight style of Curtis’ works such as About Time, Love Actually, or Pirate Radio. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love those movies, but I would never even think to pair them with the guy who brought us Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs, and 28 Days Later. Surprisingly though, the two styles mesh admirably without a lot of awkwardness. Some scenes have the energy of A Hard Day’s Night, capturing the hard-and-fast life of a star on the rise. Boyle makes these scenes come alive with the usual flair and energy (A recording session in a studio by the railroad tracks comes to mind). But in more intimate moments, the film bears Curtis’ thumbprint. We get several moments of candidly-filmed “everyday people” montage that are so indicative of Curtis. Well-constructed scenes between Patel and James are reminiscent of the quiet, beautiful About Time, and their chemistry is just as convincing and engrossing. If you have a beating heart, odds are you’ll walk out convinced by the sweet romance.
But where would we be without the music? It’s the whole reason we’re here, and it’s the fuel for the story. So how does Yesterday handle the immortal music of John, Paul, George and Ringo? The short answer is, pretty well. The film does a superb job of reminding us why the Beatles are so timeless, with sequence after sequence that almost demands submissive foot-tapping. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is handled especially well, with all the infectious joy of the original track deftly portrayed. Instrumental in all this is Patel’s lovely voice, which does the iconic group justice. He sings each and every track with all the soul of Lennon and McCartney.
All that said, there were some moments that left me wanting. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the electrifying musical sequences of the recent Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, and we see glimpses of this in Yesterday. But the film seems almost determined to cut away before we get to anything super exciting musically, in favor of more intimate character moments. For example, we hear the characters talk about “Hey Jude,” we see Jack in the recording booth looking morose, and we hear the end of the track as it fades away. A decent chunk of this film is dedicated to “Hey Jude,” but we never hear it performed. It feels like a setup that’s never really paid off. And there are a couple sequences where we see Jack in concert with an audience of thousands, and from what we see performed, he’s a true rockstar. But the film shows us part of a song or two and then moves right along to the next thing, like Boyle and Curtis forgot they were making a music movie. John Carney’s Once and Sing Street showed us that it’s possible to maintain intimate scope while crafting moving musical sequences. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s last twenty minutes were the best twenty minutes of movies last year, and Rocketman moved at a blazing pace while still giving songs the emphasis they deserved. With all of this in mind, one would think that a movie about the music of the Beatles wouldn’t be so stingy about playing more of the actual music.
All-in-all though, Yesterday is an utterly charming love story with a talented cast, and a good-hearted tribute to the biggest band in the history of the world. It feeds right into the current trend of musical homage films, but does so without going the biopic route. Its central premise is terrific, creative, and mostly well-executed, and even in its lesser moments is still a joy to watch. While it would have been nice to get a genre-defining movie out of such an audacious premise, Yesterday ends the day as a perfectly solid B-movie that makes for a good night at the cinema.
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