Richard Curtis is clearly a fan of cramming a lot of different stories into one movie, if his defining work – his script for Love Actually – is anything to go by. So that he’d opt for the same tactic writing Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, a Beatles musical set in a world where the generation-defining band never existed, comes as no surprise. Sadly, while the resulting film has enough crowd-pleasing moments and catchy Beatles tunes to maintain mainstream audience’s interest, it tries to do so much that it comes across as overstuffed and undercooked.
Which is a shame, because the premise for Yesterday – simple yet immediately engaging – had the potential to produce a much better film than it has. When aspiring singer Jack (newcomer Himesh Patel) awakes from an accident he finds himself in a world where he’s missing two teeth and, somehow, no other living person has heard of the Beatles nor their music. Jack, with the assistance of manager/best friend/crush Ellie (Lily James) and itinerant roadie Rocky (Joel Fry), soon sets out to conquer the musical world, armed with a suite of some of the best pop songs ever written.
There’re at least a half dozen good directions to take this material. Curtis picks four of them, but executes them with half-assed disdain, as though confident Boyle’s direction, the talented cast and a good dollop of charm will smooth out any kinks. For a little while, it works. But as Yesterday rolls towards its clichéd happy ending, the goodwill earned by its (indubitably very expensive) soundtrack and James and Patel’s endearing performances soon fades.
Which is a shame, because the first film Curtis is trying for – a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy – should, by all rights, have worked. The two leads share an easy chemistry and James, who cut her teeth of Disney’s 2015 Cinderella remake, is built for precisely this sort of thing. But they’re let down by a screenplay that can’t be bothered to do the legwork, only suggesting any kind of romantic connection between the two around the end of the first act before tossing a series of unconvincing obstacles between these would-be lovers.
The gist of it is that Ellie has always loved Jack, and yet he’s never made a move. Presumably because he was too busy busking on near-abandoned boardwalks or underattended pubs to notice the perfect ten making doe eyes at him? It doesn’t quite add up, to the point that I wondered if there’d be some sort of twist about this alternative-universe Ellie loving him in a way original-universe Ellie didn’t…but, nope.
In all likelihood, Curtis and Boyle were more interested in exploring the music industry. Fine; plenty of good films hang their hats on unconvincing romance storylines. But again, there’s a lack of focus: too little meat on perfectly good bones.
While the trailers portray Jack’s path from Beatles covers to super-stardom as practically instantaneous, there’s a moment or two where it seems like Yesterday is going to legitimately explore the question “How would you turn the Beatles back catalogue into a successful music career?” Jack struggles to recall the lyrics, and initially plays the tunes to distracted punters and disinterested family members.
Even after he inevitably attracts the attention of music industry bigwigs – specifically Ed Sheeran (as himself) and Ed’s manager (Kate McKinnon) – the film touches on the absurdity of exploiting such culturally-specific tunes in an entirely different era. A scene with Laverne Morris as a Universal executive casually dismissing the idea of titling his album “Abbey Road” is about as deep as we get though, with Curtis eliding over any deeper questions to focus on Jack’s growing sense of guilt. Yes, he’s worried about ripping off people who may or may not exist in this universe, lending the film an undercurrent of anxiety it would’ve been better without.
Another film Yesterday briefly promises to become is a music industry satire, mostly thanks to the contributions of Sheeran and McKinnon. This is Yesterday’s least fleshed-out angle and, honestly? Thank God for that. When the film unironically has McKinnon’s manager criticising the appearance of the rather-handsome Himesh Patel while making no comment about the fact that she manages literal potato-salad-somehow-turned-sex-symbol Ed Sheeran I don’t want to imagine how insipid a whole film driven by such flaccid satire would’ve turned out.
Finally, the film tentatively explores the ramifications of being zapped into an alternate universe after being hit by a bus. Turns out it not just the Beatles – and, naturally, Oasis, in one of the film’s cleverer jokes – that don’t exist. Coca-Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter are also unheard of here, except for a mysterious pair of strangers (Justin Edwards and Sarah Lancashire) who seem to share Jack’s plight. I wasn’t expecting a Tim-Powers-esque exploration of arcane alternate histories from a Richard Curtis/Danny Boyle film, admittedly, but this feels like yet another missed opportunity, especially when Jack belts out tunes like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” What’s the situation with international geopolitics, anyway? Are the only things different here trivial consumer goods, or is this a properly different world?
After all this griping, you’d be forgiven from thinking that I hated Yesterday. I didn’t, though! The film is fun and light and entertaining enough to ensure that it’s far from an unpleasant experience. But I wish it had commit to just one or two of its ideas and really fleshed them out, rather than idly skipping through these vestigial half-films. In an era where mixtape musicals seem to be the new normal, I’d much prefer a film like Rocketman – that makes you want to go watch Rocketman again – than a film like Yesterday, which primarily makes you want put a Beatles playlist on for the drive home.