What would the world look like if The Beatles never existed? That’s an interesting question, the kind that brings even more intriguing ones along with it. Was their cultural impact so colossal that a world without them is entirely different? Does popular music sound the same? Was late 20th-century counterculture affected? Does Oasis ever record a song?
It’s unfortunate that Yesterday, writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle’s new film about a Beatles-less reality, largely isn’t interested in exploring any of these potential paradigm shifts. Curtis’s messy script is instead designed to cash in on the romantic comedy tropes that made his career, sprinkling a fascinating premise over a tired story of love and fame. Yesterday is less a movie about The Beatles vanishing from history and more about two flat-as-a-board characters wondering why their relationship never ended up feeling like a Beatles song.
The pitch for this thing must have been music to the ears of executives: a down-on-his-luck singer-songwriter named Jack (Himesh Patel) gets hit by a bus in the middle of a worldwide blackout, only to wake up and find he’s the only person who can remember the Fab Four ever existing. He reluctantly starts performing the group’s songs as his own, quickly launching himself into the fame and fortune he’s always wanted. Here you have a premise with baked-in nostalgia and a chance to comment on the legacy of a canonical band, exploring the complex nature of the music industry in the process.
Rather than take that route, the movie largely focuses on Jack’s relationship with his endlessly devoted best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James). This would be somewhat passable if either of the characters had a real personality or even a real bond, but Curtis’s script is so surface-level that we never get a real sense of why the two never ended up together. Like many female Curtis characters, Ellie is particularly under-defined; she has little characterization outside of her increasingly questionable dedication to Jack. The role is slightly elevated by the always excellent James, but it’s a one-note character that never goes anywhere beyond serving the plot. Jack similarly gets mistreated by his own script; Patel is a charming and talented performer, but outside of his singing scenes he too feels like a barely human character.
The romance subplot is laid on so thick that the more fascinating parts of Curtis’s premise get lost in the quagmire. The film’s satirical jabs at the business of making music feel broad and lazy; a kooky, greedy manager played by Kate McKinnon and a fitfully amusing but ultimately boring supporting role from pop star Ed Sheeran do little to disavow that notion. The film’s only real moments of fun come from some throwaway gags about other cultural objects lost in the blackout, Coca-Cola and cigarettes among them. But even that joke becomes tired as the film chugs on, with the trademark snarky humor of Curtis’s writing growing to borderline unbearable levels by the film’s conclusion. Not to mention the extreme logic stretches needed to buy into his premise, which grows shakier with every passing minute; if Jack’s life is owed to listening to the Beatles, why is it virtually unchanged when they disappear from existence? Curtis never bothers with an answer.
Ultimately the music is what is supposed to connect all these disparate pieces together, and Yesterday dutifully plays like a karaoke collection of the Beatles’ most digestible hits. The group’s notoriously expensive music licensing is on full display here, as Jack plays less of the songs that made them iconic and more of the earlier tunes that kicked off Beatlemania. Patel does a fine job of it, being one of the few actors in recent memory that understands how to truly perform a piece of music, but it’s a pity he doesn’t get a crack at the more innovative pieces of music that made The Beatles legends. The selected songs probably won’t live up to the expectations of even those who have only listened to their greatest hits albums.
One of the weirdest elements of the film is Boyle’s direction, who takes a step out of his usual genre-movie wheelhouse for this more conventional picture. The discomfort shows as Boyle’s penchant for extreme Dutch angles and flashy editing feels at war with Curtis’s drab script. There’s material here that seems appealing to his style, from tense recording sessions to some fun moments like trying to navigate the tricky lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby”, but it largely feels like Boyle is punching a bit beneath his weight. Lacking the heightened characters and gritty intensity that amps up even his quietest works, Boyle simply isn’t the right fit for a script this benign, leading to a notable disconnect between writer and director that looms over the entire film.
Yesterday is by and large a pretty unremarkable movie until its third act, where it then shifts into being an outright bad one. An ill-advised “twist” and tropes reaching their apex leaves the film begging for a clean ending, resulting in a film that buries itself under a mountain of missed opportunities. In the end, the film’s failures almost feel meta, as if everyone involved also forgot what The Beatles actually meant to the popular culture and beyond. Only needing love may be true for the real world, but Curtis seemingly can’t recognize you need more than that to make a solid piece of art.