“Yesterday” (U.S. Rated – PG-13)
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon
Over the past decade, it feels as though the vast majority of films have fit into not more than perhaps 10 categories.
If they haven’t been based on comic book superheroes or action/buddy comedies, they’re either romantic comedies or romantic dramas and/or thrillers with a crazed or former lover or stalker. Or they’re wacky horror and monster movies (including giant and often evil sea creatures and aliens).
Plus, we’ve seen a lot of biopics and (loosely) based-on-a-true-story tales. And a shocking number of flicks with bad guys (and sometimes even good guys) trying to steal something, or bad guys trying to destroy the world, or bad guys trying to blackmail the world with something they stole, with which they are threatening to destroy the world.
One can count on perhaps just two or three hands the number of truly original and innovative movie subjects and concepts since the start of the decade – something that could make you sit back and say, “that’s actually fascinating”.
Well, that’s what first came to mind upon hearing the premise of the new film, “Yesterday” (which opened in the United States and United Kingdom back in June but is just now here for a brief run at The Island House).
British soap opera actor Himesh Patel (“EastEnders”) plays Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter in an English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend, Ellie, played by Lily James (“Cinderella” and TV’s “Downton Abbey”). After a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles have never existed. Performing songs by the greatest band in history to a world that has never heard them, Jack becomes on overnight sensation with a little help from his agent.
Can you say you’ve never thought about it? – what it would be like to be an international song hitmaker, cranking out number-one tunes that are almost universally loved?
As a fan of The Beatles, and with it being directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and written by Richard Curtis – who’s penned (or co-wrote) quite a few well-regarded romantic comedies, including “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”, and “Love Actually” – combined with the premise and pedigree, to say my expectations were running high would be as giant an understatement as saying, “The Beatles had some success in the 1960s”.
Alas, rarely have I seen a movie so squander all its tantalizing opportunities and possibilities. Perhaps because “Yesterday” is seemingly trying so hard to fit into so many genres, it struggles to find its voice and its footing.
It is indeed a fantasy. In fact, it’s practically science fiction. But it certainly doesn’t explore what’s behind this mysterious occurrence. At times, it appears to want to go in the direction of a thriller or mystery. But there is little tension with the mystery as to why Jack is the only one who remembers The Beatles.
It’s also a romantic comedy. But barely. And without the Beatles gimmick, it would be a very lame one.
As a comedy, it’s nowhere near as funny as it should or could have been.
Ed Sheeran playing himself is pretty interesting, and he’s got a decent sense of humor. The hilarious Kate McKinnon (TV’s “Saturday Night Live”) plays Sheeran’s wacky manager. But her style of comedy – which might actually be what was needed – feels a bit out of sync here.
As a musical, it does feature a good number of the songs from The Beatles – still the most successful pop band in history and arguably the most influential pop artists ever. A full 55 years after their global debut, they still hold the record for the most number one songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (20 to second-most Mariah Carey’s 18).
But it isn’t the musical celebration one might expect, and certainly not in the way “Bohemian Rhapsody” was for Queen, or this year’s “Rocket Man” was for Elton John.
As a story about the current state of the music industry, it too subtly takes its jabs at the shallowness of it all, and how decisions are made by committees and social media now, with much less of the passion of the songwriters or performers of yore.
For fans of The Beatles, this won’t satisfy in the same way as the aforementioned “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Rocket Man”. At best, it may help a few novices realize they actually didn’t know that was a Beatles song or that they actually like the Beatles.
Unfortunately, “Yesterday” is like a bottle of salad dressing desperately in need of a good shaking. All the liquid has floated to the top, with the spices and seasonings settling at the bottom. We’ve opened it, but only the water is coming out. We just need those spices and seasonings to “Come Together” (that’s for the Beatles’ fans!).
This is not to say that “Yesterday” is not good. It’s just that it could have and should have been much, much better. And after all these years of moviegoers crying out for something new and different, that isn’t a sequel or a remake, we really needed it to be.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.