Look up “protean” in the dictionary and you might find a picture of British director Danny Boyle. He’s the uncommon, highly talented director who easily crosses genres. Science fiction, horror, spirituality, comedy, drama: he’s your guy. He’s made at least one great film (28 Days Later), two excellent ones (Trainspotting, Steve Jobs), and rarely a film that isn’t worth seeing.
Unfortunately, Yesterday is not one of his better efforts.
The premise is a delightful one, admittedly. Jack Malik, a struggling folk singer from lovely seaside Suffolk, gets conked on the head and awakens in a world where only he knows of the Beatles. The film handles this part wittily, as Jack is first convinced his family and friends are playing an elaborate prank. His manager Ellie and his quartet of groupie pals are wowed by “Yesterday,” but critique it as “a bit soppy.” His parents keep getting the title of a Lennon-McCartney classic wrong: no, it’s not “Leave It Be” or “Let Him Be”!
Yesterday also uses Boyle’s trademarked stylistic bells and whistles to good effect. There’s a rapid zoom onto Jack’s face as he performs for ever-growing crowds. A split screen of social media posts manifests his exploding popularity. Best of all, as Jack racks his brain to recall the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby,” editor Jon Harris flashes to imagery dramatizing the song, the pictures morphing with each of Jack’s misrememberings.
Alas, Yesterday has a saggy middle, before finishing with a splendid, joyous coda. Astonishingly, for a screenwriter who gave us such romcoms as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’ Diary, Richard Curtis burdens this film with a pathetically contrived romance. Jack and Ellie have been best friends since adolescence, but Jack has the silly notion that he can’t be lovers with his manager. Anyone care to guess where this is heading?
Similarly contrived is Jack’s crisis of conscience, personified in Debra Hammer, a devilish music producer played by SNL’s Kate McKinnon. Hammer attempts to lure Jack away from the purity of sharing his love of music with “the poisoned chalice of money and fame.” Yes, McKinnon actually utters that line; I’m amazed she didn’t have a Snidely Whiplash moustache to twirl as she said it.Danny Boyle has also made a handful of movies that deal with spirituality in fascinating ways, no matter your belief system or lack thereof. Sunshine, the oh-what-might’ve-been alternate ending to 28 Days Later, and the saint-populated Millions immediately come to mind. With Yesterday, we get a lightweight woo version of Boyle, with Ellie vaguely talking of miracles shortly before Jack’s knock on the noggin.
Still, it’s impossible to avoid this film’s appeal. Himesh Patel (of Britain’s wildly popular EastEnders) and Lily James (seen of late in Baby Driver and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) are charming together as Jack and Ellie, gamely doing their best with the diluted material handed to them. And Patel’s renditions of the Beatles tunes are fun and plausibly what you’d expect from a mildly above-average local musician.
But I can’t help contemplating how much better this film should’ve been, with this cast, this writer, this director. For romantic dramedies with a heavy dose of music, one only need look at John Carney’s poignant trilogy of Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street for superior examples. For a satisfying romcom, watch Season 2 of Fleabag. With a scarcely longer runtime than Yesterday, this TV series upends cliché with hilarity and profundity.
A film that fought so hard for the copyrights to some of history’s best pop songs ought to be far better than Yesterday. Nonetheless, I still believe in Danny Boyle.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )