The appeal of a movie like Yesterday is immediate from its high-concept pitch of “What if everyone in the world forgot The Beatles existed except for one down-on-his-luck singer?” And with two iconic British filmmakers — director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis — at the helm, it was set up to be the surefire feel-good movie of the summer.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is the singer who finds out that he is the only one who remembers the iconic music of The Beatles after a mysterious global blackout. Up until that point, he was a struggling musician whose only real champion was his manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who also has a not-so-secret crush on him. Imbued with the superpower of being able to “write” iconic songs almost instantly, Jack rockets to fame around the world.
But the dual pressure of the instant notoriety and the knowledge that he didn’t actually write any of the songs is tough for Jack to bear. He has the talent to convince the world that the songs are his, but the murky ethics of the situation constantly pull at him. Combine that with the separation from his friends and family, especially Ellie, and his newfound popularity may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
The overall story is sweet with a couple of winning performances, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that more could have been done with the concept. Despite his misgivings, there are no real obstacles put in Jack’s way other than the ones he creates for himself. Everyone he meets, including Ed Sheeran in an extended cameo, instantly recognizes the quality of the songs Malik is creating. Given that he’s putting them out in 2019, not the 1960s, it might have been interesting for at least some of the songs to be less well-received than others.
Even though the film is mostly focused on music, it’s clear that Boyle and Curtis want to emphasize the possible romance between Jack and Ellie. Unfortunately, they never settle into a groove in establishing their bond. By the time we meet them, their friendship has been going on for many years, and aside from a few flashbacks and the obvious interest of Ellie, most of the attempts at pushing them together feel less than romantic.
Still, Patel makes for an immensely appealing protagonist with a humble personality and a mellifluous voice. James doesn’t have great chemistry with Patel, but the way she plays her character with unbridled enthusiasm makes up for the lack. Most of the supporting actors are one-note, which is especially disappointing in the case of Kate McKinnon, who plays Jack’s American manager. Her shtick is supposed to be funny, but it comes off instead as vile and heartless.
Yesterday proves that you need much more than a high concept to make a successful movie. The music of The Beatles is legendary and will be celebrated for the foreseeable future, but this film is not the showcase that it could have been.