An Oscar and Golden Globe winning director, a writer with several charming hits, along with a fantastic concept ripe for all sorts of possibilities. On paper, “Yesterday” looked like a slam dunk, which makes it a total shame that it turned out so poorly.
The movie follows a struggling singer named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who lives day-to-day playing small gigs with help from his manager Ellie (Lily James). Getting fed up with his lack of success and his dead-end job, Jack considers leaving music all together.
However, during one bike ride home, Jack is hit by a bus at the exact same moment a blackout occurs worldwide. When he wakes up and recovers from his injuries, he comes to find himself in a world where the Beatles never became a band and their music does not exist in the pop culture landscape. Seeing an opportunity, Jack starts singing the songs and claims credit for the work, which of course leads him to his own fair share of fame.
For having such an interesting concept, which a filmmaker could take in so many directions, “Yesterday” feels so damn dry. The movie is stuck in a rut of cliches from start to finish and plays so many things safe.
The events occurring in Jack’s rise to stardom come across as so muted here, with his love of the music, and the Beatles place in pop culture, coming across as hollow and forgettable.
This is also true with the movie’s attempts at humor. There are a couple good jabs taken at how music is developed today Vs. how it was decades ago, but that’s about it. Most of the time it’s just eye-rolling stuff like “let’s change ‘Hey Jude’ to ‘Hey Dude.'”
The movie never satirically challenges concepts of how music by the Beatles would fair on today’s charts, or how the band’s own changes in style would be felt by the public.
Why the movie takes this route, though, becomes clear in the film’s insufferable second half. As the picture keeps going, all of what’s been happening on screen basically boils down to setting up a cliched rom-com. Not only does the movie develop the romance poorly, one scene in particular after the film’s climax being especially bad, it also makes the inclusion of the Beatles in the movie sort of meaningless.
When the whole thing is over, an audience can realize that this story could have had any band swapped for the Beatles, and the story as a whole wouldn’t really have changed. Rolling Stones? Sure. Queen? Yep. This wasn’t a movie made to explore the Beatles’ impact on pop culture or to study how modern listeners would react to the band’s psychedelic era. It was simply to tell another run-of-the-mill romance.
This isn’t to say a rom-com can’t work with this type of scenario, but it really doesn’t help when the characters are written this way and the actors give these types of performances.
First and foremost, I never really bought Jack as a person who loved music. Every time he played small gigs he seemed so lacking in energy. I’ve been to small bars where a musician doesn’t have a huge audience, but they still try to get into the act. It never really comes across that way with Jack. Compare him to Oscar Isaac’s titular character in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The Llewyn character lives and breathes music.
This doesn’t come across as much in Patel’s performance. Another thing about Jack’s character not really working is his apparent dislike for teaching. The audience eventually learns Jack could be a teacher if he wants to, but doesn’t, for some reason.
The absolute biggest problem with Jack, though, is that he doesn’t really have an arc. This torpedoes the romance and weakens the movie as a whole. While Jack ethically struggles with knowing he’s not the writer of this music, he never really changes as a person. He never gets blinded by the bright lights of the industry, he doesn’t go out partying like crazy and he doesn’t try to shift the style of his or the Beatles’ music.
This is an issue, because the reason the relationship between Ellie and Jack has some drama is supposedly because Jack is changing so much. Ellie even says something akin to this. However it’s simply not the case, and it basically makes the whole thing a head-scratcher instead of heartwarming.
With all of that said, as a whole, this could have all been fine and resulted in at least a watchable feature. However, causing this entire film to fold is Kate McKinnon’s horrendous character, Jack’s manager Debra.
I’m not sure if it was input from Director Danny Boyle, Writer Richard Curtis or McKinnon herself, but the character is a complete disaster. Debra is made to be basically a cartoon character with dollar signs in her eyes. The way she talks and communicates with people is so over-the-top and ridiculous, you can’t take it seriously, and it also doesn’t fit really well with the tone, so an audience won’t laugh, either.
McKinnon is a talented comedian and with the right role she can shine. However, her style works 100 percent against her and she becomes the most infuriating part of the whole thing. Some of her final lines in the film made me want to throw my drink at the screen (I didn’t).
The rest of the supporting characters and cast aren’t memorable, either. Ed Sheeran plays himself in a rather subdued, forgettable way. Then there’s Joel Fry, who plays the comedy relief friend Rocky. Fry does his best with what he’s given, but unfortunately his character was written too much as this bumbling idiot to even enjoy in some way.
The first half of “Yesterday” was about average but it just kept going downhill until it completely crashed. What a waste. 1 out of 5.