Danny Boyle has grown increasingly gentle. The man who began his feature-film career with the pitch-dark comedy, Shallow Grave and achieved widespread fame for Trainspotting moved onto such films as the uplifting Slumdog Millionaire and the biopic Steve Jobs.
In 2019, he made an SF Rom-Com that also serves as a love letter to the Beatles and so, today, we’re going to review Yesterday.
Cast and Crew
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth
Himesh Patel as Jack Malik
Lily James as Ellie Appleton
Joel Fry as Rocky
Ed Sheeran as himself
Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer
Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jed Malik
Meera Syal as Shelia Malik
Harry Michell as Nick
Sophia Di Martino as Carol
Alexander Arnold as Gavin
Justin Edwards as Leo the Russian
Lamorne Morris as Head of Marketing
Robert Carlyle as John Lennon
James Corden as himself (cameo)
Michael Kiwanuka as himself (cameo)
A likeable, mediocre singer/songwriter recovers from an accident and finds himself in an alternate reality where the Beatles never existed. Fame and hilarity ensue.
It may be a Spec-Fic Rom-Com, but Yesterday remains a Rom-Com. Success or failure rests on two questions:
1. Are the leads charming and likeable?
2. Is the comedy funny?
The answer to (1) is yes, absolutely. We’re looking at a major release with leads who have been teleported in from a quirky indie comedy. The answer to (2) is, for the most part, yes. It’s not fall-out-of-your-seat funny, but it delivers on the laughs.
Okay, I know better than to examine the implications of an alternate timeline in a Rom-Com. The writers certainly knew better than to give it too much thought. But, how about some thought? Given that this is a sort of valentine to the Beatles, could it not acknowledge how entirely different pop culture would be if they’d never existed? Save for the absence of the Fab Four’s songs and the fact that Jack’s youthful inspiration, Oasis, never existed, the pop-music landscape remains unchanged.
Beyond the Fab Four, we also learn that Coca-Cola and cigarettes do not exist. For the sake of the couple of minor jokes that result, I’m left wondering how the alternate history of North America unfolded without the tobacco trade.
I suppose we should follow the opening line advice of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and turn off our minds and relax.1
Originality: 2/6 The exact premise has been used before, including once in Manga. There’s no evidence the writers knew about these when they composed their script. Much of the second half of the film unfolds pretty much as you might predict.
Effects: 5/6 The film has effects, mostly involving the event that changes Jack’s place in the universe, and in some creative bits used to establish settings, transitions, and the like. Boyle tries to use more than just the standard film techniques to tell the story.
Acting: 5/6 Ed Sheeran gives a frequently hilarious performance as Ed Sheeran. It’s the role he was born to play, and he clearly comprehends the absurdity of the situation into which the movie places him. He recognizes genius but is baffled by Malik’s apparent lack of any identifiable creative process, or even the basic ability to indicate what his songs might be about.
Some of the supporting characters are cardboard stock, but the actors play them effectively.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Overall: 4/6 Paul McCartney reports that he slipped into a theater incognito and saw the film, which he rather enjoyed. That’s a pretty good recommendation.
In total, Yesterday receives 30/42
1. Would techno be the same if the Beatles had never recorded “Tomorrow Never Knows”? At the very least, we have to assume that the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be” doesn’t exist in the alt-universe, along with a dozen or so other songs that sample this one quirky number. Then we have the numerous covers, along with the chemically-enhanced types from at least two generations who just listened to it and went, whooooooooah, they did that in ’66? before attempting to match it. I suppose someone else would have done loops at some point, but this one song, not even a significant hit for the Fab Four, sends ripples across cultural history. Multiply that times their entire oeuvre. Add in people who picked up a guitar after hearing “A Hard Day’s Night” or got pregnant while listening to “In My Life” or “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”
Now throw that in a world where, apparently, Coca-Cola either wasn’t invented or didn’t succeed (though Pepsi exists), and the American tobacco trade wasn’t a thing. Again, I know I’m not supposed to think about it, but, seriously, could the writers have given it even a little bit of thought?