At first glance, Yesterday might seem like a fresh, almost subversive take on updating the classic catalog of The Beatles. By taking the music of four working-class lads from Liverpool and putting it in the mouth of a working class son of Indian immigrants in Sheffield (and not making any mention of his ethnicity whatsoever), director Danny Boyle could be making a strong case for inclusion and racial equity. But on second glance the film is mostly just a basic romantic comedy (albeit one with a great soundtrack) and one which sort of falls apart in its third act.
But the journey, not the destination, is what is fun here. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has never made it in music and is ready to give up when a worldwide simultaneous blackout leads to him being hit by a truck (set to the orchestral hit from “A Day in the Life”). And when he wakes up, no one remembers The Beatles except for him. As he begins performing their music, fame and fortune begin to find him, even as it pulls him apart from a potential romantic connection with his best friend since grade school/manager Ellie (Lily James). Along the way, Jack is mentored by Ed Sheeran (as himself) and an incredibly abrasive record executive played to the hilt by Kate McKinnon. And while Patel and James’s will they/won’t they rom com vibe is what holds the movie together, it’s McKinnon’s scene-stealing that is the real reason to see this movie.
But the rom-com skeleton wears somewhat thin, so the real determining factor in how much you will enjoy this film is how much you like the basic conceit of re-exploring the music of The Beatles through the lens of Jack covering their greatest hits. Yes, it’s good, though a few performances wear a little thin. An almost screaming version of “Help” owes almost as much to the vocal stylings of Kurt Cobain as John Lennon, but an extremely tender and stripped down “The Long and Winding Road” will floor you almost as much as it does Ed Sheeran.
The film also contains performances of Yesterday, In My Life, Something, Carry That Weight, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Elanor Rigby, Here Comes the Sun, Back in the USSR, Hey Jude, I Saw Her Standing There, and All You Need is Love, while at least name-checking a half dozen other songs like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s nice, but at least for this fan, felt like a very cursory look at the most basic of The Beatles. Pulling out some deep cuts, and focusing less on the Lennon/McCartney songs would have been nice. Would it have killed them to include a Ringo song in there? “With a Little Help From My Friends” is right. there.
But that’s where this ode to the Beatles sort of breaks down. Since it focuses all on Jack as this genius solo artist, it belies what The Beatles were really all about, which was four incredibly talented people working together. George and Ringo were just as important as John and Paul in the alchemy that was their songwriting and performing. And this film and its performances lose all the depth in that signature Beatle harmony, and the call and response sections of songs like With a Little Help From My Friends. Missing those harmonies is another reason why the version of “Help” in the film is so unsatisfying.
In another film that very much drew inspiration from The Beatles, 2001’s I am Sam starring Sean Penn, there’s a line about what was special about The Beatles was when Paul McCartney wrote the first part of the song “Michelle” and then John Lennon wrote the “I love you, I love you, I love you” part, that was the essence of what The Beatles were about. Yesterday misses that dynamic completely.
And then the film ends in a completely whiffed third act that couldn’t be more by the numbers if it tried. And for a film so full of vibrancy and fun, the end leaves you feeling a little cold and unsatisfied.
As a rom-com, it’s a B-minus. As a celebration and nostalgic take on the music of the most influential music group of the 20th century, it’s an A. How much you enjoy this film will likely depend largely on how much you like The Beatles. But since many people do like them, that’s not a bad bet.
3.5 out of 5 stars