Ex-teacher and struggling musician Jack (Himesh Patel) spends his life in Suffolk spilt between working part-time at a warehouse-style supermarket, playing underwhelming solo gigs to small crowds – while ferried around by manager and lifelong friend Ellie (Lily James), and spending time with [insert stock Richard Curtis characters]. One night, while cycling home, Jack is hit by a bus, while the world is in the midst of a twelve second global power outage. He wakes to discover the world no longer has any memory of The Beatles, or their music.
Where Jack had been on the verge of quitting music to return to teaching, he now finds himself able to exploit the missing Beatles back catalogue, recreating the songs to pass off as his own. Noticed by local record studio owner Gavin (Alexander Arnold – who played a similar role in David Brent: Life on the Road), early recordings are the first step to being noticed by Ed Sheeran (er.. Ed Sheeran), being picked up by Ed’s manager Debra (Kate McKinnon) and landing the opportunity to hit it big. As he leaves Ellie and his family for Los Angeles, will Jack be able to keep up the facade that this is music of his creation, and is he really the only person who remembers this stuff?
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Yesterday is a little reminiscent of 2013’s About Time, in as far as with that film – also scripted by Curtis – the actual mechanics behind the story really didn’t matter. What was the technique for time travel in that film? Close your eyes, clench your fists. It was simply a device to tell a story, and arguably a device that was explored insufficiently. Similarly here: how and why have the Beatles been lost? No idea. It turns out we’ve lost Oasis (obviously… lazily), also Coca Cola and cigarettes (amongst other things). As with the earlier film, Curtis really doesn’t do mystery. This is a mass market crowd pleaser, one that is about people, not plot.
Much of the film works very well. Patel is terrific, and destined for greater things in his career. His musical performances are strong, and his bewildered comic timing very good. Lily James is, well, miscast – if we are to believe this is someone who would ever be “friendzoned” – but her love for Jack shines through, yet not at the expense of a terrific, friendly ambience, and great chemistry that has sufficient ambiguity. All other characters are cardboard cut outs or stock Curtis characters: roady/assistant Rocky is a re-skinned Spike from Notting Hill; similarly friends Carol, Nick and Lucy (all underused to the degree that viewers will need to look those names up) could be from any other ensemble work from the same writer; McKinnon’s Debra is a pantomime villainess; and Ed Sheeran… is able to look in the correct direction and say his lines.
This is mass market entertainment, with the exception of only a couple of the most anthemic of their later period works, there is relatively little here beyond “Revolver”. This is focusing on the most accessible and well-known of the band’s work. Much like The Boat that Rocked, however, such pandering leaves a work – from a music enthusiast – coming off as being created by someone who has only ever heard compilation albums (Alan Partridge claiming his favourite Beatles album to be “The Best of the Beatles” coming instantly to mind when considering the lack of depth on offer here). This is for those who miss the 60s, or are of a nostalgic bent, rather than for die hard fans of this band. That is not entirely a bad thing but you’ll get no new insights into their appeal.
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Yesterday is a beautifully made film. Danny Boyle shot this just before going into pre-production on his abortive Bond effort. Early shots at a music festival look bright, crisp and clear, and the film looks terrific all the way through, as it paints on a surprisingly expansive canvas – covering rural and urban settings around the world, including Liverpool. Wembley Stadium at night has never looked better – looking intimate, yet imposing, and like it is the only place in the world at that point. It doesn’t stand out as a Boyle work particularly, but then from a man who gave us Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire – does anyone truly know what this man’s signature style is anyhow? Certainly it’s extraordinary to think this director was planning to go straight to James Bond from this. As is becoming clear, it is the signature style of Richard Curtis that is writ larger here.
With this comes all Curtis’ strengths and weaknesses. The film’s got heart, and is full of love and nostalgia. That heart and love slips into cheese a good few times. Many of the third act decisions are cringe-making. Of course, at some point, Jack will realise and declare love. The way this is done is mind-blowingly creepy and something that should have been challenged and excised at the script stage. There are two further scenes that see Jack deal with – not to give anything away – the whole stolen-from-four-other-guys angle. The first – featuring British TV actress Sarah Lancashire – is horribly saccharine; the second – which we’ll not describe – deeply misjudged.
Yesterday is Richard Curtis in greatest hits mode. We’ve seen many of these characters and set pieces in other guises. There are misunderstandings; embarrassing family members (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, as Jack’s parents, to name two); close knit, lifelong friendships; and a central hook that alienates as few potential cinema-goers as possible. It offers no real insight into the music beyond “great this, isn’t it?”. It might have been more interesting to see the music recreated only to find it had nothing like the same impact outside of its time. That is not the point, however, and a weak third act aside, Yesterday will appeal to almost everyone who has ever enjoyed the big-screen work of this writer; this piece aided by two leads heading for great things.