As someone who finds himself pondering bizarre thoughts in those quiet hours when sleep is just beyond my reach, one of the hypothetical questions I’ve come back to a few times is: what would I do if I were somewhere where nobody else knew the last 50 years of pop culture?
It’s an idea which naturally comes up in stories of time travel – “Johnny B. Goode”, anyone? – and with Yesterday, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis consider a modern world where the music of The Beatles was erased from history and everyone’s memory, save that of one struggling musician in Lowestoft.
Enter Jack Malik, the hero of Yesterday played by Eastenders actor Himesh Patel. He’s a warehouse worker by day, whose ambitions of making it as a singer/songwriter have all but faded away, and whose back catalogue extends to a couple of naff songs. One evening, Jack finds himself quickly acquainted with a seaside road after a nasty collision with a bus, right at the time when the lights seem to be going out around the world.
Jack wakes up in hospital, with his childhood friend and manager Ellie, played by Lily James, by his side. Before long he’s out of hospital, and on receiving a new guitar as a get-well present, decides to christen the instrument with a quick rendition of “Yesterday”.
As you can probably guess, everyone around him absolutely freaks out that Jack Malik managed to write something good for once.
From there, Jack begins to realise that the world has become a place which has forgotten all about John, Paul, George and Ringo (illustrated by some neat Google-based gags which I won’t spoil here), and our hero decides to take it upon himself to preserve the memory of the Fab Four’s music while indulging in his rock star fantasy along the way. Oh and Ed Sheeran is his mentor, for some reason.
Events transpire and the film takes some very interesting narrative turns, and the end product is this strange, fascinating film which I still can’t quite believe got made by such prestigious filmmakers. Boyle and Curtis have certainly undertaken some ambitious projects in the past, and their collaboration here has birthed a concept that will definitely rub a lot of people the wrong way.
Curtis’ involvement should tell you a lot about where this story ends up, and I’ll say now that Yesterday is closer in execution to About Time than any other film in his or Boyle’s oeuvres.
The film’s cast and crew clearly seem to be revelling in the nuttiness of the idea, and everyone involved – except for Ed Sheeran who, bless him, is not an actor – carries that enthusiasm through to the film’s climax. It’s always a delight to find a film which sees its ideas through without a hint of cynicism, and Yesterday feels purely and simply joyous. This is summed up in one subplot in the film’s second act which looks like it’s going down a route of blackmail and exploitation, but quite literally concludes with three people singing and dancing in a dressing room. It’s brilliant.
As a jukebox musical, Yesterday ticks all the necessary song choice boxes, and while the film does flirt with some of Lennon and McCartney’s more… esoteric songwriting efforts for comedic effect, there aren’t many surprising inclusions here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but anyone hoping for a rousing rendition of “I Am The Walrus” will have to wait another day.
It’s a complete understatement, but Danny Boyle is an incredibly visual storyteller and his unique vision is clear and present here. Not so much that it distracts from the story however, unlike the frankly messy other musical movie based on The Beatles: Across The Universe. The wackiness of Boyle’s direction and the light, sentimental comedy of Curtis’ writing complement each other beautifully.
The one thing I will say as a major fan of Lily James, is that she’s somewhat under-utilised here. As she proved in last year’s Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again, she’s got the talent to give a great musical performance alongside her on-screen charm, but she maybe doesn’t have a whole lot to work with in Yesterday. Thankfully leading man Himesh Patel is so likeable, and a damn fine singer to boot, that he’s more than able to keep the film bobbing along nicely. A lesser actor would have struggled to sell the weirdness of this movie, and it’s to Patel’s merit that I was so engaged throughout Yesterday‘s running time.
Yesterday feels like a dying breed of film; the kind of crazy high concept story that would have been made without question back in the 1980s or 1990s, but now would either be a straight-to-Netflix affair or pumped so full of ironic snark that it wouldn’t have been remotely entertaining. Under the careful eyes of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis however, Yesterday is a joyous, Beatles induced fever dream. It won’t win any awards, but it’s by far one of my favourite cinema experiences of 2019 to date; personally speaking I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on any end of year list I ever decide on doing.
To put it short, Yesterday is fab.