Arts movie review

If only ‘Yesterday’ could feel like Now

A ‘feels too good to be true’ movie

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Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) and Ellie (Lily James) meet in 'Yesterday.'
Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

Directed by Danny Boyle
Screenplay by Richard Curtis
Starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

There’s been a recent rise of jukebox musicals. Bohemian Rhapsody came first as a tribute to Freddie Mercury. Then, Rocketman quickly followed with its focus on Elton John. Yesterday rides on the coattails of these films by posing the question: “What if The Beatles never existed?” Director Danny Boyle hoped to spin this thought into a full-length feature film. Instead, Yesterday is a one-dimensional romantic comedy that thrives off of prior Beatles knowledge. 

When Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a truck, he becomes the only person who remembers any of The Beatles’s music. Seeing his chance, Jack sets off to play all of their songs under his own name. What comes next is a 138 minute joke about The Beatles. References to past songs by The Beatles populate the script. Songs such as “Hey Jude” or “Eleanor Rigby” are quickly turned into ammunition for Jack to quip about as he struggles to remember the lyrics. The silent tribute to the band doesn’t stop there, though. The movie seems to revere its source material, and The Beatles are elevated to musical godhood. Jack continually praises and defends their music even while stealing it for his own. Some of the jokes definitely do make their way across to the audience. Comedic timing is the name of the game here. Boyle understands how to turn Patel’s awkwardness as Jack into an endearing trait of his. Jack, in turn, is characterized as a sarcastic and often uncomfortable person in most social situations. 

It’s sad to say, then, that Boyle couldn’t harness the same energy off of the other members in the cast. The most disappointing of which is Ellie’s character development (Lily James). Without her, Yesterday would just be a quirky comedy, but her addition into the story hurts the plot. She is the highschool sweetheart for the protagonist to pine over. At each point in the story, Jack is reminded of what, and more specifically who, he sacrifices as he rises to stardom. The film points out that fame at the sake of true love is not a fair trade. How they go about doing so results in the poor development of Ellie’s character. Never really getting more screen time aside from giving the main protagonist a love interest, Ellie is never given a chance to stand alone outside of Jack’s progress. 

The movie pulls itself from its narrative stupor, though, by having truly delightful musical sequences. Yesterday truly does love The Beatles above all else. In one charming rendition of “Eleanor Rigby,” the lyrics of the song are translated into scenes as Jack remembers them. Of course, Jack has never remembered any of the lyrics. The montage reduxes itself as Jack revisits and remembers the words. Another sequence has him standing in a room flooded with vibrant colors while screens project his recent accomplishments. 

When the lights came back on in the theater, I was left wanting more. Yesterday delivered on the marketed Beatles humor, but there wasn’t anything else under the surface. There might have been the possibility of a fulfilling romantic comedy. Just like its main character, Yesterday’s ambitiousness in its narrative only hurt both sides of the story.