When the premise of Yesterday was first announced, the internet exploded with derision. The notion of Richard Curtis penning a story about the music of The Beatles, with Ed Sheeran and James Corden attached to star, was enough to get the outrage machine whirring enthusiastically into life. A year or so later, the film itself is appearing on screens and it couldn’t be further from what the Twittersphere feared. It’s a warm, silly jukebox musical overflowing with charm.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has spent years as a jobbing musician, playing to barely interested crowds in his local Lowestoft pub or to a handful of passing families on the pier at Clacton. His biggest fan is best friend Ellie (Lily James) – a platonic relationship to him, but not to her – who also serves as his manager. During a bizarre, seemingly global power cut, Jack is hit by a bus and comes to in hospital with a beaten-up face that resembles “a sort of reverse rabbit”. When Ellie doesn’t recognise a Beatles lyric he quotes, Jack wonders if something weird has happened.
The joy of this first act is in the way the movie refuses to go easy on Jack. He’s not a hidden gem of the music scene just waiting for exposure; he’s a mediocre performer with a handful of slightly lame songs. Initially, everything seems normal after the accident, but Jack’s guitar performance of The Beatles’ hit ‘Yesterday’ reveals that the Fab Four’s music has been erased from existence as a result of the freak event. Jack wastes little time in reconstructing the Beatles’ oeuvre – relatably, he struggles to remember the lyrics to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – and promptly becomes a global recording star with Sheeran on his speed dial and a no-nonsense agent (Kate McKinnon) at his side.
Patel, previously best known as the dorky Tamwar in Eastenders, is believable and likeable as a doomed dreamer on the verge of giving it all up. His singing voice stands up and his performances have the right combination of fun, imperfection and blind fear that the whole edifice could tumble at any moment.
Yesterday is packed to the brim with charm. There’s a sunny, silly disposition to every frame that ensures it’s difficult to ever be cynical about the film, despite its rather cheap aesthetic and raggedy visual style. Danny Boyle is perhaps miscast as the director here, with barely a shot left unclouded by a weird Dutch angle or attempt to inject a visual kineticism that the movie does not need. The songbook, though, is bulletproof, and the film flies highest when that’s the focus.
Similarly to the songs, the characters are colourful and compelling. Patel and James make for a likeable doomed couple, destined to be separated by Jack’s newfound fame. He’s more inclined to spend time with his new buddy Ed Sheeran – a nicely self-parodic extended cameo – and being torn apart by McKinnon, who is having a great time as an acerbic showbiz ogre somehow capable of even making yoga look aggressive. James is a touch under-written as Ellie, but she brings optimism and energy in every scene – a stark contrast to Patel’s snark and pessimism.
There’s a light-hearted energy too when it comes to the central concept. Boyle and Curtis have an eye for the inherent ridiculousness of the gimmick and have a lot of fun with the notion of how far it all goes, suggesting that The Beatles aren’t the only thing lost in what was effectively a Thanos Snap for human knowledge. Curtis’ script has a delightful lightness of touch when it comes to its silly central gag, which is essentially just a vehicle to allow those brilliant songs to take centre stage in a big screen musical.
That’s not to say that there aren’t emotional moments here. While Yesterday doesn’t pack the hard punches of Love Actually – the Emma Thompson moment, obviously – or the bereavement in About Time, it does find room to tug at the heartstrings. Most notably, there’s one poignant and surprising cameo late in the day that provides a deftly serious moment in amongst all of the singing, stupidity and jokes about Ed Sheeran rapping.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all of its amiable lightness, this feels like a rather minor work in the oeuvre of both Curtis and Boyle. There’s fun to be had, but it all feels like it’s held together with Blue Peter style PVA glue and sticky back plastic. It’s basically a simple exercise in talented performers having a great time singing Beatles songs – and there’s not much wrong with that.
Dir: Danny Boyle
Scr: Richard Curtis
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Justin Edwards, Sarah Lancashire
Prd: Bernard Bellew, Tim Bevan, Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis, Eric Fellner, Matthew James Wilkinson
DOP: Christopher Ross
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Run time: 116 mins
Yesterday is in UK cinemas from 28th June.