Movie Review: Yesterday

August 22, 2019

Title: Yesterday
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Jack Barth, Richard Curtis
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon
Music by: Daniel Pemberton

If your favorite band were suddenly erased from the memory of the world, could you recall their lyrics accurately enough to do them justice on the world stage—and more importantly, would you dare? Original, funny, and problematic, such is the question confronting Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling musician who wakes in the hospital after being hit by a bus to realize that no one in the world—or on the internet—remembers the Beatles. Making a living working part-time at his local grocery store, Malik is an underrated musical talent in the tiny town of Lowestoft (Suffolk, England), so his motivation for taking the credit for classics like “Yesterday” and “Let it Be” is at first the fame and fortune that has thus far eluded him. In time, however, his blessing has become a burden: with the world watching, how long can he keep up the charade of being the greatest solo songwriter of all time, and what must he sacrifice to do so?

Yesterday is well-written and well-executed, with all the color and creativity for which director Danny Boyle is known. The characters are heartwarming, frustrating, and eclectic in turn. Due in part to the excellent editing and costume design of the film, it’s easy to appreciate the director’s apparent love of vibrant, overwhelming color, from flashing number counts to bright blue suits and white sand beaches. On the whole, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis (of “Love Actually” and “About Time” fame) manage to successfully pair the romantic aspect of the film with a compelling story and Boyle’s aesthetic eye, making Yesterday both fun to watch and predictably rom-com.

Even having been raised on the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I’d never bought or borrowed a Beatles CD, nor attended a concert of one of the many cover bands that have achieved fame in the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. So, I was surprised by how much I recognized of the discography of the Beatles that is showcased throughout the film. No matter what age you are, even if you’re reading this review, it’s likely that you too can name at least one of the four Beatles—and even if you can’t, you’ve certainly heard of classics like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Hey Jude” (maybe even “Yellow Submarine”). In such a context, I have to commend the actors portraying Malik’s friends, who incur his wrath by appearing so delightfully oblivious of the Beatles that I couldn’t help but grin at being “in” on what seems like just an elaborate joke. The ensuing realization scene is, of course, sufficiently dramatic, even making comedic use of the “lightning strikes in the background” cliché.

However, being “in” on the joke is not always enjoyable: Malik’s growing discomfort with his deception is palpable, something which spreads to the viewer as we realize that eventually, the songs will run out. Though it plays with the idea of a musical biopic, Yesterday is a romantic comedy through and through, revolving mostly around the theme of the artist sacrificing love for fame. While the juxtaposition of an uncomfortable knot of deception in scene after scene with the happily-ever-after ending doesn’t seem especially realistic, Yesterday is still fun to watch—partly for the aesthetic aspect and partly as an example of the escapist idealism for which rom-com audiences pine. The nonsensical nature of it all grew on me during the two-hour runtime, especially in those few moments of an energetic chase scene or when Malik recognizes that certain other not-insignificant names and objects have been erased from the collective consciousness as well. When you realize Ed Sheeran’s ringtone is his own song, you can’t help but laugh.

Some of the cinematography, however, distracts rather than enhances to the film—including a few curiously angled shots and the often ridiculous transitions of place names which float or slide across the screen like a bunch of balloons or a neon-lit sign. Subplots—such as the existence of two agents of truth who might also remember what the rest of the world has forgotten—are quickly and anticlimactically resolved in favor of pursuing the romantic comedy side of things.

The film isn’t trying particularly hard to leave anything long-lasting with its audience, except perhaps a renewed appreciation for the Beatles and another example of love winning out in the end. Still, it’s enjoyable to walk away from a viewing wrapped up in such interesting questions as, which bands might I successfully imitate? How much is the lasting renown of a song tied to the story behind it? Or, could just anyone grasp fame, with the right ingredients and a dash of confidence?

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  1. I did enjoy the Beatles many years ago and still do so I enjoyed the movie as a way to hear again the music set in an interesting context. It was not life changing music as Dylan was but it was good to hear each day. So the movie was appreciated by me.

  2. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and your review does it justice. It’s an excellent date-night movie. Despite being born a decade late, I listened to them regularly, using 8-track no less! My big question leaving the theater is why Jack did not more thoroughly pursue what happened to him. Clearly he is in a different reality, and he just brushes it off and moves on. I found that implausible, and undermined my ability to ponder the questions you did.