Danny Boyle’s newest film ‘Yesterday’ is also maybe the weirdest that he has ever made… and that is saying a lot.
Getting the director of Trainspotting and Steve Jobs to collaborate with the writer/director of About Time and Love Actually on a film about the Beatles not existing seems like the result of a pop culture MadLibs. And somehow Yesterday really fits that description, particularly the MadLibs vibe of it all. But in almost inexplicable ways the movie works really well, despite the complete insanity of what the film is trying to pull off. Call it a sentimental success more than a logical one
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a young musician from the seaside town of Gorleston in England who can’t find success with his songwriting. But after a worldwide blackout and a freak accident, Jack realizes that he is the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles. He turns to his manager Ellie (Lily James) and his friend-turned-roadie (Joel Fry) to help him as he slowly becomes a bigger and bigger success with “his” songs, and the world around him starts to make less and less sense.
The film is all about what The Beatles means to music and how the world changed because of them, but the world of the movie is also at odds with itself and with this fictional world. It raises so many questions about what must have changed in this alternate universe and never once attempts to answer them, with Curtis’s screenplay instead focusing in specifically on the romance between Ellie and Jack. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has already seen the movie About Time, which is similarly focused on a romance at the center of a supernatural world, although that also had the personal bond with the character’s main father to utilize.
But this is as much a Richard Curtis romance as it is a Danny Boyle mind game, and the editing from Boyle-mainstay Jon Harris and cinematography from first-time collaborator Christopher Ross feel like they are so much more about the science fictional aspects. The only person who seems to understand what is happening on all sides of the projects is composer Daniel Pemberton, who also had a roll in re-arranging the songs to not only fit the vocal range of Patel but also peppers the score with some hints of the Beatles.
The romance at the center of Yesterday could sincerely be lifted out of the world of the movie and placed anywhere else, which is the biggest detriment to the story. Scenes where Ed Sheeran (playing himself and doing a… serviceable job) has a songwriting contest against Jack and loses to “The Long and Winding Road” is hysterical, but the Beatles have nothing to do with the love at the middle of the movie. In fact, between the first trailer’s release and now an entire subplot starring Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas appears to have been lifted from the film whole, raising questions about what else was left on the cutting room floor.
But after all of this and as I write through every single problem I had with the movie, I keep coming back to the fact that I still really, truly enjoyed whatever it is that has been made here. Yesterday abandons the best stories, strands its best actors in characters with nothing to do (looking at Lily James in particular), and feels like a hodgepodge of two visionaries with different views. But maybe that is what Yesterday was supposed to be. Just as Boyle and Curtis shouldn’t be able to mix this well, the sensibilities and lives of John, Paul, George, and Ringo were much the same way. But by mixing everything together at the expense of any single voice shining out above the others, it creates a bizarrely mashed together movie that I can barely understand 24 hours later. All I know is that there is something to the way this movie works that I can’t articulate that makes it all click.
Yesterday premiered May 4th at the Tribeca Film Festival