SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – ‘Yesterday’ is far more frustrating than it is enjoyable

In recent times, cinema has exploited the music of ABBA, Queen, and Elton John to create giddy jukebox musicals, each seeking to cash in on the insatiable appetite for music nostalgia. It was all but inevitable The Beatles would be next. Avoiding the simplistic option of a biopic to document the rise of Liverpool’s favourite sons, Yesterday offers a daringly original proposal; what if the entire world forgot The Beatles ever existed, bar one lucky musician?

In the hands of Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle and beloved screenwriter Richard Curtis, the resulting film is a disappointing and tedious piece of cinema that will leave little impact. While the film’s concept may be terrifically inventive, Yesterday ultimately throws it all away in pursuit of a gushy love story that’s woefully banal, failing to fully explore the glorious opportunities a conceit like this offered.

Late twenty-something Jack Malik (an endearing screen debut from Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter, living in the painfully quaint English seaside town of Lowestoft. Dreaming of a career of fame and fortune, Jack plays his slightly naff original music for uninterested passersby at the local wharf or the drunks at the local pub, providing nothing more than background filler music at both locations.

Despite the undying support of his doe-eyed manager and best friend, Ellie (Lily James), Jack is ready to let his teenage dreams die, hang up the guitar, and resign himself to life as a teacher. All that changes when a 12-second worldwide power outage (like the prophesized Y2K but 19 years late) leads to Jack being hit by a bus while riding his bicycle.

After a quick recovery in the hospital, Jack is gifted a brand new guitar by Ellie, deciding to christen it with a cover of the titular “Yesterday” by The Beatles. To Jack’s confusion, Ellie, on the verge of tears, declares it the best song he’s ever written. When his friends have a similar reaction, Jack quickly realises something is terribly wrong. After some furious Googling only returns photos of actual beetles, Jack discovers the world has been wiped of The Beatles and their music for no apparent reason.

But it’s not just the Fab Four who’ve faded from history. Coca-Cola is gone, although Pepsi remains (hooray for product placement). Cigarettes are no more (if someone can explain this one to me, I’ll give you a medal). And, given there were no Beatles to, uh, “inspire” them, Oasis also never came to be. Seemingly the only person on the planet to still remember The Beatles’ monster catalogue of hit records, Jack immediately sets about jotting down every Beatles song title and lyric he can possibly remember.

Given he can’t be accused of plagiarism if no one on Earth has heard any of these songs before, Jack records an EP of five classic Beatles tracks, pops it up online, and, somehow, catches the attention of Ed Sheeran (trying his utmost, but he is not now, nor will he ever be, an actor), who literally arrives on his doorstep, desperate to meet the man responsible for the greatest music he’s ever heard.

Before he knows it, Jack is being whisked to Los Angeles to meet with Ed’s overeager manager Debra (the ever-reliable Kate McKinnon), who becomes steadfastly determined to turn Jack into the biggest artist on the planet (despite her bizarre aversion to his apparently offputting appearance) and milk the rewards for mega-label Universal Music (hey there, more eye-rolling product placement).

Written by everyone’s favourite British rom-com screenwriter, Yesterday offers a fabulously original concept that ultimately gets left in the trash in favour of offering nothing more than a jukebox musical which subsequently morphs into a generic romantic comedy, devoid of any real heart. The opportunity to present an introspection on the power and brilliance of the music of The Beatles goes begging, creating a film that’s far more frustrating than it is enjoyable.

The screenplay fails to even ponder whether music created and delivered by four dashing British lads in the 1960s would be as hugely popular in 2019 as it was over 50 years ago. Their (initially) polished image and charming personalities were a huge part of their unparalleled success. Could you truly expect to repeat that popularity through just one fairly ordinary man in a completely different time period?

In an age when the music charts are dominated by urban, dance, and alternative tracks, would something as decidedly clean-cut as “I Saw Her Standing There” really still breakthrough to become a #1 smash? And, in a #MeToo era, surely a 27-year-old male would be torn to shreds for offering up a song about ogling a random girl who was “just seventeen.” And yet, it’s the breakthrough track Jack uses to grab attention.

The music of The Beatles evolved over several years, as the band developed and their fans grew with their music. Each album took wildly different directions and sounds, particularly in their experimental years. Jack ostensibly crams all 12 Beatles albums together in the space of a few weeks, which would genuinely make no sense to the modern music listener. Albums may not be a “journey” these days, but they were in the 60s. Mixing the tracks out of chronological order creates an absolute mess of their treasured history.

Sadly, Curtis isn’t concerned with such deep contemplations. The Beatles were successful then. Their music is still enjoyed today. Therefore, if it were to be released today, it would be equally as popular, no matter who was performing it. Never mind the fact its enduring popularity centres around the notion it has existed in the cultural zeitgeist for five decades. Sure, this is ultimately a fantasy film, given the absurdity of its worldwide amnesia plot, but Curtis takes a lazy narrative route to avoid such jarringly obvious questions.

Instead, we’re offered up a “hey, remember this one?” style musical that ultimately robs the music of The Beatles of their immense and enduring dynamism. As the filmmakers bastardise their way through John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s greatest hits, it’s never done with any semblance of narrative purpose, other than just hitting the obnoxious beats the screenplay needs to.

Barely any of the performances are memorable, save a primary school sing-a-long of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” that’s tacked on at the end to send you out of the cinema with a smile on your face. Boyle has clearly taken a leaf out of the Bohemian Rhapsody guidebook on how to end a film on a high, so an audience will forget the fluffy rubbish which preceded it. It’s hard to lay this fault with Patel, who has a terrific voice and offers a perfectly charming performance. But the soul of the music just isn’t there, and you’ll be left yearning to pop on The Beatles’ 1 compilation album the second the credits roll.

As you’d expect, Curtis can’t help but turn this entire project into a saccharinely sweet romance flick with all the stale tropes and clichés you’d expect. When the screenplay is finished focusing on its conceit, it spins into a pointlessly dull love story you can see coming a mile away. Jack is so career-focused, he apparently can’t see Ellie has been madly in love with him for a decade. But the narrative forces an unusual ultimatum moment that feels terribly inauthentic, given Ellie’s relentless push for Jack’s music to be heard. It’s a courtship so desperate for conflict, it plonks some out of absolutely nowhere.

Regardless, Patel and James have terrific chemistry, and you can’t help but hope they’ll work together again on something with a tad more substance. There are several climatic narrative moments which feel like they could be the film’s rousing finale, yet it just keeps inexplicably barrelling on. There’s also a genuinely bizarre plot twist involving a nefarious looking Russian and a dowdy Liverpudlian housewife that truly makes no sense. And the less said about a “big reveal” moment towards the conclusion, the better.

The combination of Boyle and Curtis was undoubtedly a quirky cinematic match no one ever expected. The pairing ultimately proves rather disastrous. Boyle has always been a director known for his frenetic style and dizzying visuals, but everything he’s so admired for simply isn’t here. There’s no edge to the screenplay, so Boyle is forced to find it elsewhere. The constant use of too-clever-for-their-own-good visual titles for every location Jack visits become horribly exhausting and woefully out-of-place. There’s a concerted effort for some imaginative camerawork from cinematographer Christopher Ross, but nothing to save the film from the tired doldrums it finds itself in.

There’s a wonderful film hiding in Yesterday somewhere. While it initially begins as an intelligent commentary on the music industry, it falls apart when it forgets its concept and lazily trudges down the romance path instead. While love may be all you need, it’s not enough to save this dull and lifeless failure. As for future jukebox musicals, maybe we should just let it be.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry,  Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon
Director: Danny Boyle
Producers: Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis, Bernard Bellew, Matthew James Wilkinson, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan
Screenplay: Richard Curtis
Cinematography: Christopher Ross
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Production Design: Patrick Rolfe
Editor: Jon Harris
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: 27th June 2019 (Australia)