Yesterday is a sweet Beatles musical, but the whimsy turns sour
Have you ever felt bad watching a feel-good movie? Yesterday lets attractive people sing some of history’s best rock songs along postcard English coastlands, where the red Sheerans grow. Himesh Patel is Jack, a hard-luck singer. His manager, Ellie (Lily James), is his only fan. How could she not love him? Even his massive head wound is charming. Hit by a bus during a global blackout, he wakes up in a world where nobody knows the Beatles. He can take credit for “All You Need Is Love,” though for some reason he never gets around to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
Yesterday was made by its own British supergroup, uniting director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually). And there’s Ed Sheeran playing himself, a cameo that turns into a trusty-mentor supporting role. Patel has a charming voice, even if the movie mostly flattens the Beatles sound into singer-songwriter coffee rock. Patel sings the title tune at an outdoor pub overlooking a bay, and you get wrapped up in his performance. The meandering plot all but demands in-theater sing-alongs. So what’s the problem?
Well, Curtis’ script is full of cheap gags: When Jack’s not saying “The guitar needs to gently weep more,” he’s explaining how musical success is “the difference between Jay-Z and Jay-Y.” James acts the hell out of a stale patient-love-interest role, the kind of part that requires dutiful patience and a speech about choosing love over fame. Not much you can do with lines like “I’ll always just be Ellie with the frizzy hair,” really.
And the whimsical rom-com charms of Yesterday‘s first half mostly disappear as Jack achieves worldwide fame. His stolen songs lead to widespread acclaim — and carry the movie into broad, limp showbiz satire. The depiction of the music industry should inspire a bumper crop of Star is Born-ish thinkpieces, and Kate McKinnon chews the scenery as a devouring record executive.
I guess I’m as much as a Beatles fan as the next person, insofar as I sung along to their music when I was a kid, sought deeper meaning in their weird period during dazed college days, and now frequently turn to the Beatles Sirius XM radio station when there’s nothing else on the hundred other channels. So I appreciated the songbook quality of Yesterday, and found something profoundly disquieting in its drugless, sexless version of the Beatles. One twist is downright ghoulish.
I suspect all involved with this movie would declare it a “fairy tale” — the plot is not overly interested in pinning down the nature of its fantasy, and nothing about Jack’s rockstar lifestyle would offend the churchy elders who once viewed rock so suspiciously. But fairy tales edge toward strangeness, and the sanded edges of Yesterday ultimately feel more like a flashy commercial — one of those recent music documentaries commissioned by the people on screen, propaganda with feels.
The music’s good, duh, and it’ll be just as good when your local high school performs Yesterday. Which lucky kid gets to play Ed Sheeran?