Yesterday is an interesting little romantic fantasy written by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle, about a struggling musician Jack Malik (Himish Patel) suddenly becoming the only person on earth to remember the Beatles and their music. This shift in the status quo is courtesy of some barely explained blah-di-blah-blah-fantasy-blackout-head-injury-thing, but it scarcely matters. The emphasis isn’t on the mechanics of it, but how Jack responds, and what it does to him and his relationships.
Mild spoilers ahead.
As Jack comes to terms with this new state of affairs, he begins to pass off songs like Help!, Let it Be, I Want to Hold Your Hand and the titular Yesterday as his own, eventually attracting attention and becoming famous. Doing so leads to a number of expected story beats, including Jack leaving behind his simpler but more grounded life to pursue the financial success that’s always eluded him.
Along with this, Jack must leave behind his near-girlfriend and former manager, Ellie (Lily James), who can’t follow him to Los Angeles because she actually has a real job (as a teacher). The growing realization of what he’s lost in Ellie becomes one half of the tug-of-war on Jack’s life which makes up the meat of the movie, with the other side being represented by his unscrupulous new manager, Debra Hammer (played by Kate McKinnon). She’s frankly, a terrible person. She’s also meant to be Ed Sheeran’s manager, which only makes me wonder what his manager is really like and what he or she thinks of her.
Yesterday is quite a simple and intimate little character film, much more so than the other work I know Danny Boyle for–Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a comedy but the jokes only half work–it’s more of a film that will put a satisfied grin on your face rather than fill you full of belly-laughs. It doesn’t necessarily hit every mark that it aims for, but it comes close enough to still win me over.
The real satisfaction comes in the way the film brings us into Jack’s situation. His choices to run after his new artistic validation, even though it’s built on deception, make emotional sense. We know he’s making the wrong choice to leave Ellie behind, but his actions are understandable, and even sympathetic.
Similarly, we also believe it when he eventually changes his course. There’s quite an interesting bit where he is confronted by two other people who also remember the Beatles. When they catch up with him, the response from everybody is fresh and original–and the journey they send him contains some surprising revelations.
Himesh Patel does a good job as Jack, and he’s nice to listen to musically as well. In fact, one of my only wishes about the movie is that had shown more of his performances in their entirety, as I like his singing voice. Lily James is also good as Ellie, and creates in her a very likeable character. Her unwillingness to accept a counterfeit of her love for Jack (ie spend the night with him without the commitment of a relationship) gives her a lot of integrity. It’s the sort of grounded authenticity that Jack desperately needs, and the film is really the story of him discovering this about himself.
Slightly surprisingly, Ed Sheeran shows up as himself, as really the fourth or fifth main character of the movie. The fictional Ed is impressed by Jack’s songs, and hires him as his opening act, which is part of what helps propel him to stardom. Finally, Robert Carlisle does a good job in an uncredited part that I won’t say any more about.
Overall, the movie and its music won me over. I can imagine some might be unhappy with the utter lack of explanation about what has happened to the world and why, but to for me that all seems beside the point. The story is not really about the odd situation but how the unexpected opportunity challenges Jack personally. And it’s also about how we respond to our idols, and how those responses impact us as people. It’s a poetic film that meanders through these themes in a way that while never necessarily becoming profound, is at least thoughtful and engaging.