VOD film review: Yesterday
Ivan Radford | On 17, Nov 2019Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James
Watch Yesterday online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
What if nobody had heard of The Beatles? That’s the attention-grabbing premise behind Yesterday, a film that’s part-alt-history, part-romantic comedy and part-love letter to the Fab Four. To say it’s full of excellent music is no surprise. To say it doesn’t quite manage to juggle its stuffed playlist of genres, though, is something of a disappointment.
Himesh Patel delivers a star-making turn as Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter from the back-end of Britain’s beaches, whose generic songs – including “Summer Song” – aren’t about to land him a record deal any time soon. But when a freak bus accident and global blackout wipes out all trace of The Beatles, Jack inadvertently finds that he can use the situation to his advantage. Almost overnight, the back catalogue of The Beatles proves popular enough that he rockets to stardom. All you need is love – and a good memory for lyrics written 40 years ago.
It’s a cracking situation to explore, rife with potential for questions about culture, fame and music. What is it about the Fab Four’s songwriting that makes it so timeless, poignant and catchy? Richard Curtis, sadly, isn’t interested in exploring that, and instead we take it for granted that their compositions should automatically be hailed as masterpieces; the film instead spends its time jokingly comparing The Beatles’ songs with those of Ed Sheeran, as Jack and Ed (playing himself) hold an impromptu songwriting contest. Sheeran deserves huge credit for not taking himself seriously at all – his suggestion to change the lyric from “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude” is an inspired gag – but it’s a shame that his enthusiasm isn’t matched by a convincing performance, with every line he’s given falling awkwardly flat and turning his cameos into long and winding roads.
Curtis’ script also dwells heavily on Jack’s romance with his manager and best friend, Lily James. While James and Malik have excellent chemistry, it resolves in a Richard Curtisian twist that rings entirely false, which undermines the whole affair. Far more effective are Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal as Jack’s parents, and every scene is stolen by Joel Fry as would-be best friend Rocky, a clueless, but loyal sidekick and self-appointed groupie.
Boyle directs with the kind of energy and wit we’ve come to expect from a guy who is never willing to let something be; he lights up the initial song recording sessions with a delightfully homemade vibe and the genuine thrill of creative expression. Patel, meanwhile, is endlessly watchable as Jack, not only performing The Beatles’ songs, but giving them his own spin – and acting Jack’s emotional dilemma through them at the same time. As a showcase for him, and for The Beatles, Yesterday is a delight. As a what-if scenario, even with a little help from Curtis’ friends, it can’t quite work it out after all.