Review: Danny Boyle & Richard Curtis' 'Yesterday' is Awkwardly Sweet
by Alex Billington
June 29, 2019
Seen at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Who doesn't love The Beatles? Wait – don't answer that question. But seriously - The Beatles are the best and their music will live on forever because it's so brilliant. Danny Boyle's latest film Yesterday, featuring a screenplay written by Richard Curtis (of Love Actually, Pirate Radio, About Time), presents a crazy concept: what if suddenly The Beatles didn't exist, no one know who they were, except for one guy. And that guy then played all their songs like they were his own and became famous because they're still brilliant songs. That's the setup for Yesterday, except, this is a Richard Curtis film – which means that, not only is it actually more of a sweet love story, but it's really all about life itself and focusing on what matters rather than giving it up chasing fame and fortune and glory. Just not worth it.
Boyle's Yesterday is an immensely awkward film. Every single scene is awkward, which is the whole point of it. Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a lovable-goofball British guy trying to be a musician but no one seems to care about him or his songs (aside from his friend Ellie). He's a very awkward guy – he can never seem to say what he wants to say, and while he's charming, he's still a bit goofy and simple-minded. He is a good musician, though, but just can't get anyone to be interested. Until he wakes up from a bicycle accident and discovers he's the only one who knows who The Beatles are. And thus begins his life's story, suddenly being whisked off into the music industry once people start hearing his music. Despite all of this, the film never really transcends the awkwardness to become anything else greater. Which is a shame because I was hoping this might be a knock out. Once it gets going there's a clunkiness that gets in the way of the sweet love story.
The thing is - Yesterday is not really about The Beatles or their music. Yes, it's a nice way to remind us how important and impactful their music was/is. But that's just part of the concept - which is fun as a setup for the film. But, since it is a Richard Curtis film, it's truly about love and life and focusing on what matters and ignoring all the distractions and not being tempted by money and all that. Which is great. There's quite a bit of social commentary worked into this - in small (nuanced) ways and in big (obvious) ways. So many scenes feature distractions - mostly cell phones and interruptions from other characters. They're showing us how often we're overwhelmed and distracted by so much else going on nowadays. There's also a few good scenes about how great talent is often overlooked because of, surprise surprise, how someone looks. Early on he tries playing The Beatles songs in pubs but people still don't care, because he's still that same awkward guy.
The core of the film is, of course, the love story. And if anyone is upset by this film because it makes some cliche choices in the way it handles this love story, rather than focusing on the music story, they're missing the point entirely. Pretty much every film that Richard Curtis has written/made is about how your true love is someone right there in front of you, just waiting for you to realize this, not some person out there who will only find you once you're rich and/or famous and/or successful and/or grown up and/or more experienced (or whatever). Lily James plays Ellie, Jack's friend for most of his life. And from very early on it's obvious that these two will struggle to admit their feelings for each other, and that they need to go through this big life-changing event to realize that, but still. At the end of it all they understand and they do come together and it's sweet and nice and – yes – we still need these love stories. A tiny dose of romantic encouragement.
The rest of the film is amusing and mostly enjoyable, but I hate to admit I don't think I'll be rewatching this one that often. And I love Danny Boyle's films and rewatch many of them often. One thing I do very much appreciate in it is how blatantly Kate McKinnon's manager character Debra states how vile and poisonous (and greedy) the music industry is – and how evil chasing money is. It's as unsubtle as can be, and is a good slap in the face with truth that somehow works in the film. Yes, people love music, but he learns his lesson and realizes that good music means so much to so many people and is best when shared, not profited off of. It's far & away not the best music film, but there's a sweetness to Yesterday that makes it a pleasant, satisfy film. "All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?"
Alex's Karlovy Vary 2019 Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing