Review: Yesterday

Yesterday poster

Following in the footsteps of Queen and Elton John, The Beatles are now the subject of a feature-length jukebox musical – or rather, their songs are. Said musical focuses on an aspiring singer and his adoring friend, which proves to be a very romantic tale indeed.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) believes he has the potentials of a career musician, having quit his full-time teaching job and endeavoured to make his dream a reality. With his friend and one-time colleague Ellie (Lily James) acting as manager, Jack has been able to secure gigs at pubs and music festivals, though only as a minor supporting act – the variety where the tent is small and located some distance away from the main stage.

One evening, on a routine bicycle-ride home, Jack is hit by a bus and spends several days in hospital recovering from his injuries. He mends and is discharged, ready to reassume his ordinary life, only to discover that nobody has any memory of The Beatles, the most famous and influential British pop band to ever have existed. Worse still, the group’s albums have vanished from his record collection, as has any information regarding the foursome on the Internet.

The disappearance of John, Paul, George and Ringo from the public’s consciousness results in Jack attempting to remember as many of their songs as possible, which he is mostly successful in achieving. His efforts are noticed by a lowly music producer, Gavin (Alexander Arnold) with whom Jack records a selection of The Beatles’ most infectious tunes. The resulting E.P. is warmly received by the public, leading to Jack becoming an international superstar.

The premise of Yesterday is a fantastic conversation starter, able to foster endless philosophical discussions. Most obviously, viewers might hypothesise what they would do in Jack’s situation – whether that’s record the songs of The Beatles and pass it off as their own, or otherwise – yet the bigger question to consider is whether “his” songs would be as eagerly received as they originally were five decades earlier.

Pop music has evolved greatly over the years, and people’s tastes with it, so it seems unlikely the songs featured in Yesterday’s soundtrack would gain the same response from today’s consumers, or achieve the same level of success. It was for this very reason that the original script, written by Jack Barth, had the lead protagonist attain only moderate fame from The Beatles’ songs, rather than full stardom – as happens in the final product.

That change is due to the input of screenwriter Richard Curtis, who is most famous for penning the romantic-comedies Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Curtis plays to his strengths in Yesterday, using Barth’s creative premise as a MacGuffin and instead making the relationship between Jack and Ellie the primary focus. Their romance is the kind typical of this genre, illustrated by the Will-They-Won’t-They and It’s-Me-Or-Them exchanges between the two protagonists.

Another implausible element of this relationship is how and when the characters reveal their feelings to each other. Jack and Ellie are seen to be close friends and have been since adolescence, yet it’s only when Jack becomes famous that Ellie declares her feelings for him; even more baffling is that Ellie has held this love since her teenage years, and has waited over a decade to reveal them. Likewise, Jack is seemingly clueless as to Ellie’s affections, and only takes interest in his friend after said declaration, which is somewhat illogical.

Cliched and unclever though these conflicts are, there’s something undeniably sweet, and resonant, about Yesterday’s love story. Any friction between the couple is gently, amorously contained, never resorting to heated or full-blown arguments like those found in other rom-coms, while the dilemma they face is one shared with many lovers – the fear of growing apart and not knowing what could-have-been, versus the need to follow one’s dream and further their career.

Making this relationship more appealing still are the two leads, Patel and James. The former has a Hugh Grant-esque charm about him, being quirky, somewhat shy and prone to dithering, but not to an annoying extent, and appears to be musically gifted. Lily James is her usual endearing self and gives a good performance, her purity not once becoming an irritant. When together, these two are the perfect pairing, with chemistry so magnetic one would swear their romance was genuine.

It’s clear that Curtis has provided romance aplenty, but he hasn’t sold audiences short on the comedy. The primary source of comic relief is Rocky (Joel Fry), the dopey friend of Jack who is also his roadie, but there are also funny moments involving Jack’s father Jed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and singer Ed Sheeran, playing a fictionalised, conceited version of himself. Best of all, the film utilises the kind of charming, understated humour that Curtis, and Britons, do better than just about anybody else.

Yesterday has bucked the trend of recent musicals, being more than a nostalgic re-tread of a famous band’s discography. With attention shifted to the romance between the characters, and the fantasy elements eschewed, the film allows itself to be an absorbing, touching story. Consider The Beatles’ music an added bonus.

3.5 stars


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