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“Yesterday” Charmingly Imagines A World Sans Beatles Music

The combination of director Danny Boyle and scribe Richard Curtis isn’t an immediately obvious one, or one that initially seems built for success. After all, they operate on such different ends of the cinematic spectrum. However, Boyle rarely works with the sort of charming material that Curtis is known for, while Curtis has never had as stylish a filmmaker helming one of his scripts as he has with Boyle. Together, they bring a fantastical and musical romantic comedy to theaters this week in Yesterday. Despite never quite reaching its full potential or fully making use of either’s total talents, this is just so damn likable of a movie, it’s impossible not to recommend. It’s simply a shame that we don’t have the modern classic that the talent and premise hint at.

Yesterday is a rom com filled with music, tied together by a fantasy conceit rife with possibility. Our protagonist is Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling musician in a small English town. His friends and family humor him, but despite a bit of talent, it’s really only his manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James) who believes in him, and that’s at least partly due to having a longstanding crush on him. After a few gigs don’t go the way he wants them to, Jack is ready to quit music, and actually tells Ellie so. Then, while biking home one night, he’s hit by a bus right as a worldwide blackout occurs. When he comes to, not only is he missing two front teeth, he slowly realizes that he’s somehow entered an alternate reality. Nearly everything is the same, though there’s no Coke, only Pepsi, and the band Oasis doesn’t exist. However, while playing a certain famous song for his mates, he comes to realize that The Beatles cease to exist in this realm as well. In short order, he begins to play their songs, which gets him recognized by the world as a genius, including by Ed Sheeran (himself) and Ed’s steely manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). Suddenly considered the most talented musician in the world, what’s a guy to do? If you’ve seen a Richard Curtis rom com before, you should have a pretty good idea. The aforementioned Boyle directs a screenplay by Curtis, one that the latter developed on a story level with Jack Barth. The supporting cast includes Alexander Arnold, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Joel Fry, and more, while Christopher Ross handles the cinematography. Daniel Pemberton composes a score that plays around numerous Beatles tunes, as one might imagine, no pun intended.

If you’re a fan of Boyle’s, this film might seem out of left field. However, if you dig Curtis’ work, you’ll be right at home. Filtered with some of Boyle’s unique stylistic choices, there’s a new palate to his writing. However, as charming as this is, and it’s often incredibly so, you do get the sense that it’s lesser Curtis, while Boyle isn’t necessarily at full force either. They don’t do quite enough with the concept, rushing too quickly into the fame aspect of the story, before highlighting the romance angle for much of the final third. There’s only passing thoughts given to the proposition of a world without The Beatles (or Coca-Cola, for that matter). The gimmick is great. The execution, however, is middling, relying on the strong music and charm of the characters to make it all work.

The Beatles certainly are paid tribute to here, as their music is almost exclusively heralded as among the best compositions ever brought to humanity’s ears. Boyle and Curtis are at their best when depicting moments where the value of music is emphasized. It doesn’t happen as much as one would hope, but when it does, it’s as charming as you’d hope. James and Patel are likable, while McKinnon is enjoyable slimy, so the cast does their part. It’s just a mild shame that such a tremendous premise is only partially realized. Considering how cute the film already is, that hints at what a triumph it actually could have been.

In just a matter of days, audiences will be able to see what a world without The Beatles would be like when Yesterday opens. It’s hitting screens at a good time to be some crowd pleasing summer counter-programming, that’s for sure. The movie hits on a “what if” that anyone can get behind. Just imagine if you were the only person who remembered the music of your favorite band? I know if I were the only one left who remembered Bruce Springsteen, I’d certainly try something similar. The thing is, the more we consider our own possibilities, the more you realize how much more clever Yesterday could have been. It remains on the surface level of the premise, limiting a potentially great work to merely just being a good one…

Be sure to check out Yesterday, in theaters everywhere this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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