Danny Boyle has grown increasingly gentle. The man who began his feature-film career with the dark comedy, Shallow Grave and achieved widespread fame for Trainspotting moved onto such films as the uplifting Slumdog Millionaire and the biopic, Steve Jobs. In 2019, he made an SF Rom-Com that also serves as a love letter to the Beatles.
In Yesterday, a likeable, mediocre singer/songwriter recovers from an accident and finds himself in an alternate reality where the Beatles never existed. Fame, hilarity, and ethical questions ensue.
Despite the alternate universe element, the film is very much a romantic comedy. Its success or failure consequently rests on two questions:
1. Are the leads charming and likeable?
2. Is the comedy funny?
The answer to (1) is yes, absolutely. We're looking at a major release with leads who have been teleported in from a quirky indie comedy. The answer to (2) is, for the most part, yes. It's not fall-out-of-your-seat funny, but it delivers on the laughs.
Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik as an awkward, likeable loser, pursuing his dreams despite his modest talents. He has great chemistry with Lily James as Ellie Appleton, the female friend he has too long overlooked. She's stunned when he starts producing work of extraordinary quality. He loves his newfound fame, but knows he's stolen it. He also was never a Beatles superfan, so he stumbles entertainingly over recreating some of their lyrics.
Ed Sheeran gives a frequently hilarious performance as Ed Sheeran. It's the role he was born to play, and he clearly comprehends the absurdity of the situation into which the movie places him. He recognizes genius but is baffled by Malik's apparent lack of any identifiable creative process, or even the basic ability to say what his songs might be about.
Some of the supporting characters are cardboard stock, but the actors play them effectively. Kate McKinnon must represent the money-grubbing side of the recording industry as Debra Hammer, a character who barely has one dimension.
The exact premise has been used before, including once in Manga. There's no evidence the writers knew about these when they composed their script. They did know the genre, however. Much of the second half of the film unfolds pretty much as you might predict. The most original element might be the direction. Boyle occasionally employs contemporary film technology in place of familiar film techniques in places: computer-enabled visual trickery instead of more conventional dissolves, montages, and establishing shots.
I should know better than to contemplate the implications of an alternate timeline in a Rom-Com. The writers certainly knew better than to give it too much thought. But, how about some thought? Given that this is a sort of valentine to the Beatles, could it not acknowledge how entirely different pop culture would be if they'd never existed? Save for the absence of the Fab Four's songs and the fact that Jack's youthful inspiration, Oasis, never existed, the pop-music landscape remains unchanged.
We also learn that Coca-Cola, a certain successful novel/movie series, and smoking do not exist. For the sake of the couple of minor jokes that result, I'm left wondering how the alternate history of North America unfolded without the tobacco trade.
I suppose we should follow the opening line advice of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and turn off our minds and relax.1. If you can manage that, you may find Yesterday makes for passing entertainment. Paul McCartney himself reports that he slipped into a theater incognito and saw the film, which he rather enjoyed. That's a pretty good recommendation.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth
Himesh Patel as Jack Malik
Lily James as Ellie Appleton
Joel Fry as Rocky
Ed Sheeran as himself
Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer
Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jed Malik
Meera Syal as Shelia Malik
Harry Michell as Nick
Sophia Di Martino as Carol
Alexander Arnold as Gavin
Justin Edwards as Leo the Russian
Lamorne Morris as Head of Marketing
Robert Carlyle as John Lennon
James Corden as himself
Michael Kiwanuka as himself
1. Would techno be the same if the Beatles had never recorded "Tomorrow Never Knows"? At the very least, we have to assume that the Chemical Brothers' "Let Forever Be" doesn't exist in the alt-universe, along with a dozen or so other songs that sample this one quirky number. Then we have the numerous covers, along with the chemically-enhanced types from at least two generations who just listened to it and went, whooooooooah, they did that in '66? before attempting to match it. I suppose someone else would have done loops at some point, but this one song, not even a significant hit for the Fab Four, sends ripples across cultural history. Multiply that times their entire oeuvre. Add in people who picked up a guitar after hearing "A Hard Day’s Night" or got pregnant while listening to "In My Life" or "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"
Now throw that into a reality where, apparently, Coca-Cola either wasn't invented or didn't succeed (though Pepsi exists), and the American tobacco trade wasn't a thing, and we should have a wildly different world.
SciFiQuest 3020: Foresight is 3020