Yesterday delivers on being clever and cute
High concept films, with simple but unrealistic ideas easily communicated in a trailer, are kind of underrated. While Office Space and Caddyshack are perfectly funny, there’s also plenty of room for Ghostbusters and Big. But as we’ve gotten closer to today, it mainly seems as though they are falling the way of the sitcom laugh-track, relegated to automatically marking something as lowbrow. That isn’t to say Yesterday, a movie where The Beatles are erased from all time, leaving only a struggling musician named Jack (Himesh Patel) with memories of their catalogue, is high art.
Movies don’t have to be thematically dense to convey meaning, sometimes they can be straightforward vehicles for emotion. This is more or less the career trajectory of Richard Curtis, writer of Notting Hill and For Weddings and a Funeral, and writer/director of Love Actually and About Time. Curtis’ films are all affirmations of romantic love as a positive, driving force in one’s life. While only this film and About Time lean into outright science-fiction elements, all of his films have some amount of fantasia to them, the happy romantic ending. While sometimes that can come off as trite to some, when their spell works, it can be extremely effective at delivering an emotional response.
But this isn’t a “turn your brain off” argument, either. Just that engagement with art is not confined to the intellect. Does Yesterday use the music of the greatest band of all time as a shortcut to pulling heartstrings? Sure. But Curtis and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) would be fools not to. They are using every tool at their disposal, and it allows the film to get to some strange places.
Yesterday has two main tracks. The more straightforward one is that Jack’s childhood best friend, Ellie (Lily James) has been his “manager” for ages, and is obviously in love with him. She pines for him, but he has never made a move for reasons the film has difficulty explaining because of how effortlessly charming James is as an actress. This comes to ahead in parallel with his career, as she doesn’t believe a famous rock star can be happy with a maths teacher.
On the other side, once Jack is discovered by Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran), he is offered a contract by Debra (Kate McKinnon), a manager with Universal. This side of the film is a parody of the music business, and the way that art and artists are branded, sold, and packaged to the adoring public. While not as dark or scathing as Josie and the Pussycats, the satire here feels less specific to music and how companies launch product, not surprising considering Danny Boyle’s underrated Steve Jobs film. It also helps that McKinnon brings her unique energy to the performance, which allows her to get away with lines like “I only think of him as a product,” and not miss a beat.
But how the film chooses to show these things is key. Yesterday has the right amount of clever ideas, humor, and musical moments to dance along from beat to beat. It’s engaging with the ethics of the situation, the real emotions of the characters, and trying to tease out how all of those things play out while playing by movie rules and abandoning realism when it comes to coincidences, timing, and the fact that anyone thinks “Hey Dude” is better than “Hey Jude.” Boyle’s direction is a key element, as he makes the film look much richer and visually interesting than strictly required without dipping too far into being a style exercise. He makes this romcom which largely takes place indoors and in English villages look like cinema, which reinforces the scale and stakes of the story.
Yesterday is a celebration of The Beatles legacy by way of a cute romantic comedy. The premise is novel enough to carry the film until the characters can share the load, making it the perfect summer remedy for when you’re explosion-ed out.