What would the world be like without classic art? That’s the central question at the heart of Yesterday, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle’s latest film. Written by Richard Curtis (About Time, Love Actually), the romantic comedy stars British newcomer Himesh Patel, along with Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, and musician Ed Sheeran in a cameo role. While the film could have explored its fantastical premise a bit further, it’s certainly an endearing, disarming movie with fantastic performances and an energetic visual palette.
Struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is on the verge of giving up on his dream of getting famous. His manager Ellie (Lily James) encourages him, while nursing an unrequited crush on him. One day, the entire world is plunged into a mysterious blackout, causing Jack to have a bike accident. When he wakes up, he comes to the stunning realization that no one remembers any of the songs by The Beatles! When he plays one of their songs at a small town gig, he gets discovered and whisked away to a real music career, passing off all The Beatles’ classic tunes as his own. The world becomes convinced that Jack is the best singer-songwriter who has ever lived, but at what cost?
I like Danny Boyle as a director, especially films like 127 Hours, Trainspotting, Steve Jobs, and A Life Less Ordinary. His zippy, whimsical style works beautifully in this film. The excitement of The Beatles’ catalogue and the rush of performing are portrayed quite well on screen. Yesterday is youthful, funny, and appealing. Boyle keeps the film breathlessly enjoyable, relying on Christopher Ross’ camerawork and Jon Harris’ editing to take the film to its visceral heights. The musical sequences are filmed well enough considering this isn’t a musical, but rather a movie with concert sequences. The best musical sequence is Jack recording a demo at a homespun recording studio, which captures the thrill of making art.
The premise of Yesterday is so great, and while I like the film on the whole, it is missing that extra layer. The film doesn’t quite grapple with what losing the influence of The Beatles does to art now. Curtis’ script also hints at Jack being unable to relate to the songs on a personal level, but again doesn't explore that. Curtis seems to be satisfied that the songs should be out there because the world needs them. That’s true, but makes for a cute, albeit superficial movie. Jack’s performances too are fun to watch, but you don’t get much sense of what the music actually means to him other than they’re just “the best songs ever written.”
Yesterday would not be as entertaining without the lead performance. Himesh Patel not only has a gorgeous singing voice, but he is charismatic and dorky on screen. I liked that Jack is awkward as a rock star, because he doesn’t really belong up on stage pretending the songs he’s singing are his own. Patel is a great find, and it seems like he was just the right guy for this role. Not much would change if Jack were played by a white actor. The film would maybe just lose the hilarious reversal of a nonwhite artist appropriating and stealing the work of white artists (especially The Beatles who have their own history of commodifying Indian culture in the 1960’s).
The supporting cast is just as wonderful. Literal ball of sunshine Lily James is perfect in her role, bringing natural sweetness and compassion to the film. She’s one of my favorite actors working now, and she brightens up the screen with her charming presence. British comedy legends Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar (best known co-founding the iconic sketch comedy series Goodness Gracious Me!) are a riot as Jack’s parents, and they are playing very recognizable South Asian parents. Kate McKinnon is doing what she does best, and gets a number of good jabs at the unprepared-for-stardom Jack.
If you’re in the mood for a sweet romantic comedy, then you won’t go wrong with Yesterday. It doesn’t have a bad bone in its body. Boyle’s direction is exciting, and the performances carry the film even when it becomes narratively shaky. Himesh Patel and Lily James are just unbelievably adorable together, and the film just takes off when they are both on screen.