Yesterday is based on this intriguing premise: What if the whole world forgot about the Beatles, except for one guy? Like most movies with an intriguing premise, the challenge becomes making the premise stretch the length of a feature film and have something to say besides, “Isn’t this premise cool?”
The final product is something that has, outside of its premise, three things going for it, and three major problems.
1. Winning performances. Himesh Patel as Jack and Lily James as Ellie are both charming in their roles and have the chemistry to sell their romance. The supporting cast is quirky and adds to the hyper-reality of the film. Even Ed Sheeran, I have decided after much thought, does a good job at portraying the worst version of Ed Sheeran.
2. There is occasionally great directing from Danny Boyle. A few sequences have a perfect balance of humor and heart and creative cinematography. And this is more to the credit of the screenplay then the director, but the film goes out of its way to give Jack a well-rounded, fleshed out adult life that feels more substantial than most protagonists get. In other words, I believe that Jack has a real job he goes to and friends he has long histories with and neighbors he sees on the regular. It goes a great distance in making him likable and making the world of the story feel familiar, even when it strays into magical-realism.
3. The Beatles’ music is great. It’s hard to mess that up.
1. That said, the film kinda messes it up. Not the music itself, but everything else that was significant about the Beatles. By focusing solely on the music and not the context of how and when the music was made, or the lives of the men who made it, the film never comes to a clear consensus on why the Beatles are legendary.
The Beatles made history because they interacted with history. They were controversial and activists and innovators. Some people argue that art isn’t inherently political, and good music should be timeless. Perhaps that is true for some musicians, but it’s not for the Beatles. So yes, while the movie is right in that music brings us together, the narrative surrounding that music does just as much work in bringing people together (or driving them apart).
2. The commentary on the music business is broad and outdated. The comedy goes from witty satire to zany comedy in seconds, and the inconsistency doesn’t work, ultimately not saying anything of substance. Kate McKinnon gets a few good zingers in as a music producer, but even she can’t save the underbaked sell-out side plot.
3. The love story is cute but weak. Ellie is a perfect example of a very real phenomenon where (typically) a woman becomes a guy’s girlfriend or wife in all the ways except the title, and he benefits from her love and affection (and service) without committing to her in return or giving anything up. She waits for him to define the relationship and move forward, but he never does because why should he? He can just keep her in perpetual relationship limbo.
Ideally, Ellie is a character that women in a similar situation could watch and say, “wow, I’m in a relationship that is likewise very one-sided and I should treat myself with more respect and expect more from him.” But I don’t see this happening. Why? Because there aren’t any consequences for Jack for treating Ellie this way. After he realizes the errors of his way (which only comes after she goes through a lot of pain to finally confront him about it) he announces his love for her in a big, grand, public gesture that puts her on the spot (which you should never do without permission). She accepts it, and so he doesn’t have to do any work of rebuilding trust. In the end, he gets everything he wanted, including a relationship with her that is built off of years of her following him around, catering to his every need, being constantly-available emotional support, being his biggest fan, and waiting for him to make a move. Her character is not made for women to relate to, because she is framed solely through the male gaze. She’s the perfect girlfriend, a prize for Jack to finally accept after he’s done one good deed (tell the world he was lying about the Beatles).
At one point in the film, Kate McKinnon’s music producer character says of a song: “I hated it but wasn’t interested enough to listen to it again to find out why.” That’s brutal. And it’s kinda true of this movie. I didn’t hate Yesterday, not by a long shot. But Yesterday loves the Beatles and romantic relationships without knowing why, and until it goes back and finds out, there’s not much there, and it’s not interesting enough for me to revisit.