When it was announced Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis were teaming up for a rock fantasy based on the music of The Beatles it set alarm bells ringing. What would come of a collaboration between the director of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and the writer of The Vicar of Dibley, Love Actually and The Boat that Rocked? It appears that cosiness nullifies creativity as paper smothers rock. All of the energy, anarchy and spirit of Boyle’s best work has been neutered and declawed. It’s his worst film by a country mile.
When Jack (Himesh Patel) is knocked unconscious by a bus during a twelve-second electrical black-out that affects the whole world, he comes to realise he is possibly the only person on the planet that remembers The Beatles and their music. Encouraged by his long-term friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) the struggling singer-songwriter adopts the iconic tunes as his own and becomes a sensation.
It’s an intriguing high-concept, but the execution feels like a cynical attempt to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. By licensing the Lennon and McCartney songbook, and using it as a constant backdrop to a classic Faustian tale with a Millennial setting, it tries to tickle the fancy of every possible demographic. Therein lies the problem. It’s a karaoke version; not just of the Fab Four’s back catalogue, but of Boyle and Curtis’ previous work, and the romantic comedy in general. Patel makes a decent fist of interpreting the material, but he’s a conduit rather than a character. He does however fizz nicely with Lily James. As usual she’s a likable presence, but as in the likes of Baby Driver, is given little to do other than moo over a troubled hero. Even the determinedly milquetoast Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society grants her more personality and autonomy. The sheer laziness continues in the character of Jack’s friend Rocky (Joel Fry). Aptly, he’s simply a lazy cover version of the slovenly housemate memorably portrayed by Rhys Ifans in Curtis’ own Notting Hill. Only Kate McKinnon makes any impression as Jack’s sharkish LA manager, and it is still played very broadly.
One of the very worst aspects of the film is the egregious celebrations of mediocrity that permeates every frame. When Ed Sheeran and James Corden are held up as the pillars of success in modern entertainment, we’re in dire straits indeed. The intention is, of course, to highlight just how good the music is. There are comic scenes in which the band’s legendary album titles are breezily dismissed by bottom-dollar A&R men. Ironically the entire project is just as much a product as the lifeless pap it pretends to satirise.
Yesterday is being marketed as a feel-good movie and positioned in Boyle’s filmography alongside Slumdog Millionaire. The difference is the feeling of warmth generated by his multiple Oscar winner is earned, coming from a place of catharsis. It’s feel-good in the way that It’s a Wonderful Life is feel-good, in that it journeys to some dark, dark places along the way before the celebratory rush sweeps all before it in a tidal build and release. There is no tension here. No drama. And unforgivably for a rock-‘n’-roll film, no soul.
Yesterday is a wallow in Boomer nostalgia horrifically grafted to a modern love story like a botched nose job. There are still moments of Boyle’s technical flair, even if it’s devoid of his customary artistic daring. The crowd scenes are impressively handled and have a degree of the same authentic charge Bradley Cooper brought to A Star is Born. Yet that’s the only thing that rings remotely true. Add in shonky internal logic and a smug assumption that the audience takes the greatness of The Beatles as a given, and you’ve got a complete horror show. One that’s likely going to be massive.
Screenings at Vue Omni Centre Thu 20 and Sat 22 Jun 2019