Groundhog Day is a great high-concept comedy that organically grows into a love story. Yesterday grabs you with a similar alternate universe hook, but then it rams the romance down your throat.
When we meet the protagonist, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), he’s a struggling singer-songwriter performing on boardwalks and in pubs around a seaside town in Essex. His longtime friend and manager, Ellie (Lily James), keeps booking him gigs for audiences of crickets. On the night Jack decides to give up the ghost on his music career, he meets the business end of a bus during a mysterious global blackout. After recovering from the accident, he slowly comes to find out that none of his friends are familiar with the Beatles. Worse yet, the groundbreaking band no longer exists.
The butterfly effect of the Beatles’ absence is quite amusing. The Rolling Stones are still rolling, but Pepsi has completely replaced Coke. Harry Potter isn’t a thing either.
Since he can’t make it big with his own music, Jack figures he can definitely catch his break with the Beatles’ tunes. But he doesn’t become a sensation overnight. Here, screenwriter Richard Curtis wisely suggests that even with great material, the path to success is a long and winding road.
Jack eventually rises through the ranks of the music industry and captures the world’s attention. A more cynical, and perhaps realistic, film would find Beatles songs getting drowned out in today’s musical climate. But Yesterday effectively emphasizes how their purity stands the test of time.
The one Beatles theme the film bungles is the idea that “all you need is love.” Before Jack heads off to bigger things, Ellie confesses her love for him. Throughout most of the film, he remains hesitant to address this. But at one point, he says he’s always thought of her as surrogate sister. And she expresses frustration about being in “the friend column.”
“You’ve had 10 years to make your move,” Ellie says. But did he really have to? Like many male-written romances, the film embraces the bullshit idea of the friend zone, portraying their platonic relationship as some kind of purgatory they have to trudge through before one of them sweeps the other off their feet. But James brings depth to an otherwise reductive love interest role.
Given all the Beatles’ wistful songs about trying to woo women, I guess it makes sense for Yesterday to be a love story. But, like Jack, it seems to pursue love out of a sense of obligation.
Patel gracefully carries the film and makes Jack’s distress our own. A particularly poignant moment involves him performing “Help!” as an actual warning cry. He captures the anguish of having a massive secret and being a fraudulent success because of it. And as the music is molded and compromised, he subtly conveys Jack’s frustration over not being able to catch lightning in a bottle. That’s far more interesting than the love story.
This film feels like a strange lark for director Danny Boyle. In fact, it feels more like a Curtis film, whose screenwriting credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually. Boyle doesn’t bring many of his own touches to it besides a lot of Dutch angles.
Yesterday is a clever and charming high-concept comedy. Instead of forcing a love story into it, maybe Curtis and Boyle should’ve let it be.