In a small village in England lives Jack Malik, a songwriter and performer who just can’t seem to get that big break. With help from his part time manager Ellie he struggles from one performing gig to the next, drawing very few people to his shows until one night he decides he’s done. He is going to give up music completely.
While riding home on his bike a mysterious event happens where the entire planet experiences a brief blackout, which causes for him to be hit by a bus, which lands him in the hospital. He later comes to and after being released he’s with his closest friends who gift him with a new guitar. He decides to play what he deems is the finest acoustic guitar type song ever written, that being “Yesterday” by the Beatles. What he then discovers is that no one has ever heard that song before. More than that, no one has ever heard of the Beatles or any individual from that band. So when Jack decides to start performing the few Beatles songs he knows he finds himself becoming an enormous hit. He releases an album of their songs that he has passed off as his own and finds his career is beginning to reach stratospheric success while his life is beginning to spiral out of control. He now has a new manager as Ellie has gone back to being a schoolteacher. This rattles him terribly as he’s just now beginning to discover how much he cares for her. He’s also developing an ever-increasing sense of guilt in perpetuating his fraudulent act. It is then that he seeks out advice from a truly unusual, and remarkable man, who gives Jack the perspective he desperately needs.
I have to start off by admitting that I’m quite the fan of the Beatles. I find their music to be completely timeless and continually inspiring. Perhaps that is why director Danny Boyle chose to use this unusual story written by Jack Barth and give us a movie that attempts to ask the question, “What would the world be like without the music of the Beatles?” Unfortunately the manner in which that question is asked is somewhat mired in ambiguity. We see what this world is like that Jack is living in, but at no time is there ever any explanation, or even an attempt at one, that offers any type of grounding for this story. Instead we are left with the idea that perhaps this is something we must take on face value, or that perhaps Jack is simply hallucinating all of this because of his accident. However when two people approach Jack after a performance it ends up totally dashing that thought of this being all in his mind, leaving this critic with yet even more questions.
What does make this movie enjoyable is, naturally, the music of the Beatles, and actor Himesh Patel, as Jack, does a magnificent job playing a variety of instruments (quite correctly I might add) as well as singing them in a manner that had me tapping my toe from one song to the next. Unfortunately there aren’t that many songs that we get to hear in their entirety, but we do hear plenty of snippets of songs throughout the film. While that may be disappointing to some, it is important to remember that the Beatles were one of the most prolific bands to ever grace the world of music, so instead of picking only a few songs and giving them a lot of attention and focus, Boyle has instead given us bits of a lot of songs, possibly in the hope of playing at least something that might appeal to every person who watches this movie. The songs that we do hear are very faithful to the versions that we are familiar with, but there is one unusual moment when Jack performs “Help” and does so in a manner that might very well make the Sex Pistols proud.
The cast in this movie is pretty strong, starting with Patel as Jack. His sense of frustration comes off quite believably, first in finally agreeing to give up music completely, and then later as he finds himself unable to withstand the weight of his lies and how it completely unravels him. As Jack’s manager, actress Lily James as Ellie presents herself with the same wide-eyed sense of wonder and innocence that she has become somewhat famous for. It’s not a part that has a lot of depth, but her chemistry with Patel adds credence to her character and how her love for Jack serves as the catalyst for the choices he makes towards the end of the movie. There are quite a few other cast members, but one that oddly stood out for me is that of Ed Sheeran playing himself. He seeks out Jack to join him as an opening act in Moscow, but Sheeran shows that he has some seriously strong acting chops when he’s forced to admit that his songwriting skills aren’t as strong as Jack’s. It may not sound like much of a scene, but Sheeran plays it perfectly. It could have been overacted or possibly not delivered seriously enough that would make Sheeran appear as if were having a mild tantrum. Instead he plays it with just the right amount of gravitas that instead gives us a character who, after having an amazing solo career in his own right, suddenly feel demolished and demoralized in the face of these songs that Jack is peddling.
This movie utterly baffled me as it never takes a step in any one direction to establish what type of movie it’s supposed to be. At first it looked like this would simply be a movie about a world where the music of the Beatles never existed, but the continual portrayal of Jack as this guilt-ridden man, plus the occasional reminders of “the event” tend to throw water on that idea. Presenting this as a possible fantasy of poor Jack having jumped into an alternate universe doesn’t entirely work either as it doesn’t get the necessary treatment it deserves, and instead falls back on the music of the Beatles. This gives us a result of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, for it fails as both a fantasy about universe jumping and as a speculative fiction about a world where the Beatles never existed. By giving half-hearted attempts at both of these approaches Yesterday ends up falling short in both aspects, despite the presence of the immortal music by arguably one of the world’s greatest bands ever. Instead Yesterday is reduced to simply being a sad disappointment.
For being a poorly mixed bag of a movie, I give Yesterday only 2.5 out of 5 guitars.