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Yesterday

Released 2019. Director: Danny Boyle

IMAGINE YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF THE SONG 'YESTERDAY'. Imagine you’ve never heard of The Beatles because they never existed. That’s what Jack discovers when he wakes up from an accident. A power cut in the night around the world has somehow altered history and the four lads from Liverpool never made it big.

Jack, a struggling singer-songwriter of limited prospects, appears to be the only person to remember The Beatles. He performs some of their songs and becomes an overnight sensation. People think he’s a musical genius and they’re screaming for more! So now our friend has an ethical dilemma: should he pass off the Beatles catalogue as his own work to ensure fame and fortune? Nobody knows he didn’t write them. No problem, right?

Yesterday sounds like a terrific pitch and indeed it is. There’s a nugget of gold in this little synopsis. A comedy of errors of sorts featuring some of the best songs ever written, maybe there’s even room to squeeze in a love story between the singing. What’s more, it’s written by Richard Curtis, who gave us Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, and directed by Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire.

Sadly, something did not go so well along the way. Maybe Richard outsourced most of his writing this time. Maybe Danny was distracted. Yesterday does not live up to its potential and remains a one-note music sheet with the most unconvincing romance among romantic comedies. After establishing the premise, the story struggles to find a direction as it stumbles into unfortunate clichés and extravagant Wembley stadium-sized valentine gestures.

What's behind this bizarre phenomenon of a parallel universe without The Beatles? I wanted to know. But in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s not the point of the story and by the time Jack sings the last verse I’m not interested anymore.

Himesh Patel in the role of Jack Malik, the man privileged to sing all of Beatles songs by himself, is a pretty lacklustre presence. (Turns out he’s not the only one who remembers The Beatles, then again, it doesn’t matter.) The protagonists in a romantic comedy need to be engaging, at least likeable. The script is partly to blame for making Jack a dull hero with little else to offer besides singing and wrist-wringing. Patel’s acting is also to blame, lacking a sense of sincerity and warmth playing a character enjoying the adulation of the world and the adoration of one particular woman, as if being the one to know Beatles songs sets him higher above everyone else. Why is he always scowling?

Lily James is the loyal, faithful roadie/manager and part-time girlfriend that’s completely unrealistic, the kind of person you might expect in lazy fiction. The simmering attraction between these two should generate tension and spark. C’mon, he has some cool songs to serenade her! Instead, their chemistry is best described as trying to light a wet log.

Joel Fry, as the bumbling pal Rocky, is a rehash of Hugh Grant’s inconvenient flatmate in Notting Hill played by Rhys Ifans, the embarrassing friend and comic guy whose function is to help the hero look good by comparison. Then there's Kate McKinnon as the big-shot record agent, the requisite American villain who swoops in with her evil agenda. Maybe a talented comic like McKinnon should have gone all apeshit crazy outrageous. That would have made her character more interesting. Ed Sheeran playing himself adds little to the story once the initial interest quickly wears off.

But I’ll give them this. The part about John Lennon being alive and living alone by the sea is a nice touch. One of the greatest songwriters living a simple life in contentment instead of the cruel fate that befell him in real life. There's no song for that poignancy.

In the end, the movie succeeds in one significant way. It reminds us just how incomparable and brilliant Beatles songs are. It’ll probably remind you of the first time you heard a Beatles song in your life, and make you long for the songs of yesterday.


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