On paper, the central concept of Yesterday is a fascinating one.
There is no doubt that out there is many a struggling singer-songwriter out there who wishes one day that they woke up to find they were the only one who remembered a big name band’s hits and duly released them.
Sure enough, this collaboration between director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis seems to be designed at answering the question “What if everyone except one man forgot The Beatles?”
As a concept, its fun, and one where one could argue the biggest cost to the budget is licensing one of the music industry’s priciest back catalogues. Certainly, as a jukebox musical, it has an intelligent use of the music dotted throughout.
The drama focuses on struggling Suffolk-based singer-songwriter Jack (Himesh Patel), who is losing faith in his music career after playing to half-interested pubs, culminating in seemingly getting a breakthrough gig at Latitude only to be in a side-tent playing to his mates and some kids more interested in some soft toys.
His best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) tries to persuade him not to give up, but he remains to be convinced. While biking home after a show, Jack then gets struck by a bus while cycling after being distracted during what turns out to be a 12 second global blackout.
Jack duly wakes up in hospital missing some teeth and scuffed. When he begins to return to hanging out with his friends, he gets a new guitar as a present and treats his friends to a rendition of the Paul McCartney-penned Yesterday.
Having had a few subtle hints beforehand, this is Jack’s first real awareness nobody else can remember The Beatles, as his friends have never heard of it, while a quick Google search when he gets home also comes up blank.
So he begins “writing” dozens of their songs as new material, and through a fairly slapdash mix of circumstances, Ed Sheeran (appearing as himself) is bringing him on tour and his manager Debbie (Kate McKinnon) is managing his affairs to release a double album.
A lot of the central drama concerns the fragmentation of the central relationship between Jack and Ellie, with stardom tearing them apart, particularly after one trip to Liverpool has a sour ending, and gives Jack the feeling of not enjoying his rise to becoming a new superstar.
The film deserves credits for its intelligent use of Beatles music, and for a good run of central performances from its two main leads. Patel is excellent in the central role someone who goes through the full emotional gamut of struggle, bewilderment, hype and fame depression, while it also helps he does a very good vocal take and his own guitar/piano work.
Alongside him, James also puts in a very nice role as the counterpoint. Indeed, the relationship between the central 4 is a very British sense of humour where friendship plays out more as heckling and mild abuse, although it fades as the drama moves on.
McKinnon is good value as the over-bearing manager, essentially running as a satire of the music industry excess – something which is a bit of a music film cliché, but worked in nicely enough. Some people have meanwhile suggested Sheeran is pretty terrible at playing himself, which is an unusual charge to make, but in all truth he does well enough.
The central romance story itself is fine, but in all truth, it feels like it only really scratches the surface of the story’s potential and detracts from Jack’s central, slightly awkward journey from shop assistant to superstar.
One can imagine that if he’s the only person to recall The Beatles – plus a few other gags in the same area littered throughout – and feels awkward that something more could be done to keep it fresh, and do something closer to how it must’ve felt in the 60’s to first hear The Beatles’ musical wares.
It would be easy to steer heavily into dark side of fame or music industry satire – indeed, there is an amusing clip where his label reject multiple Beatles album titles for his own one – but the central very Curtis-style romance feels like the focus without something to truly elevate it.
For the most part, nevertheless, Yesterday is able to make the most of its intriguing premise, with fine central performances and a pleasing soundtrack used very well. It just feels sometimes like it could be trying to be more than relying on ordinary elements.