7/10 If you came in looking for a Beatles party, Yesterday will disappoint, but do stick around for the movie’s thoughtful story and a menacing performance from Kate McKinnon.
In Yesterday, struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is about to go back to teaching when, in an unexplained freak event, the power blinks off all around the world. When it comes back, Malik discovers he is the only one in the world who remembers the music of The Beatles. Malik plagiarizes the quartet’s legendary tunes, and as his star rises, he must leave his manager and longtime love interest Ellie Appleton (Lily James) for “the poison chalice of wealth and success” offered by bigshot manager Debra Hammer (McKinnon).
The main body of Yesterday is dedicated to the classic, played-out story about ignored love and losing yourself to fame, with Appleton as the angel and Hammer as the devil on Malik’s shoulder, and that’s unfortunate. The love story is bay far Yesterday’s weakest and most generic element, and given that it doesn’t dovetail with the main plot in any way, it should have simply been dropped.
Not only does it contribute nothing to the Beatles plot point that distinguishes this movie, it’s particularly hard to watch. Once Malik realizes Appleton is attracted to him, he’s completely on board, but then she gets all sheepish for whatever reason and starts dating someone else – it’s dumb. There’s no reason for them to not be together, there’s no reason for them to have not hashed this out several years before the events of the movie and I really don’t care about it either way.
Most of Yesterday’s runtime is spent on this conflict that doesn’t need to happen and doesn’t contribute anything to the movie’s hook. It’s a major structural weakness.
Yesterday isn’t a sendup of The Beatles as much as it is a send down of the music industry and modern consumption of music. The movie’s premise takes this handful of the greatest songs ever written, which have been unimpeachable in our culture for decades, and puts them up for judgment. In the world of Yesterday, The Beatles are subject to comparison to bands like Coldplay and Neutral Milk Hotel. The first ever performance of “Let it Be” is interrupted by a cell phone. Malik can’t get to Liverpool to rewrite Abbey Road because his press schedule is too full.
It’s an interesting and troubling thought experiment, particularly because of its impurity. Along with The Beatles, much else has been forgotten. Malik is a Beatles fan, but not an expert, and he struggles to remember lyrics in many scenes.
Just as The Beatles are subject to scrutiny within the film, they’re subject to compromise for its story. Patel was explicitly cast for his melancholy take on “Yesterday,” and The Beatles’ catalog is used and abused liberally in service of the story – as it should be.
You can really tell that Danny Boyle directed this. All the concert and recording scenes are bathed in deep reds and greens. One of the best montage directors in recent history, his fast-cutting sequences carry water in a way that many other directors’ could not have. It’s really reminiscent of Trainspotting in a lot of places.
McKinnon is spectacular as the mean-spirited Hammer. A lot of the time you see actors playing villains with a sort of flamboyant contempt – they know their characters are in the wrong, so they square that with a hammed up, can’t-possibly-be-serious performance. McKinnon, on the other hand, plays her outrageously malicious Hammer with complete sincerity.
Ed Sheeran is also good, and a good sport. Sheeran, who was the second choice for the role, appears as himself and helps catapult Malick to fame by having Malick open for him in Moscow, and Hammer meets Malik as Sheeran’s agent. Armed with The Beatles’ masterpieces, Malik quickly humiliates and moves past him. I’ve always hated Sheeran’s derivative, vaguely sexist pop, so this could just be my reading, but he’s the butt of the movie’s overarching joke, the patsy who’s only there to be musically inferior to pop artists that he’d never otherwise be compared to.