Danny Boyle has made some pretty amazing films, such as Trainspotting (1996), 28 Days Later (2002), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and Steve Jobs (2015). He has also made a few with less fanfare, like Sunshine (2007) and The Beach (2000). Even so, I was very excited to see his newest film, Yesterday (2019), as I was sold by the premise, the cast, and the trailers leading up to the film release. I wasn’t even thrown by its lackluster response at its premiere during the Tribeca Film Festival, which I was there when it debuted, but wasn’t able to get in to see it then. Unfortunately, my feelings for this film mirror many of the responses I’d heard after its festival premiere.
Yesterday was one I had been highly anticipating, but it left me feeling underwhelmed.
Struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finds himself in a very peculiar situation after an odd, worldwide blackout leads to him being hit by a bus; subsequently, he’s the only one who remembers the Beatles. His friend and manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), had been trying to encourage him to not give up on his dreams, and now this opportunity of knowing some of the greatest songs ever written when nobody else remembers them presents itself. Jack works hard to deliver the songs to the masses, but it takes a lucky break to finally push past his questionable exterior.
There are definitely enjoyable elements of the film. Patel gives a solid performance and is likable enough to support his emotional journey. James is absolutely a movie presence that grabs hold of the audience and makes you love her, with prior performances in Mama Mia: Here We Go Again (2018), Baby Driver (2017), and the best live action Disney adaptation to date, Cinderella (2015), as proof of her abilities. However, her character in this film has zero agency, much like Deborah in Baby Driver, and seems to exist solely as a MacGuffin for Jack.
It is obvious that Ellie is in love with Jack from the moment we are introduced to her character. Ultimately, following a pattern in writer Richard Curtis’s films, this movie is about Jack realizing he missed an opportunity for love with the girl of his dreams. Why he never made a move is very unclear, aside from a clunky conversation they have in one of her many drop-ins. A recurring pattern of annoyance in this film is Ellie showing up wherever Jack is, despite having previously said she was moving on and their time has passed. Again, Ellie has no goals outside of being with Jack, and it’s a shame that James keeps getting cast in roles like this.
The absolute worst part of the film is the record company manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). Debra appears to exist in a different world than every other character in the film. She has no filter, and says exactly what she is thinking – and I believe it is supposed to be funny…well, it isn’t. I’ve yet to find a McKinnon performance to be truly entertaining outside of Ghostbusters (2016), when she was one of the only funny parts. Here, she is annoying, and takes me out of the film every single time she does ANYTHING.
The big surprise enjoyment of the movie was Ed Sheeran, who is playing a version of himself that definitely pokes fun at his real-life public persona. He is the catalyst that gets Jack’s journey finally moving outside of his small town. Some of the movie’s decisions do a few things that are slightly out of character for the on-screen Sheeran, but it never takes away from the movie. Alongside Sheeran’s comedic elements are Rocky’s (Joel Fry), who is probably the funniest part of the film. He is a friend and now roadie for Jack who is a blatant screw-up, which leads to believably dumb comedic moments – and yet he also gives a few very endearing scenes.
There are a few other issues I have with the film, but it would get into spoiler territory, so I’ll hold-off from discussing them. Still, the premise and the performances are strong enough to keep me from hating it. I will say, though, that I’m a little disappointed that Boyle’s voice doesn’t come through strong enough in this one. Yesterday earns the Decent Watch rating.