Yesterday is a perfect example of a film that makes for a great trailer. A trailer that hides everything but the premise, because nothing other than the premise would be enticing to put into a trailer.
This premise is this: a global blackout lasting 12 seconds causes failing musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) to be struck by a bus. After leaving the hospital, he is shocked to find that the blackout has changed the past. Specific things once common to the cultural lexicon—Oasis, cigarettes, Coke, and, most importantly to Jack, The Beatles—have disappeared.
As Jack starts putting the Beatles songbook into his act, he inches closer to fame, which pulls him further from those close to him, specifically his friend-zoned former manager Ellie (Lily James). And this conventional idea fills in the film’s plot.
Yesterday is like an above average cover band taking breaks between Beatles hits so that the frontman can complain to the crowd about his relationship issues. For a film about a massive, world-altering event with intriguing implications, its protagonist is very focused on the will-they-or-won’t-they romance that he could have had with or without the disappearance of his Beatles records.
This romantic B-plot is more of an A-plot, in spire of there not being much to the pair. James’ Ellie, apart from her identity as a schoolteacher, is defined by her love for Jack. And it seems as if the only reason they weren’t together all along was because the film needed the conflict from their sexual tension.
The music industry plot—you know, the one that comes about because of that intriguing premise—doesn’t provide much conflict, so I guess the romance is the best that screenwriter Richard Curtis could do. It is his bread and butter, after all. The sappy charm of the cliched approach to their feelings for each other has its moments. But it holds a questionably large function in a movie whose main idea is: what if the world forgot about The Beatles.
The appropriation of other people’s intellectual property, you would think, would be the main source of conflict. Instead, shockingly, everything just keeps going right for Jack. There are kernels of intrigue dropped into the film which could pose tension to Jack’s music career, but those pieces aren’t used for anything particular interesting. The film’s trailer even conjures up a tension that is not accurate to how the film actually uses that trailer footage. That’s how effective that trailer is—it creates more tension out of the film’s premise than the film itself does.
Patel does a good job of fronting this cover band. He can sing. But it is surprising how quickly the music in the film gets tiring. After a couple performances, parading out the hits loses its luster. There isn’t much else to the film to enjoy once that shine is gone.
Yesterday works best as a thought experiment. What would happen without this highly influential cultural touchstone? How would the world change? The film doesn’t really get into any of this thinking. It doesn’t even address the question as to how The Beatles would be perceived if they made the exact same music but it was first introduced to the world in the 2010s. Instead it’s mostly just a conventional romance set to Beatles music. The intriguing premise seems almost incidental.
It cuts a good trailer, though.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)