Here’s a romantic comedy masquerading as something bigger while asking questions about the transcendent nature of art. If that feels reductive, well then that’s because Yesterday is a reductive film. It never feels like it’s interested in those very provocative questions that its unique premise presents. And yet, I enjoyed it for what it is.
Yesterday imagines a world where one man remembers The Beatles. It just so happens that this man, Jack (Himesh Patel), also happens to be a skilled musician that has a photographic memory of their entire catalog. Go ahead, try to recite the lyrics to more than one or two songs. That’s fine though, because it’s all part of this fantasy as he’s soon discovered by a record executive brilliantly portrayed by Kate McKinnon in the funniest moments of the film. His dreams of rock stardom, however, bring him separation from his true love, Ellie (Lily James in one of those roles that try to convince us an absolutely gorgeous woman is average by simply ruffling her hair a bit). If you can’t see where this is all headed, then I dare say you’ve never watched a romantic comedy in your life.
Predictability in the romantic bits is not the problem, though. Patel and James are both attractive and charming. Romantic comedy screenwriting legend Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, Notting Hill, About Time) has no trouble in making us fall in love with them falling in love. No, the problems here are with the clever premise and how it really goes nowhere.
What does a world look like without The Beatles? If you suddenly reintroduced their entire catalog, would people rightfully recognize it as genius? Certainly, The Beatles have found themselves rediscovered by subsequent generations. But part of their lore is the impact they had on the music business and popular culture in general. That’s cutely referenced here by saying Oasis never formed, but otherwise? Not addressed. Without Lennon preaching peace, does a generation grow up feeling differently?
If not, have we ascribed too much importance to them over the years? Because really, this brave new world doesn’t really seem that much worse off without them. If there’s any overarching message about their music, it’s that the world is generally fine without them. And yet, that doesn’t appear to be the point the movie wants to hit. It’s a confusing mess when you start picking. That’s okay, if you can accept the narrow alleyway the film forces you down all the while knowing there’s a much bigger new world to explore just out of sight.
Yesterday is another winningly charming entry in Richard Curtis’ pantheon of romantic comedies. Enjoy it for that and the wonderful soundtrack. Just don’t expect any deeper insights along the way.