Yesterday (2019) ☆☆(2/4): A middling Beatles musical comedy

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Danny Boyle’s new film “Yesterday” merely amused me from time to time, and that was all for me. While I enjoyed its comic fantasy premise to some degree, the movie quickly wears out its welcome due to its superficial narrative riddled with numerous plot contrivances, and it even does not utilize well many of those recognizable songs from one of the most legendary bands in the 20th century pop music history.

When we meet a young bloke named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) at the beginning, he has seriously been considering giving up his lifelong dream of becoming a famous musician. Although he can sing fairly well, his few original songs do not draw much attention from others because they are particularly catchy or impressive, and he becomes more frustrated after another unsuccessful moment of his dwindling career.

At least, Jack has received the full support from his several friends including Ellie (Lily James), a young, plucky school teacher who has been his best friend since their childhood years and has also occasionally worked as his part-time manager. It is apparent to us that she has supported Jack’s dream because of love, but, not so surprisingly, our petty hero is too occupied with his ongoing failure to discern her deep affection toward him, and that certainly hurts her feeling.

And then something extraordinary happens. A mysterious global phenomenon occurs, and Jack, who gets himself hit by a bus right at that moment and then becomes unconscious for a while, is subsequently shocked to discover a number of small and big changes in the world. Several things have somehow gone out of existence, and it looks like Jack is the only guy in the world who is aware of this inexplicable change.

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Among these vanished things, one of them is none other than the Beatles. When Jack gives an impromptu performance of “Yesterday” to Ellie and his other friends at one point, they do not recognize it at all while understandably impressed a lot by its melancholic beauty, and it does not take much time for Jack to realize a certain opportunity coming upon him. Although he does not remember every Beatles song, he surely remembers many of them, and we accordingly get an amusing moment when he tries to remember and then write down Beatles songs as much as he can.

The most entertaining part of the movie comes from how Jack struggles to draw attention from others via several Beatles songs. Because of his meek and anonymous status, the songs do not instantly become popular, but then, what do you know, they happen to drawn the attention of a certain famous real-life musician, who has a little wry fun with playing himself on the screen. Thanks to that musician guy, Malik quickly rises to stardom within a few days, and he soon finds himself getting associated with a savvy American manager named Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), who is ready to go for what can be the biggest financial success in her entire music business career.

Jack’s preposterous overnight success through Beatles songs can be a rich ground for more laughs, but the screenplay by Richard Curtis, which is based on the story by Curtis and his co-writer Jack Barth, unfortunately meanders along its predictable narrative without much surprise. While you may chuckle a bit at a silly moment associated with “Hey Jude” or an absurd scene where Jack tries to remember the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby”, the movie does not elicit any big laugh for us, and it is also disappointing to see how it lets its hero get himself off the hook too conveniently for its shamelessly sentimental ending.

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Moreover, the aforementioned songs and several other ones by the Beatles are not presented that well in the film, and that automatically took me back to Julie Taymor’s underrated Beatles musical film “Across the Universe” (2007), which, despite its inherent flaws in terms of story and characters, did a far better job of presenting the Beatles songs with considerable spirit and imagination in comparison. To be frank with you, while I still vividly remember several striking musical moments in “Across the Universe”, I cannot particularly recall any musical moment in “Yesterday” even though I watched it yesterday.

And it is all the more disappointing that the movie mostly under-utilizes many of its main cast members. Himesh Patel and Lily James are engaging performers, but both of them are frequently limited by their weak characters, and the same thing can be said about the other main cast members including Kate McKinnon, who certainly plays her broad supporting character with sheer gusto but does not get any opportunity to wield her comic talent as fully as she previously did in “The Ghostbusters” (2016).

Overall, “Yesterday” is not a total bore at least, but, considering how visceral and spirited some of Boyle’s previous films are, this is a major letdown on the whole, and I could not help but feel grumpy as walking out of the screening room at last night. Right after observing the hefty science drama of James Gray’s “Ad Astra” (2019), I wanted to feel lightened a little, but I only got more tired after watching “Yesterday”, and, seriously, I really want to revisit “Across the Universe” right now.

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