Of all the possible director/writer combinations that the world of cinema could possible throw together, the pairing of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) and Richard Curtis (About Time, Love Actually, Blackadder) wouldn’t have occurred to me if you’d left me alone in a room for a couple of years with nothing but access to IMDb. So, it’s no real surprise that Yesterday—a new fantasy/romantic comedy with a preposterously adorable premise—feels so unlike anything either man has created to date.
Boyle, for all of his kinetic style, generally seems to make films that lack tenderness, whereas Curtis has the magical ability to throw a bunch of clichés in a bag, shake them up, and always pull out something sweet and unforgettable. But his films are rarely noteworthy in terms of aesthetic panache.
Despite not being the best work of either Boyle or Curtis (those would be Trainspotting and About Time in my book), Yesterday does manage to bring out the best of each man’s strengths. Boyle’s visual palette for the film, while certainly energetic at times, is admirably reserved at others. That balance takes a little of the saccharine out of Curtis’ story and
characters. (Saccharine that I enjoy, mind you; I’ll watch Love Actually any minute of any day. But let’s be honest: That movie is dessert, not a healthy meal.)
Yesterday also happens to be one of the simplest stories either Boyle or Curtis has committed to film, despite it’s convoluted-sounding premise. It goes a little something like this: Singer/songwriter Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) is on the verge of giving up on his musical career,
despite the protestations of his manager and longtime friend Ellie Appleton (played by an almost unrecognizable Lily James, who distances herself from her famous Downton Abbey character not through accent or wardrobe, but in the very way she carries herself—her facial expressions, her body language, her laugh, even her smile).
Then fate intervenes. A 12-second blackout mysteriously envelops the entire world. When the power comes back on, Jack is lying on the side of the road, having been struck by a bus. He awakes in the hospital to discover that he alone remembers the Beatles. And, oddly enough, Coca-Cola. And, not so oddly given the initial premise, the band Oasis. As such, he sets out to recreate the Beatles catalog, taking credit for writing these forgotten songs, and becomes an international superstar.
I could go on, but as I said, aside from one half-hearted attempt at a plot twist that’s really more of a red herring, Yesterday is ultimately a simple tale. A fairy tale, almost. At its heart, it’s really the story of a girl who loves a boy but wants him to make the first move, and a boy who loves a girl, but thinks himself unworthy of her until he’s the biggest star in the world, at which point she can’t imagine him being with a simple middle-class girl.
Franky, if it weren’t such a straightforward narrative, Yesterday would probably collapse under its own weight. But by ignoring the historical significance of the Beatles’ catalog or the organic evolution thereof, and simply focusing on the inherent brilliance of this body of work one song a time, it works as a sweet and infectious modern fable that whizzes right by, despite its nearly two-hour length.
My only real beef with the film is that Kate McKinnon, whom I normally love as an actor and comedian, is woefully miscast in the minor role of Jack’s new agent. I can’t help but imagine that if Curtis were still directing his own screenplays, this part would have been played by regular collaborator Bill Nighy, as it seems to have been written for him. For what it’s worth, though, Ed Sheeran is perfect in the role of Ed Sheeran. The rest of the cast also excels—especially Patel, who has to perform the greatest hits of the Beatles in a way that’s not slavish, yet still faithful to the originals in spirit and also believable as modern popular music.
A few minutes into the film, I jotted down in the notebook I keep beside my seat: “Sound mix is too aggressive.” I quickly changed my mind, though. It’s true, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included with the 4K/HDR Kaleidescape download of the film leans on the surround speakers and subwoofers way more than is generally my preference for feel-good comedies. But it works for Yesterday, especially in the way it uses samples, remixes, and remakes of Beatles hooks as a replacement for a more traditional score. Concert sequences, of which there are plenty, also benefit from the big, bold, dynamic sound design.
I also have to eat an early note I made about the 4K/HDR presentation. My first impression was that the film would work just as well in HD. Some quick comparisons between the 4K and 1080p versions did reveal, though, that the former is sharper, more nuanced in its contrasts, and is just generally less distracting and more engaging overall, even if its black levels are a little uneven.
That’s nitpicking, though. My one substantial grump about this early digital release is that it lacks the alternate ending and deleted scenes exclusive to the upcoming UHD Blu-ray release, as well as a couple of featurettes. The disc also promises to include a Dolby Atmos sound mix, which the download lacks. It remains to be
seen whether any of those bonuses and niceties are worth the wait. I can say this for certain, though: Yesterday isn’t a renter. It’s one to own, no doubt, even despite the fact that it’s not exactly high art. This is going to be my go-to watch on sick days or just when I need a pick-me-up for quite some time.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.