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If director Danny Boyle is to be trusted to do anything, it’s taking the everyday world we see in front of us and twisting it ever so slightly into a fantastical version of itself. His latest film, Yesterday, falls into that similar mold, with the big difference being that this time out Boyle is paired with legendary comedy writer Richard Curtis. Putting the director of A Life Less Ordinary and the writer of About Time together is about as perfect on paper as it is in execution, as Yesterday takes an old song and makes it better.
Aspiring singer Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) writes his own songs, plays tons of pub gigs outside of his retail job, and has hit a wall in his creative process. Ready to quit and leave the dream that he and friend/manager Ellie (Lily James) have been pursuing for some time, Jack’s fortunes change after a freak accident that Yesterday’s story hinges upon. All it takes is a 12-second worldwide blackout to wipe The Beatles from the world’s collective minds, setting Jack up for the ultimate career boost.
The premise of Yesterday is so simple and so outlandish that it helps drive the film without overtaking its characters. Using the hook of The Beatles never existing, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis tell a story about how their music affects the world on a macrocosmic level. Rather than imagining a world where huge chunks of history haven’t occurred because of their absence, Yesterday is the story of a young man who digs deep inside himself, learning while recreating the music that only he can remember.
Another fantastic part about Yesterday’s storyline is the fact it doesn’t delve too deeply into the well-worn tropes that you’d expect out of this sort of story. Indeed, there are twists that drop into play throughout the film, but much like the current of humor that Yesterday engages in, those moments don’t follow the usual beats that you'd normally be able to call from a mile away.
Playing the role of the pivotal Jack is newcomer Himesh Patel, who not only has to play guitar and sing through recreations of a slew of Beatles hits, but also has to focus on bringing to life this singular blend of Danny Boyle’s directing and Richard Curtis’ writing. All of this falls on his shoulders this first time at bat, and Patel delivers as easily and gracefully as the musical catalog he helps pay tribute to.
Himesh Patel is a fresh young face who seems ready for the big time from frame one, and it shows every time he puts his talents to the test against a cast that includes the charming Lily James, among others. It’s no secret that Patel and James get to play a couple of friends who should have seen something between them a long time ago, but the way that Richard Curtis’s writing has them play that story out is atypical, with moments that start out on an emotional front, only to give way to comedy.
The way the material of Yesterday shifts between emotions and gags feels very natural, both because of the writing and the performances driving said writing, that you can still laugh at a joke and find yourself upset over the more emotional parts. I definitely found myself laughing with tears in my eyes, and it’s that drive that helps sell the overall story of the film to an ability that makes it a crowd-pleasing, warm blanket of a film.
Of course, the legendary Beatles song catalog shines brightly in Yesterday, as Himesh Patel stumbles through remembering lyrics the world has oft-quoted, sung, and memorized over decades of existence. Seeing these songs being written and recorded for the first time in Jack’s world gives new life to tracks like “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and in particularly memorable fashion, “Eleanor Rigby.”
That last song pretty much ties together everything wonderful about Yesterday, as watching Jack fumble for the lyrics and emotional meaning behind one of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s hits shows everything that Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis do well in their execution of this film. The creative, the emotional, and even the comedic processes of Yesterday all come through in the visual and linguistic language of the moment. You’re not just hearing Jack work his way through the lyrics, you’re seeing them come to life as they’re altered and cemented. You feel the song growing, and in turn, Jack growing as well, through his efforts of trying to remember what exactly Father McKenzie was doing in that song's story.
Yesterday is an uplifting triumph of heartfelt comedy, believable drama, and just the right amount of quirk to remove this film from any sort of mundane reality. In its own way, it even ponders how successful The Beatles's material would be, and the challenges it would face, if it were coming up in the modern music industry; which only adds to the film's sly thoughtfulness.
Add in some perfect comedic seasoning from the likes of Ed Sheeran and Kate McKinnon, and you’ve got a film that sparkles through its entire length. Though there is only one minor problem with Yesterday's story, as a couple logical gaps aren’t quite sewn up by the end. Considering one of the film’s running gags depends on that sort of logical clarity, it’s something that glares a little more than somewhat in the film’s story, and still stuck in my mind as I walked out of Yesterday. Thankfully, it doesn't kill the joy that the film espoused in me, but it will lead to some intense discussion.
With that caveat in mind, Yesterday is a a total joy of a film that cements Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis as master storytellers of our time, as well as Himesh Patel as a rising talent who has limitless potential on display. I believe in Yesterday, and you will too.