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Himesh Patel and Ed Sheeran in Yesterday.
Himesh Patel and Ed Sheeran in Yesterday.
Universal Pictures

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The new Beatles movie Yesterday works best when it’s funny Amadeus

A weak love story sinks Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’ new film

To provide a little context: I am pro-Richard Curtis. Four Weddings and a Funeral is wonderful. The Vicar of Dibley is a delight. I even like (nay, love) Love Actually. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking for me to report that I deeply, profoundly did not care for his newest film, Yesterday.

Written by Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle, Yesterday posits a world in which the Beatles are mysteriously wiped from existence and the collective memory during a worldwide blackout. Only one man — would-be rock star Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who is hit by a bus at the exact moment the blackout occurs — remembers any of their work. When he starts passing off their work as his own, he’s vaulted into superstardom.

So far, so good. It’s a silly premise, but an appealingly shiny one. Jack’s panicked Googling jags — in which he looks up as many musicians and bands as he can, trying to see who does and doesn’t exist — are chucklesome, as are the moments in which ordinary conversations are derailed by the new nonexistence of things like Coca-Cola and cigarettes. The problem is that it’s a premise that better supports a short film or a sketch, not an entire movie — at least, not when the rest of the movie, as in Yesterday’s case, is so flimsy.

Lily James and Himesh Patel in the recording booth.
Lily James and Himesh Patel in the recording booth.
Universal Pictures

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Curtis’ past work, Yesterday is a love story. Since they were children, Jack has had the support of his friend Ellie (Lily James, who, as always, is radiating a level of charm that I can only describe as nuclear). As they’ve grown up, she’s become his manager, and continued to nurse a crush on him that has offered fewer and fewer dividends as the years (decades!) have worn on.

As Jack achieves fame and fortune, and travels further and further from the little town in which he and Ellie live, the story takes pretty much exactly the tack you expect. Broadly speaking, that’s not a bad thing — I love a good, steadfast rom-com as much as the next person — but Yesterday is working from a dated rom-com playbook, and it robs Ellie and Jack of real personalities.

Patel, whose turn in Yesterday marks his first major film role, has the chops to carry a movie — and the musical chops to make his Beatles covers enjoyable rather than obligatory — but Jack, as a character, is a bit of a non-starter. It’s huge pity, particularly as it feels significant to see a person of color as the lead in a relatively big film, positioned not only as a rising superstar but as a heartthrob.

Ellie books Jack’s gigs, carries his equipment, and acts as his personal chauffeur, and yet he still treats her with a sort of friendly indifference until his inevitable crisis of faith about the nature of his fame. Ellie, who, as far as I’m concerned, deserves to be happy and properly appreciated, is forced to take on the role of the nag and make sacrifices in order to facilitate Jack’s happiness. It’s the kind of role that’s short shrift for any actress, and especially a waste of James’ charms.

Himesh Patel in Yesterday.
Jack (Patel) onstage.
Universal Pictures

Incredibly, the only performer in the film who manages to make something of the material is Ed Sheeran, in part because his role is the only one that feels inventive. Sheeran appears in the film as a version of himself, developing a relationship with Jack that he describes in terms of Mozart and Salieri. Jack seems like a god-given talent, able to come up with brilliant new songs on the spot, and Sheeran can’t help but feel a mixture of admiration and jealousy. The singer-songwriter seems willing to poke fun at himself to a degree that is ultimately endearing, not just given his good-natured reaction to his much-lambasted appearance on Game of Thrones but the way even Yesterday pokes fun at some of his music (his rapping, in particular).

It’s a funny touch of reality in a film that otherwise feels out of touch. The Beatles don’t exist in this world, but the ripple effect of that loss seems only to extend to Oasis not existing too, when their actual influence on rock music and culture has been meticulously documented (even meriting its own Wikipedia page). The effect of the loss of Coca-Cola and cigarettes is similarly nonexistent, despite how likely significant their erasure from history would be.

For the most part, movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have coasted on the power of their music. The respective oeuvres of Queen and Elton John have the power to forgive a lot of cinematic sins. (As I noted when the not-great Bohemian Rhapsody became a worldwide smash, “The problem is, the songs are good.”) The grace granted by well-loved music, however, can run out. Yesterday is proof positive that you actually do need a little more than good songs (which are, in this case, unfortunately dully shot) to make a movie watchable.

Yesterday is in theaters now.