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'Yesterday' movie is a love letter to The Beatles — with a rom-com in the background

“Yesterday” is at times a witty, clever film. But as the story progresses, it begins to feel more like a series of scenes designed to set up John, Paul and George.
Image: Yesterday
Himesh Patel as Jack Malik in "Yesterday," directed by Danny Boyle.Jonathan Prime / Universal Pictures

About 20 minutes into the new film “Yesterday,” when star Himesh Patel plucks out the all-too-familiar strains of that most exquisite of Beatles songs, it’s obvious that the real star for the next hour or so will be the groups’ inimitable songbook.

It’s not that “Yesterday,” from “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis, of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually” fame, doesn’t hit the right notes. It mostly does. But the chemistry between the stars — Patel and an excellent Lily James — is virtually nonexistent, leaving the bulk of the romance in this summer rom-com to be between fans and The Beatles’ music.

“Yesterday” is at times a witty, clever film. In fact, Curtis’s script is excellent, working in enough Beatles references to keep even the most diehard aficionado engage.

“Yesterday” is at times a witty, clever film. In fact, Curtis’ script is excellent, working in enough Beatles references to keep even the most diehard aficionado engaged, while making sure that the proceedings are light enough to please casual fans. And Boyle’s breezy, intelligent direction makes fresh use of those songs we’ve all heard hundreds and hundreds of times. Still, as the story progresses, “Yesterday” begins to feel more and more like a series of scenes designed to set up John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, rather than the actual actors.

First, a bit of background: Suffolk busker Jack Malik is on the verge of hanging up his guitar when a freak accident causes the whole world to forget that The Beatles ever existed. With songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “In My Life” and “Hey Jude” his for the taking, he claims them as his own and quickly becomes a global sensation. Fame and fortunate and all the perils that accompany those things slowly but surely take over his life, and force choices on him that seem all too inevitable, even if Boyle and Curtis keep them (mostly) from devolving into clichés. “Yesterday” is a social commentary of a film that never quite finds its feet (albeit with a great soundtrack).

On the acting side, Patel has superb, understated comic timing, and his performances of some of the most well-loved songs of the past 50-plus years feel alive and fresh — and altogether more modern than most songs on the top pop charts these days. Likewise, James is exquisite throughout; bringing a wide-eyed zeal and unfussy confidence to the role of a lovelorn schoolteacher that in lesser hands could easily have tipped into saccharine territory. And the supporting cast — most especially Joel Fry as Jack’s loyal friend and roadie, and Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Jack’s mom and dad — is wonderful. (Sadly the exception is the lone American here, Kate McKinnon, Jack’s manager, whose character and performance are lazy and hackneyed to the point of being painful.) Even Ed Sheeran acquits himself with panache.

So ultimately there’s a lot to like about “Yesterday.” And no doubt plenty of filmgoers will be all too happy to spend a few hours this summer being whisked away by its abundant attributes. But no matter how well-utilized The Beatles’ reimagined songbook is, or how great the acting and dialogue feels as it flickers by, in the end the film feels more like an hour-long premise that is stretched to its breaking point in the feature film frame.

Of course, these are some of the best songs of the 20th century, and it’s honestly a little unfair to try to make a movie measure up to their greatness. It’s a fact made all too clear when the credits roll, and Paul McCartney’s crystal-clear voice kicks off The Beatles’ own version of the song “Hey Jude.” As I listened to the familiar notes, the previous couple of hours disappeared into a haze.