YESTERDAY. Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon. Directed by Danny Boyle. 116 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).

The past 12 months in cinemas have been a windfall for fans of legendary music acts. Last year’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ paid homage to Queen and their larger-than-life front man Freddy Mercury; last month’s ‘Rocketman’ depicted the evolution of Reggie Dwight into piano-stroking global superstar Elton John; there was even another ABBA tribute in the form of ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’. Now, ‘Yesterday’ arrives in theatres, crafting its story around the astonishingly deep catalogue of hits by ground-breaking British rockers The Beatles. Richard Curtis’ screenplay poses a deceptively complex question: what if you were the only person in the world that could remember (arguably) the world’s greatest musical act?

This is precisely the dilemma that confronts our hero, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a musician with good friends and a dreadful career. Most of his gigs consist of busking on the boardwalk in his hometown of Clacton-on-Sea on England’s east coast. Even when his long-suffering manager Ellie (Lily James) manages to book him a slot at the renowned Latitude Festival, he performs his set to an empty tent. Just after he tells Ellie of his plan to throw in the towel, the world is struck by a mysterious blackout, and Jack discovers that – barring his recollection – every trace of The Beatles has been wiped from existence. Recreating their canon from memory, he is soon discovered by British superstar Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and American agent Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), rocketing him to global fame and fortune.

In his last directorial effort, ‘About Time’, Richard Curtis lured viewers in with the promise of a time-travelling romance between Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, before switching out the rom-com elements for a moving meditation on father-son relationships. ‘Yesterday’ pulls the opposite trick, disguising the romance at its core with its jukebox Beatles musical and wish-fulfilment elements. Despite the story’s ostensible interest in the state of modern music and fame, this is really a love story between Jack and Ellie. The pair are best friends who have one of those “will they get together or won’t they?” relationships that baffles Jack’s parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal) and their mutual friends, couple Carol (Sophia Di Martino) and Nick (Harry Michell). Through all his failures, Ellie was Jack’s only supporter, but now that he has the world’s admiration, to pursue his lifelong dream is to risk losing her.

Himesh Patel, a veteran actor of 500-plus episodes of British soap ‘EastEnders’, makes a strong film debut in the lead role. Jack is charming in that most English of ways, mixing a slightly bumbling exasperation with self-deprecating humour and a cracking singing voice. He fits the bill of the classic British underdog, and he pairs well with Lily James. The ‘Cinderella’ star, playing a dowdier role than usual, is so thoroughly lovely that you want to shake Jack until he sees what’s right in front of him. Though her character is a tough too defined by her pining after Jack, James does lovesick so well that you’re inclined to forgive the screenplay its romantic lead clichés. The pair are surrounded by a strong supporting cast; Joel Fry leaves a strong impression as Jack’s old pal turned unreliable roadie, Rocky, dropping oblivious one liners like grenades, while Kate McKinnon makes for a great devil on Jack’s shoulder, playing like a comical greatest hits of every money-obsessed, ruthless Hollywood agent previously committed to film. And while Ed Sheeran is the weakest in front of the camera, it should come as no surprise that the baby-faced megastar is a good sport, readily poking fun at himself and his good-guy image. 

Although Patel and James make for a sweet romance pairing, it’s a near tragedy to ultimately relegate the Beatles tunes that litter ‘Yesterday’ to playing second fiddle. The Beatles produced a staggering number of popular hits over their years together, and when the talented Himesh Patel performs them as Jack’s original compositions (and audiences react as though it’s the first time they’ve ever heard the songs), the movie soars. There’s also the barely explored opportunity to depict what Beatlemania might look like in the 21st century. However, with Curtis’ gaze firmly fixed on Jack and Ellie, The Beatles are left to fade into the background. There’s no doubt that Curtis is a talented screenwriter (you can’t write modern classics like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Notting Hill’ through luck alone), but it feels like his focus in this instance is fairly removed from the material that most audiences would gravitate towards. Elsewhere, Curtis hints that Jack may not be the only one that can remember the band, adding some tension to his sudden celebrity, but this subplot featuring a couple of vaguely threatening figures (Justin Edwards and Sarah Lancashire) that reappear at his shows is resolved more tidily than you suspect it realistically would.

Now reportedly retired from the rigours of directing, Curtis handed off helming duties to Oscar winner Danny Boyle, making this a veritable who’s who of English filmmaking. Indeed, it’s the film for which producers allowed Boyle to delay starting on the still untitled ‘Bond 25’ movie, a move which may have allowed the issues that led to Boyle’s eventual parting of ways with the superspy franchise to percolate (filming on the new instalment is now underway under director Cary Fukunaga).

Strangely, though, other than the opportunity to stage and edit around some of the most popular songs of the last century, there’s nothing on display here that might explain what drew Boyle to the film. Other than the feelgood rags-to-riches thread that continues through ‘Millions’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Yesterday’ just doesn’t feel particularly Boylian. This is the same director that made visceral experiences like ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘127 Hours’, and mind-bending fare like ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Trance’. Other than a few odd Dutch tilts early on and some interactive place titles, Boyle, working with Christopher Ross rather than his long-time boundary-pushing cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, turns out some relatively staid visuals. The most exciting that the film gets is a couple of steadily escalating montages courtesy of editor Jon Harris, presenting moments like the blackout and Jack’s manic search for evidence of The Beatles with a much-needed sense of gravity (an effect helped by Daniel Pemberton’s slightly mystical score). It’s very competently made, and the songs certainly hit their marks, but you’re ultimately left wondering why Boyle signed on in the first place.

‘Yesterday’ presents its filmmakers with a unique opportunity to reimagine the timeless sounds of yesterday in the environment of today. The hiring of Danny Boyle and fresh talent Himesh Patel certainly suggested that the movie would be made with the style and panache of tomorrow, but the film is ultimately stuck wrestling with the romantic conventions of yesterday. It’s a solid romance and a fun, feelgood movie, but with the hits of The Beatles at its disposal, it feels like it should have been more.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out June 27.

Universal Pictures.

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