Straight off the bat, something that must be acknowledged when discussing the new Beatles-infused fantasy romance Yesterday (dir. Danny Boyle, rated M) – the logic of the world it creates doesn't really make sense -
and that's okay! The film follows Jack (Himesh Patel), a young musician transported to an alternate universe where The Beatles never existed. Realising he is the only one who remembers their music, Jack takes their songs as his own in an effort to obtain fame and fortune. Pull the thread of how this alternate world is constructed even slightly and it doesn't really hold up - and yet the film rollicks along fast enough to suspend disbelief and arguably, with a film like Yesterday, the logic isn't the point. A romantic drama from the mind of Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually), the film is more interested in whirling you up in the infectious energy of its premise than getting caught up in the little details. This is a fine way to approach Yesterday but can also be a slippery slope, often providing something of an armour for films of this type to deflect any kind of criticism.
Though the directorial presence of Danny Boyle injects Yesterday's traditional Curtis trappings with some much needed flair, the film's good-naturedness and attempts to project a harmless veneer hide elements of this story that are deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps most notable is the anchoring of the story around an Indian lead – while Himesh Patel is an entirely watchable, likeable presence (and there is undeniable value in a story that casts a person of colour in a lead role that doesn't accentuate or centre on their culture), his casting suggests something of a blindspot on the part of the film's creators. The film fails to acknowledge the wider context of The Beatles themselves, who had their own troubled relationship with Indian music and spirituality, which greatly influenced their albums in a way many view as cultural appropriation. This is worsened because Yesterday centres on Jack plagiarising the work of these white artists, and is further accentuated by the seemingly purposeful exclusion of any songs by The Beatles that bear a strong sonic connection to Indian instrumentation. Considering the well-documented appropriation and plagiarism by many white artists in Curtis' dad-rock era, the lack of engagement with these complexities casts a shadow over the pleasantness of Yesterday's intended story.
This is not the film's only difficulty, either. While Lily James is luminous in the role of Jack's manager and love interest Ellie, her role in the film leaves a lot to be desired, as she's largely reduced to an object of affection and a prize to be won by Jack. It's an ongoing issue for Curtis' films, in which the female leads rarely get to be characters outside their romantic value to the men in their life. Ultimately, Yesterday also serves to flatten The Beatles themselves, morphing this artistically radical, sometimes controversial band into a homogenised idea of "greatness", eschewing their rougher edges in favour of a rose-tinted view of their work that never really digs below surface-level, and ultimately feels a little hollow. A sweet-natured but deceptively complex, even problematic film.
RATING: Three stars.