As the memes that have proliferated on Twitter in the week since its release indicate, Yesterday is far more interesting and resonant as a conceit than it is as a movie. You can understand why Danny Boyle, seven years on from orchestrating an Olympic opening ceremony that unified a sceptical Britain through pop culture, might have been attracted to a project inviting daydreamers everywhere to join its protagonist in wondering "where did that go?"; the film is very much a retreat into the gentle, generally harmonious England of screenwriter Richard Curtis, a creative we might think of as decidedly pre-Brexit. The problem is that Boyle's films are at their best whenever they're inhabiting the moment, hotwired into the present tense, rather than sidestepping gingerly around it: it's why Trainspotting, hammering down Princes Street to the strains of "Lust for Life", was a thousand times more compelling than its 2017 sequel, guardedly looking over its own shoulder. That plugged-in Boyle can be witnessed at points in Yesterday: in the first act's Beatles-erasing global power outage - blacking out the Tube, a baseball game and a Korean news broadcast - which plunges us into some bewildering communal experience, and changes the way the whole world turns; and in a few shots late on, apparently grabbed on the hoof at what looks like an actual Ed Sheeran gig. What falls in between, however, only demands that Boyle meekly spins the wheels of plot: learning of the Fab Four's non-existence from pals who prove such prototypically Curtisian dimbulbs you wonder whether they'd have heard of the Beatles in any event, struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) ransacks the canon and becomes an overnight superstar, bigger than John, Paul, George and Ringo combined. Like I said, it's a great idea.
As a film we're paying to see, however, Yesterday has major issues. Foremost among these is musical: having prised the songs from Apple for a king's ransom, Boyle doesn't appear to have the budget left to do anything much with them, save to use them to cue lame gags ("It's the guitar - it has to gently weep more") and scene after scene of Curtis-formula sappiness. For a while, I was happy to play along, admiring how Yesterday had alighted upon the one group this premise would truly work with: it wouldn't with the Stones, who were always the end of something rather than a beginning, and the disappearance of any lesser group would only yield varyingly indifferent shrugs (or cheers, if it were Kasabian). The limitations become clear with each cosy interlude, trivial sidebar and televisual set-up. Arriving on the heels of May's Rocketman, which likewise failed to match its inspiration's imagination, Yesterday made me wonder whether a decade of austerity has finally crippled the British film industry, as it has almost everyone else. The film's visual poverty bottoms out with a recreation of the Beatles' fabled rooftop gig of 1969 in which Jack emerges onto the roof of... a hotel in Gorleston, attended by a smattering of extras who may as easily have been queuing for ice cream. There may be another culprit, again a decade old: 2008's Mamma Mia!, not just a piece of crap, but a piece of crap that fouled up the movies' longstanding relationship with music. That desperate pro-am karaoke sesh posed the question "will this do?", and the gathered masses, giddied by the prosecco cinemas had started to sell with an eye to making bad movies seem tolerable, hollered resoundingly in the affirmative. Thus: the B-sides of Mamma Mia! 2, the artless lipsynch of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, and now Yesterday's limp covers. Facing renewed threat from rival media, the movies give in to a glorified fan service comparable to Netflix's algorithms, routinely doling out what we know and love, without anything extravagant in the way of repackaging. It'll do. It'll have to do.
Anecdotal evidence would suggest Yesterday has so far done just fine for less demanding crowds, and there are elements that function here. Boyle retains the wisdom to deploy Sheeran (playing himself) as a sight gag from the minute he turns up on Jack's doorstep resembling a squashed gonk - living proof this world is so random and chaotic that just about anyone can become the world's biggest pop star. Patel has a nice variety of bemused and baffled expressions, in accord with someone who wakes up one day to find themselves sitting on a goldmine. (There's the hint of subversion in the fact these songs should have been appropriated by a British-Asian lad, but the script never backs it up: it's an idea raised in casting, then forgotten about.) He also sings the songs, albeit in that bland troubadour style that is very 2019 and not terribly Beatles; having inherited the original idea, most of the movie's creative energy has been expended on imagining what would happen if some of the world's greatest tunes were converted into the kind of MOR fodder trotted out by hack musicians to accompany corporate ad campaigns. It takes the sad songs, and makes them worse. Nothing in James Corden's cameo explains how Frank Harper's wastrel son in TwentyFourSeven wound up becoming a US primetime sensation - there may be a Curtis script in that - and Yesterday is consistently awful around its women: Simperin' Lily James as the manager-pal who only realises she loves Jack after he becomes successful (much as we realise, if we hadn't already, that Curtis has some pretty fucked-up ideas about women and fame), and a miscast, mirthless Kate McKinnon as a representative of all those dead-eyed suits who made the deals that brought Yesterday into something like existence. Given the context, couldn't Curtis have paired his hero with a Yoko or Linda Mac, someone with some kind of inner life, who could have pointed up how the Beatles were as much influenced as influential?
That would, of course, require more of the complication one key character talks about late on in Yesterday - that the movie be about more than just a bloke remembering Beatles songs for the benefit of that sizeable demographic of baby-boomers who also remember Beatles songs and have considerable money to burn. The rest of us can at least count our blessings that an idle fantasy as flimsy and (ironically) as forgettable as this overwrites nothing: in our reality, we still have A Hard Day's Night, Yellow Submarine, The Hours and Times, Backbeat and countless other cinematic reminders of why the Beatles mattered (and still matter). Anyone who had the misfortune to sit through The Boat That Rocked and About Time should know Curtis is no longer to be trusted around music and high concepts. The real disappointment here comes from watching Boyle, a filmmaker who once served as a standard bearer for the unconventional, exhilarating and new, succumbing to the conventional, excruciating and naff: in a film bound up in string theory and besieged by butterfly effects, Yesterday's final montage, set to (gulp) "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", suggests what would have resulted if Boyle had made a complete horlicks of that Olympics opener - or if he'd revealed himself to be the less-than-mastermind behind the notoriously toecurling 2012 closing ceremony, that cavalcade of faux pas during which we should, perhaps, have started to feel the tectonic plates of the United Kingdom shifting uneasily. Signing on for Bond, now this: I do hope one of our erstwhile young gunslingers isn't about to draw out his career by becoming British cinema's foremost embarrassing dad. We've got one Stephen Frears already; that feels quite enough.
Yesterday is now playing in cinemas nationwide.