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‘Yesterday’ fails to live up to its promise, but the music’s good

Already a hit at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, Yesterday arrives in theaters this weekend amidst much anticipation and sky-high expectations. After all, it’s a film with an unbeatable premise, a script by a master of British romantic comedies (Richard Curtis), direction by an Oscar-winning jack-of-all-trades (Danny Boyle), and a soundtrack to die for (Beatles covers). How could it fail?

Well, albeit far from a failure, Yesterday does fail to live up to its pedigree and its promise. The only thing that really holds up is the music. And that music makes up for a lot.

The unbeatable premise is that an unsuccessful singer/songwriter named Jack Malik, who — through some quirk in the universe — is the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles.

“No one knows, it was all over the world. Electricity flipped off for 12 seconds. You were just lucky that at that exact moment a big bus hit you,” Malik is told.

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After he recovers from his bus accident, the Indian-British singer tries out a new guitar he’s given as a get-well present.

“There’s this problem with musicians,” someone says upon hearing him play a Beatles song. “They presume everyone else has this encyclopedic knowledge of obscure pop; in this case, the Beatles.”

The rest of the film mines what life would be like for someone who inadvertently becomes the one and only repository for every Beatles song ever recorded.

The brilliant screenwriter Richard Curtis, of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually fame, has a blast playing with just how deeply rooted the Beatles are in pop culture, and how tough it is to remember exactly all the lyrics to songs we think we know by heart. The premise also provides a great excuse to trot out as many Beatles hits as one can cram into a two-hour movie.

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Crucially, the actor cast as the struggling performer who suddenly has the Beatles catalog at his fingertips, newcomer Himesh Patel, has an appealing and convincing pop voice. His covers are close enough to the originals to satisfy this Beatles fan.

Patel sells the songs with just the right amount of earnestness and fun.

What he doesn’t sell is his romantic lead status and for that I fault the screenplay. Curtis encases this musical fantasy within a romantic comedy, and surprisingly, since this is his forte, it’s the weakest part of the movie.

Lily James plays Malik’s manager Ellie, who has been pining for him since middle school. He’s never seen her in romantic terms and seemingly never will, despite her massive hints and even straight out declarations.

“I’ve been waiting half my life for you to wake up and love me. I’m a school teacher and you are the world’s greatest singer-songwriter,” she says.

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James in this scene is every bit as convincing as Julia Roberts was in her “I’m just a girl” speech in Notting Hill, but Roberts was playing off a comically bumbling Hugh Grant and James has only a seemingly clueless Patel/Malik. The inevitability of a romantic comedy couple works much better when one party isn’t so passive as to seem reluctant.

If Yesterday had spent more time examining the musical implications of its fantastical premise and less time on the romance, it might have made for a more insightful or intriguing film. It’s still an enjoyable enough time at the movies, if you just lay back and let the Beatles songs wash over you.

But I was hoping for something more, the cinematic equivalent of a great Beatles song like “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Something” or yes, “Yesterday.” What I got instead was something more akin to “All You Need is Love.”

Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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