2.5 out of 5 stars.
It’s difficult to imagine a world without the Beatles. Their music has been an integral part of pop culture around the world for decades, their impact and influence on others seemingly never-ending. But a world without the Beatles is exactly what the movie “Yesterday” tries to imagine, only the premise is never explored as deeply as it should have been, resulting in a film that is more confusing and awkward than anything else.
Directed by Danny Boyle from a screenplay by Richard Curtis, “Yesterday” centers on Jack Malick (Himesh Patel), a struggling singer-songwriter from a small town in Suffolk. He plays failed gig after failed gig, supported all the while by his longtime friend and manager Ellie (Lily James). After a particularly frustrating day, Jack declares that he is done with music. But when riding his bike home at night, the power goes out all around the world, and Jack is hit by a bus. The power comes back almost immediately, and Jack wakes up in the hospital several days later. Seemingly, nothing has changed, until Jack performs the classic Beatles’ song “Yesterday” on his new guitar for Ellie and their friends—and realizes that none of them have ever heard the song before, and in fact have never even heard of the Beatles. A Google search confirms the dumbfounded Jack’s suspicions: he appears to be the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles and their music.
Jack’s first instinct isn’t really the most admirable. He immediately sets about trying to remember all the lyrics to all the Beatles songs, with the intention of passing them off as his own. This first part of the movie is the strongest, and most amusing. Convinced that he has found the key to his success, Jack embarks on his musical journey with renewed vigor, but finds that no one pays any more attention to him than they did before. It’s funny to see people react to what we the audience know as some of the greatest songs ever written with such nonchalance (“Well, it’s not Coldplay,” says one of Jack’s friends upon hearing him play “Yesterday.” “It’s not ‘Fix You’”).
Had the film followed this thread a bit farther, maybe it could have had more interesting results. But suddenly, people do start taking notice, and it’s none other than Ed Sheeran (playing a sort of parody of himself) who invites Jack to go on tour with him and introduces him to his money-grabbing manager Debra (Kate McKinnon). Now, Jack is being hailed as one of the world’s greatest singer-songwriters, and his upcoming album—comprised entirely of Beatles hits—is one of the most anticipated of all time.
This movie makes a lot of problematic assumptions, namely that the Beatles’ music would be as popular were it released for the first time today as it was decades ago. That simply is not the case, for many reasons that the story doesn’t seem to consider. It’s not the same style of pop music that is popular at the moment, especially among young people. And so much of it was a response to the culture at the time; there’s a scene early in the film when Jack struggles to come up for a good reason to refer to Russia as the “U.S.S.R.” when performing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Moreover, although we learn that a few other cultural staples have also disappeared from memory (bye, Coca-Cola), the world appears otherwise unchanged. Essentially, any impact the Beatles had on the world remained, while they themselves disappeared. Furthermore, there’s a scene toward the end of the film that really throws how all this is working out of wack, providing no explanation for why John, Paul, George, and Ringo never got together to make music in the first place. The story does celebrate the joy of their music, and the importance of preserving it, but doesn’t do anything more to examine the monumental impact it had on the world.
But as it turns out, the music and Jack’s rise to fame isn’t really the centerpiece of the story. “Yesterday” is, more than anything else, a love story between Jack and Ellie, with Jack’s music career serving as the thing that pulls them apart. This aspect of the story works less because of the script (although the very end of the film is actually quite sweet, if overly sentimental) and more thanks to the actors. Patel and James have great chemistry and are completely believable as friends who have known each other for most of their lives. It’s immediately clear from their first scene together, before we are given any of the backstory that we get later on, that they have a history, and their scenes together are some of the strongest in the movie. This is Patel’s first film role, and he’s great, making a character that we have good reason not to really like likeable. It’s also nice to see an actor of Indian descent play the romantic lead in a major Hollywood movie, and the importance of that can’t go unacknowledged. But unfortunately other members of the cast, namely McKinnon and even Sheeran, play such cartoony characters that film gets too silly when they are on screen. A lot of this is likely less because of them and more because of the script, which tries to somewhat parody the shallowness of the music industry but doesn’t really stick the landing. Some of the dialogue and certain scenes are clearly supposed to be humorous, but come off as a little awkward instead, like Sheeran showing up at Jack’s house out of nowhere.
There is one thing I can say about “Yesterday,” and that’s that it is truly unlike anything else in theaters now. The uniqueness of the story alone makes it worth watching, but it largely wastes the talents of its cast, director, and even its premise, which so much more could have been made out of. You may walk out of the theater humming Beatles’ tunes, but this crowd-pleaser isn’t all that pleasing.