‘Yesterday’: Imagine a World Without the Beatles and Just This Musical Comedy
“Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle teams up with “Love Actually” screenwriter Richard Curtis for “Yesterday,” a musical comedy with an intriguing premise. Relative newcomer Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malik, a struggling musician from Suffolk whose life changes overnight after he is hit by a bus during a brief, worldwide power outage. He wakes up in the hospital missing two teeth and his beard, but worst of all, no one understands his references to the Beatles. For reasons that are never fully explained, the Beatles, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and even Harry Potter have been wiped from the collective memory of virtually everyone on the planet save for our hero. What transpires is a fantastical tale of an ordinary man who proceeds to introduce the timeless songs of the greatest band ever to a 2019 audience.
When we first meet Jack, he is working in a big box store, a thankless job that supports him while he picks up gigs playing in front of small, mostly distracted audiences. His boss openly mocks his beard, the only moment in the film in which his otherness is addressed. Lily James co-stars as Ellie, Jack’s faithful best friend/manager who is the only person who truly believes in him. That is, until he hits a “songwriting groove,” introducing audiences to gems like “Yesterday,” “In My Life,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” etc. However, these people he initially plays for aren’t as immediately spellbound as one would think. In one of the more humorous scenes, Jack attempts to play “Let It Be” for his parents, only to be interrupted multiple times while they attend to an obnoxious guest, among other things.
It isn’t until Jack catches the attention of pop superstar Ed Sheeran that his career truly blasts off. He soon finds himself opening for the ginger crooner in Moscow, wowing Ed and the crowd with “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “The Long and Winding Road.” By this point, the repeated gag of Jack pulling Beatles hit after hit out of his sleave gets somewhat tiresome. Count on Kate McKinnon to pop out just in time, adding some much-needed sharp humor as Debra, Ed’s cutthroat L.A.-based manager who swoops in on Jack.
As the Beatles are a historic band that have had such a wide-reaching impact on popular culture, it’s interesting to ponder how the deletion of them would affect the modern musical landscape. Oasis, of course, is a band that doesn’t exist in this alternate universe, but Coldplay has still managed to come into existence. Unfortunately, “Yesterday” doesn’t go deep enough in its exploration of how the Beatles would fare if they were introduced in 2019, an era in which Auto-Tune, laptops, and social media have dramatically changed the music industry. Sheeran, for his part, is a good sport about making fun of himself. After Jack plays “Hey Jude” for him, he has the brilliant idea to rename the tune “Hey Dude.”
Overall, the plot of “Yesterday” is rather thin. There’s no attempt to uncover the big mystery as to why Jack’s only one of, as it turns out, three people who remember the Beatles following this random power outage. Ellie makes some mention of the catastrophe being similar to what Y2K was supposed to have been, but this isn’t fully fleshed out.
There is, of course, a romantic subplot involving Jack and Ellie, but even that lacks magic. Friends since childhood, there’s really no major obstacles keeping them apart. Shortly after Jack’s discovered and she sees her best friend slipping away, Ellie puts herself out there, but Jack drags his feet, and what ensues is a bunch of tired romantic comedy clichés.
The highlight of “Yesterday” is definitely the musical numbers. No matter how many times we’ve heard these songs, they don’t fail to delight even the most jaded viewer. A high point comes when Jack travels to Liverpool for inspiration, and finds himself frolicking in the places where Lennon and McCartney found inspiration for classics such as “Eleanor Rigby” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The real Strawberry Fields, as we see here, may not have aged well, but the music of the Beatles is timeless.
“Yesterday” opens June 28 nationwide.