Himesh Patel in Yesterday (Photo: Universal)
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Danny Boyle
STARS Himesh Patel, Lily James
Yesterday arrives on the cinematic scene boasting a terrific premise, but, as the hoary saying goes, that’s only half the battle. Executing a catchy premise with the attention and intelligence it deserves is another matter, and that’s where many movies drop the ball (recent cases in point: The Dead Don’t Die and Alita: Battle Angel). Happily, that’s not the case with Yesterday, an absolutely inspiring and disarming picture that makes the most of its unique hook.
EastEnders’ Himesh Patel proves to be an affable lead as Jack Malik, an aspiring singer-songwriter whose career is going nowhere in his English seaside town. With only his friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) believing in him, he decides it’s time to finally call it quits and back off from music. But after he gets hit by a bus during a strange blackout that affects the entire world, he reawakens to find some things have changed. Specifically, he learns that, somehow, The Beatles have never existed, meaning that no one has ever heard of John-Paul-George-Ringo or Abbey Road or “I Saw Her Standing There.” Thus, when Jack plays one of their songs, everyone assumes that he wrote it and he’s quickly praised for his musical genius. Sensing an opportunity, he recalls from memory as many Beatles songs as he can (although he struggles to remember the exact lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”) and passes them off as his own. Not surprisingly, he soon becomes the biggest music star in the world.
Yesterday is largely positioned as a love story between Jack and Ellie, which makes sense since, in the immortal words of Lennon-McCartney, all you need is love. This portion of the film takes time getting established — the beginning is so fuzzy that I thought Jack pined for Ellie, not vice versa — but, backed by the gentle performances from Patel and James, it eventually comes into focus. And for comic relief, Joel Fry is on hand as Jack’s dim-witted road manager (he’s only fitfully amusing) and Kate McKinnon turns up as Jack’s no-nonsense new agent (she’s uproarious throughout).
Still, it’s the Beatles angle that of course provides the film with most of its juice. Sharply scripted by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and zestfully directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), Yesterday touches on relevant themes connected to the world of entertainment, including the need to be in the right place at the right time to get discovered (if a song falls from a singer’s lips and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?), the humbling nature of genuine works of art (Ed Sheeran, playing himself, laments that he’s Salieri to Jack’s Mozart), and the manner in which committee groupthink can destroy originality (e.g. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a terrible title, the White Album lacks diversity, and “Hey Jude” would make more sense as “Hey Dude”). There’s also a late-inning development that might strike some as tasteless, although I found it lovely. And as the cherry on top, it’s revealed that The Beatles aren’t the only thing forgotten by the world (no fair springing the surprises here).
In a summer season starved for originality (12 remakes/sequels and counting), it would be easy to latch onto Yesterday even if it failed to deliver. Thankfully, there’s no need to lower any standards to accept and embrace this picture. On its own merits, it gives viewers plenty of reasons to twist and shout.