Synopsis – A struggling musician realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed.
My Take – To be honest, I am not much into the music scene as I am into cinema and books, nor do I hold a special regard for any singer or band, no matter the genre. However, I do have simple understanding of the importance of some of these talented musicians in art history and why people connect with them.
One such band, known as the Beatles, who excelled way before my time, can easily be counted in the higher hierarchy of leaving a lasting impression on their fans, in all the years they were active and long after that.
Here, in this high concept comedy, Oscar winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) who knows plenty about global worst-case scenarios thanks to Sunshine and 28 Days Later, and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral), wants us to imagine a world in which the Beatles never existed.
Of course, they require viewers to take quite a few leaps of faith. Firstly, you have to wholeheartedly buy into the rule that, categorically, the best songs ever written are by the Beatles. They’re great songs, to be sure, but in this film, they are revelatory, tear-jerking, literally the best songs ever, no matter the context or who is singing them.
It’s very high stakes, but then again, your enjoyment of the film will be in direct proportion to your ability to swallow its far-fetched premise, which sounds terrible on paper but thankfully plays out somewhat better on-screen.
Yes, despite an absurd premise the film is expertly crafted and that acts both as a love letter to the Beatles, yet also tells a surprisingly complex emotional story of one man’s impossible dilemma involving some of the greatest art ever made, all the while making us question our own personal morals in the process.
The story follows Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling singer-songwriter in Suffolk, an English resort town, whose career as a performer has been going nowhere, despite the devotion and enthusiasm of Ellie (Lily James), his amateur manager and childhood friend. Done with the lack of recognition, Jack is on the verge of giving up his music dreams entirely, when he finds himself in a bus accident, while being distracted by a strange electrical surge that hits his town.
Waking up bruised and battered, Jack is shocked to find out that no one else remembers the Beatles, except him. After frantically googling and confirming their nonexistence in history anymore, Jack sees this is an opportunity to capitalize on, and decides to perform and sell the band’s songs as his own, stunning audiences with his talent.
Things begin to take off when singer Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran) tracks him down and offers him the chance to be his opening act for a concert in Moscow. And when his ‘quickly written and original’ song Back in the USSR becomes a viral hit, Ellie willingly steps aside in favor of Los Angeles-based Debra (Kate McKinnon), a harshly cynical industry insider to become his big label agent who sees Jack as the next money-making machine, while Rocky (Joel Fry), a slacker from Jack’s small hometown, becomes his less-than-reliable roadie.
As he begins to become very famous very quickly, Jack begins to find himself in a turmoil, as his guilt for plagiarizing and his feelings for Ellie slowly begins to take over.
More charming than logical, it’s best not to interrogate this setup too closely. Here, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis have created a sweet little fable that is populated with appealing characters and the screenplay puts good-hearted Jack through some amusing situations. Most importantly, it pays homage to the Beatles, and every time Jack belts out one of its songs, it makes you want to hear more.
There are a few things going on here, though all quite well balanced, there’s Jack slowly revealing the Beatles’ music to the world and with it, gaining unprecedented celebrity and wealth. As you’d expect, it’s pure, unfathomable wish-fulfillment. Imagine you were the Beatles, at their prime, bringing that music to the world, and it’s not four people sharing the spotlight, it’s just you.
Here, director Boyle captures this fantasy with gusto, using all kinds of slick editing, striking camera moves, and of course the music. Transposing a negative connotation on the positive feeling most of us get from Beatles music is a fine line, but director Boyle really nails it. Jack’s conflict is weaved in and out of his rise to fame so that we feel simultaneously happy and sad.
In fact, the happier things get, they can also get equally sad, which gives the whole film a unique, foreboding tension. We don’t want everything to come crashing down for Jack but we never sure that we can handle him getting away with it.
And of course there is the love story in between which while shamelessly manipulative, also happens to be irresistible. Ellie is with Jack from the beginning and, as he starts to get famous, their partnership begins to crumble, hurting them both in the process.
Ellie provides a strong anchor in the film; she’s a full character and not just some prize for Jack to win. Unlike Jack, she makes hard decisions when they have to be made, and their relationship is an important force as the story moves forward.
And yes, the film is actually very funny, with some of the best moments being when we find Jack debuting tunes such as “Let It Be” or, as a listener mistakenly calls it, “Leave It Be” and “Hey Jude,” which Ed Sheeran, playing himself, persuades him to change to “Hey Dude.”
However, unfortunately, despite a swift first half, the screenplay drags to the two-hour mark, as we see how Jack is coming to terms with his guilt and his feelings for Ellie, which just takes too questionably long to manifest. The other problem with the film is that while it would have been slightly superfluous in the grand scheme of things, the film never offers any real explanation for why this all happened.
At first, Jack discovers that Oasis, the British rockers who modeled their sound after the Beatles, don’t exist, and I got excited, thinking the film might explore more of such possibilities. Instead, a bunch of random brands have been eliminated from the collective memory, for reasons that are never explained.
It’s all just some bizarre event that happens and is never really referenced again. There are a few other fun jokes about it, as the Beatles aren’t the only thing people don’t remember, but it would have been nice to have just a little more closure from a logistical standpoint.
Performance wise, Himesh Patel, makes a strong big screen debut, and proves to be an indecisive romantic lead as well as a vessel for the Beatles’ music. Lily James looks gorgeous and remains delightful as always. In a major surprise, Ed Sheeran‘s Meta performance as himself provides many of the film’s humorous high notes, along with Kate McKinnon‘s sharp turn as a heartlessly money-grabbing record-industry exec. Her character is a blatant cliché, but the comic genius manages to breathe hysterical new life into it.
In supporting roles, Joel Fry, Alexander Arnold, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal are also excellent. Danny Boyle favorite, Robert Carlyle, is brilliant, in his special role. On the whole, ‘Yesterday’ is a pleasing entertainer which despite a few quibbles manages to be a delightful watch, owing to its superb music and perfect cast.
Directed – Danny Boyle
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 116 minutes