What if you were the only human who knew The Beatles ever existed? That’s the high-concept premise of Yesterday from director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and famed writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill). We follow Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), and to say he is a struggling musician is an understatement. His best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) is a constant source of encouragement and unrequited affection. He’s ready to quit when suddenly a world blackout results in him getting hit by a bus. He wakes up in a hospital badly bruised and apparently the world has never heard of The Beatles songs. Jack uses his unique knowledge and launches his musical career by passing on their material as his own. Suddenly he’s a superstar with a craven new manager (Kate McKinnon) and opening for Ed Sheeran. As he catapults to a new level of fame, he starts reconsidering his feelings for Ellie and fame in general.
Yesterday is a fantasy fitting of The Twilight Zone but cheerful and whimsical that it could fit well into the pantheon of Curtis’ other famous romantic comedies. It’s a relatable wishful scenario where you have the inside track to take advantage of pre-established works and zooming ahead to fame and fortune. It’s like a direct passage to the goal of creative acclaim. The movie is generally fun as it works on dramatic irony for laughs, as Jack introduces person after person to the songwriting of the Beatles. It’s a fun magic trick that doesn’t lose its charm. Even the musical score adopts several familiar melodies from The Beatles and Boyle highlights certain landmarks and their connections to the history of the tunes. I enjoyed Jack trying to remember the lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby” and coming up with various alternatives. There’s an amusing running joke about what else is missing from this parallel universe, including Coca-Cola and Harry Potter (there’s a great joke missed having Jack try and spectacularly fail to write Harry Potter). It’s a regular source of silliness and Boyle visually trains the film to automatically do a Google search for the missing item and what is found instead. There’s no rhyme or reason for what is missing; I doubt Curtis is trying to speculate that without Coke we wouldn’t have the Beatles and so on. The movie has an easy charm and affection that makes even its looser moments more agreeable. I was hoping for more moments of subversion, like when Jack is trying to play “Let It Be” for his parents for the first time and they keep absentmindedly interrupting. What if certain Beatles songs didn’t break through as popular today as they did in the 1960s? Does “I Want to Hold Your Hand” seem to quaint for modern listeners? There aren’t many surprises in store with Curtis’ script, which uses the fantasy gimmick as a vehicle to tell a pretty ordinary love story.
The problem with the gimmick is that there really is no downside for Jack. He zooms to international stardom. There is a small idea that he feels like a fraud by getting famous from the creativity of others but this is barely toyed with. Here’s one instance that could have better highlighted that inner turmoil: while on tour with Ed Sheeran, the musician challenges Jack to an impromptu songwriting contest, to go off to their respective corners and in ten minutes come up with a brand-new song. As presented, Jack comes back and plays “The Long and Winding Road” and everyone is spellbound. He wins. The scene could have played out with Jack trying his own material on the piano, either a tune we saw him working on before his accident or something truly original from the moment, and he could watch the crowd looking indifferent. His panic would flash in and he would cave, resorting to a Beatles song to win them over again. That moment could have showcased his internal dilemma of feeling like a fraud but his need to impress and win easy adulation. There is real downside for his passing off the Beatles songs as his own (spoilers to follow for the paragraph). At the very end, on the world’s stage, he announces the truth and that he didn’t write one of his hit songs, instead giving credit to John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Except even after this declaration, he doesn’t suffer any consequences. He maintains his fame, fortune, happiness, and gets the girl. Surely the media would seek out these cited songwriters and they would not know what he was talking about at all. Then what? Apparently nothing, as the world must have just accepted Jack as possibly being mentally ill.
Since so much of the film hinges on the romance between Jack and Ellie, it makes the obstacles keeping them apart feel foolishly arbitrary and annoying. It feels like there should be no stopping these two crazy kids from getting together but the movie manufactures questionable reasons. Firstly, Ellie is practically throwing herself at her friend in every scene for the first half, obviously hinting at her desire to be seen as something more than a friend and manager. At one point she even point-blank asks him why he doesn’t seem to view her as a romantic option (it’s not like Jack is being mobbed by other women), and the man doesn’t even articulate a reason. He just stares dumbfounded at her, as if he too is realizing a plausible reason hasn’t been conveyed. He doesn’t say, “I never knew,” because of course he knows, and he doesn’t say, “I didn’t want it to ruin our friendship,” or anything else along those lines. There isn’t even a protest. Then when he is famous, he starts thinking about becoming romantically involved, and Ellie says she doesn’t know if she can manage his new lifestyle. He’ll be in L.A. and she’ll be in her English small town, and he must choose one life over the other. This is a false choice. He’s rich and famous. He can live wherever the hell he wants, including a small English town with her. This is even glimpsed during the end credit epilogue, meaning it was completely an available option. The reasons both of these characters reject one another are just unreasonable. Lily James is playing a charming woman and should not have this much trouble having a man want to be with her.
Because of this forced and arbitrary conflict, keeping the lovers apart until finally letting them at each other, Yesterday is ultimately capped with its enjoyment level. It’s pretty much a gimmick that is meant to serve a more traditional rom-com, which Curtis knows how to do easily. Why then has he seemed to put so little effort in why these two should be kept apart? The yearning you need to feel in every rom-com feels one-sided and then switches over, making the chase feel like running in place for the sake of stretching out this conflict. It doesn’t make sense. There were realistic obstacles available with this premise, from Jack’s ego taking over thanks to everyone projecting the Beatles acclaim onto him, and he could just have become a shallower person that Ellie stops seeing as a desirable mate. That’s the easiest thing and Yesterday doesn’t even do that. Other women aren’t ever an option too. When Jack hits the big time, he isn’t fending off groupies and other industry sorts that want a piece of him. At no point does Ellie have any competition for his heart or any other part of him. They’re good together too, cute, and seem obvious that they should be together, so this foolish keep-away game feels grating.
Here’s a closing question: if the Beatles songs were released in a contemporary market, would they be the era-defying hits that they were? I’m somewhat doubtful. For an experiment, show Yesterday (or even 2007’s Across the Universe) to teenagers generally unaware about the Beatles catalogue. Do they instantly take notice? Do they ravishingly consume the songs and seek more? I’m sure some will; just because music is old doesn’t mean it can’t connect with a new, appreciative audience. However, would these songs be global hits instantly launching the songwriter to stardom? The Beatles are an indelible part of our culture and have influenced generations of artists. It’s hard to overstate their artistic influence but partly because of the time and place of that influence. Would Beethoven be as influential if he had gone unknown by history until the twenty-first century? Anyway, Yesterday is a cute but rather slight movie that reminds you about the power of music and the annoyance of contrivances withholding a happy ending until the final say-so.
Nate’s Grade: B-