It’s only fitting that Danny Boyle’s sweet, song-filled romantic comedy Yesterday could imagine that in a world where The Beatles never existed, The Rolling Stones are, of course, still alive and kicking. In the real world, Mick Jagger is hip-shaking his way back from heart surgery to lead The Stones on another world tour, while The Beatles stopped touring in 1966.
In Yesterday (★★★), the band’s been wiped out entirely, erased from history by a 12-second global blackout of mysterious origins. But, just as mysteriously, their songs survive in the memory of struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a humble big-box store employee in Suffolk, England, who also gigs at tiny clubs and inside the saddest tent of a nearby music festival.
Jack recalls not only a host of Beatles songs and how to play them, but how universally influential and successful they were. So, unbeknownst to anyone, even his best mate and manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), Jack passes off The Beatles’ songs as his own, and rides those rippling melodies to the heights of musical stardom.
Another film from Slumdog Millionaire Oscar-winner Boyle about a clever South Asian kid who hits the jackpot, this film’s more cute than funny, although frequently it is damn funny. Usually, that’s when face-pulling Kate McKinnon is on hand as the hilariously venomous Hollywood agent who swoops in to take Jack all the way to the top. Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar are also a consistent delight as Jack’s mildly supportive parents, Sheila and Jed. They don’t exactly show the proper reverence when Jack plays his new song “Let It Be.”
The world goes wild, though, especially Jack’s most famous new fan, Ed Sheeran, who does an admirable job playing a low-key cocky caricature of himself. Superstar Sheeran begrudgingly concedes that one of the greatest songs The Beatles ever recorded is better than a ditty he supposedly wrote in ten minutes.
Part of the fun built into the premise is the canny way the movie coaxes its audience into hearing these exceedingly familiar songs anew, along with all the actors onscreen pretending they’re hearing “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude” for the very first time. The earnestly rapturous reactions to Jack’s genius songs don’t get old. They are great songs — and yet they prove that The Beatles weren’t just purveyors of great songs. The four lads from Liverpool also collectively harnessed an incomparable “It Factor” and great timing in cultural history.
The film doesn’t invest much time delving into how erasing The Beatles would alter that cultural history. As Jack discovers, the world can still rock out to Sheeran, The Stones, The Killers, Radiohead, and Childish Gambino — but no Fab Four also means no Oasis, apparently. That nugget of info doesn’t shock Jack, as much as news of a few other major cultural touchstones that it turns out inexplicably didn’t survive the blackout. Beset by something like survivor’s remorse, he starts to feel a fool and a fraud for pilfering The Beatles catalog. Still, he keeps on singing.
The songs aren’t new, of course, but Patel is something of a revelation singing them. Although the arrangements generally stick to the standard Beatles versions, Patel’s performance connects each song to the moment, including several will-they-or-won’t-they scenes between Jack and Ellie, who’d like to be more than just his manager. Jack’s punky live take on “Help!”, sung to Ellie, is a highlight in a soundtrack filled with Beatles classics, as well as fine contributions from Sheeran and other contemporary artists.
Strangely, the visuals and editing aren’t as powerful in concert with the music as one might expect from the Trainspotting and 127 Hours auteur. The script is, for better and worse, exactly what one might expect from Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually screenwriter Richard Curtis. The lead characters are well-drawn — with the glaring exception of Jack’s obnoxious roadie Rocky (Joel Fry) — and there’s plenty of sparkling dialogue. Less persuasive is a final-act buildup to one of those grand romantic gestures so favored in British rom-coms, or at least in those written by Richard Curtis. A movie that starts out by turning the whole world upside down, ultimately coasts down a long and winding road to a pat happy ending.
Yesterday is rated PG-13, and is now playing everywhere. Visit www.fandango.com.