In Yesterday, a hapless but likable schlub “creates” the music of the Beatles in a world that’s never heard of Paul, George, John, or even Ringo. Meanwhile, said schlub reckons with the cost of fortune and fame, all set to a Spotify playlist of some of the greatest rock ‘n roll ever heard. This premise, along with the Beatles, the movie’s director, and even entry-level Beatles fans, have all been memorably roasted on Twitter in the past few months.
It’s not wholly unwarranted. Yesterday’s has a budget-friendly premise. It’s also so, so much fun.
Although competition this season from comedies like Long Shot and Always Be My Maybe are fierce, Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is among the finest feature-length escapes of the heat of summer. Joyful, sweet, and life-affirming from here to across the universe, Yesterday will please, please you in its funny tale of imposter syndrome, the existential crises that comes with it, and an endless stream of listenable lo-fi rock Beatles covers. While it’s as imperfect as a smile with its teeth knocked out, you can’t hate Yesterday for working like a dog.
Scripted by Richard Curtis from a story by Curtis and Jack Barth, Yesterday is the dream “What if?” scenario: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling musician, wakes up after a freak power outage and discovers that the Beatles have been wiped from existence. Desperate to start his own career, Jack writes and records as much of the music of Lennon, et. al. as he can, writing his own ticket to (ride) success. But fame comes at a price in the form of Ellie (Lily James), his lifelong best friend and manager who harbors secret feelings for him.
Despite being wall-to-wall Beatles bops (plus a ton of deep cut references; think Marvel Easter eggs are hard? Try linking Coca-Cola to the Beatles), Yesterday is not a musical. Rather, the film is a twofer: At times a dream-like rumination on art and ownership, and other times a familiar rags to riches romance. When the movie isn’t riffing on the Beatles’ blueprint trajectory into megastars, the film goes deep into the disintegration of Jack. His guilt over his very real imposter syndrome is as suffocating to us as it is for him, that even when the movie dilutes his central conflict with a twist that pretty much clears Jack of any wrongdoing, his final act of penance is still earned.
If it weren’t for its leads in Patel and James, Yesterday would be as much a dud as Paul McCartney’s song for Destiny. (Remember that? Sorry, but it’s right here.) Thankfully, the film is dynamite with them, even if the blast radius is uneven.
Patel will come out of it a brighter star, a truerevelation in his performance as an anxious, annoyingly selfish artist who sinks into a prison of his own making. His performance as Jack peaks in the film’s explosive second act finale: Atop a hotel (yes, really) where Patel’s Jack belts out a thunderous, Foo Fighters-like rendition of “Help!” that falls on thousands of deaf ears. On the nose? Yeah, but no one has ever accused the Beatles of being subtle.
James, meanwhile, carries a thankless burden as Ellie. While James does the most with her role, evidence that she’s a top-notch screen actor destined for a superhero role, her Ellie is still left with Jack’s baggage. That’s literally (she’s his only roadie) and figuratively; as Jack realizes he’s in love with Ellie, he’s also losing her, rendering Ellie into a goal than a three-dimensional character.
It’s unfortunate, but, Ellie’s another one of Danny Boyle’s female leads: A person with a galaxy of story behind her but not a speck of wants and needs beyond the main dude (see also: Slumdog Millionaire). Later, when Jack makes a grand gesture with Ellie in front of millions, it chilled me to remember Yesterday’s screenwriter also wrote Love Actually. Yes, emotionally manipulative cue cards Love Actually. Reader, I was floored.
At least the rest of the movie, pardon the pun, rocks. Ed Sheeran, as himself, is less aggravating here than his Game of Thrones cameo. It feels honest that he plays exactly the self-indulgent but insecure rockstar you think he is when he grows intimidated by Jack’s alleged genius.
Kate McKinnon, probably the only person in the film free from any expectations, steals her scenes as Debra Hammer, a rich L.A. producer about to get even richer because of Jack. When Jack wants to fill in his memory gaps of “Eleanor Rigby” and begs for an impromptu trip to Liverpool to find “inspiration,” its Debra who stands warrior posing in his way.
Yesterday is a radiant new chapter in this long history of the Beatles on film. While A Hard Day’s Night is still the best Beatles movie of all time as a freewheeling masterpiece (come at me, Yellow Submarine stans), Yesterday shines as a polished studio version of the Beatles’ boundary-pushing productions. It’s not a musical, thank goodness. It’s just a jolly time that lampoons the mistaken authenticity of stolen genius.
In the film, when Jack’s at his lowest point, someone tells him it’s just nice to hear the Beatles’ music again. It really is.
Yesterday hits theaters on June 28.