There seem to be a lot of movies about musicians lately, from biopics to musicals, and I’m convinced that we’re entering the dawn of a “rock star cinematic universe.” Rather than a biopic of The Beatles, or a movie set to their tunes (Across the Universe already did that), the new movie Yesterday imagines a world where The Beatles never became a band. Or rather, they did, and then one day everyone except one man forgot them.
Yesterday focuses on this one man, Jack Malik, played by Himesh Patel. Jack, a struggling musician, keeps from giving up his dreams largely because of the unwavering support of his manager and longtime friend Ellie, played by Lily James. Jack eventually does give up his dreams or decides to, and Lily tells him that a miracle will come along. Sure enough, it does.
Riding his bike home one night, all of the electricity goes out across the entire planet, and in the darkness, Jack gets hit by a bus. When he wakes up, he finds that the world has shifted into an alternate timeline, and only he remembers the old one. Nobody knows who The Beatles are, and as a musician, Jack sets out to re-record their songs. This brings him a lot of attention, including that of a certain modern-day British singer, and Jack gets catapulted to fame and fortune. Ellie is thrilled for Jack, but laments the fact that he’ll be moving on, and regrets that he never seemed to reciprocate the love she had for him.
The premise is an intriguing one, and the movie has a lot of fun from the concept of nobody knowing who The Beatles are. Likewise, Jack continuously mentions other famous bits of pop culture that people have never heard of, figuring out exactly what does or doesn’t exist in this timeline. As for The Beatles, the movie has snippets of a whole bunch of their music and various references to the history of the band throughout.
Some people may be disappointed that the movie features very few full-length songs. It’s helpful to think of Yesterday less like a musical and more as a quirky romantic flick that happens to have songs. However, Patel is a great singer, and his takes on classic songs are a treat. Certainly, there’s no shortage of Beatles covers in the world, but Yesterday does provide some fun modern takes on the originals.
Much of the film, including both the reintroducing-the-world-to-The Beatles plot and the romantic longtime-friend-but-maybe-more plot hinge strongly on the work of the actors. Both of these plots could come off as kind of hokey, and they still may to some, but Himesh Patel and Lily James really sell them as believable. The two excel at sincerity, whether it’s conveying knowledge of The Beatles or the lack of knowledge about their character’s feelings for each other. The two have great chemistry, with each other and with the various bit comic relief characters, who are fun in their own right. Kate McKinnon hams it up as a music manager without going too over the top, and Joel Fry provides laughs as the slacker friend who always tries his best regardless.
Perhaps many of the characters (and the concept) wouldn’t seem believable on paper, but Danny Boyle directs the film with just enough realism and drama to keep things grounded. Yesterday is definitely one of his more lighthearted films. It does explore some of the grittier ramifications of its premise later on if never quite doing more than dipping its toes into them.
The biggest flaw of the movie is one it shares with its main character, and that’s the struggle of finding an identity. There are many directions that a movie about the world forgetting pop culture icons, let alone The Beatles, could take. A premise like this can also raise many questions. For most of it, the movie doesn’t ask you to think about them too deeply. However, towards the end, it suddenly poses them. Who do these songs really belong too? Should Jack re-record them? Is he sharing a legacy or merely profiting off of it? Is he really a hit musician if he’s just copying The Beatles?
There’s nothing wrong with these questions, but at the same time, the film asks another one of itself. Is is about Jack and The Beatles or is it about him and Ellie? Surprisingly, The Beatles plot and the romantic plot never really congeal. The Beatles wrote enough songs about love, but Jack and Ellie never really bond over them. In fact, Jack’s connection to The Beatles never really goes further than the fact that they’re all musicians.
Even if Jack himself doesn’t seem to be any more of a Beatles fan than anyone else, the film at least pays homage to the band in a few ways, which I won’t spoil here. Ultimately the strength of The Beatles comes from the fact that pretty much everyone knows them and their music. It’s like a common language. And what would happen if the world lost something so universe like that? The film sticks to this question so that it can try to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Nevertheless, Beatles fans should still get an extra kick out of the endeavor. It can be hard to envision a world without the Fab Four, and one of the best segments of the film is when Jack just starts out playing their music, and you remember that they started out as a band like any other.
Yesterday arrives in theaters on June 28th.
Yesterday envisions a world in which the world has somehow forgotten all memory The Beatles, and chronicles the journey of one man who sets out to bring back their songs. The movie has a wealth of snippets of Beatles songs, fun moments, and boasts great acting from its lovable cast. It works best as a quirky comedy. The deeper themes are mostly subtle, but the film goes off the rails a bit when it tries to explore them in greater detail. It pulls in a few different directions, never quite seeming so sure of where it wants to go, and the romantic subplot may prove too sentimental for some.