The Beatles were a force of nature, a hurricane of sound that changed the world. It’s almost impossible to truly factor in just how much the Fab Four redefined pop culture, and the breadth of their influence in incalculable. So what the world be like if The Beatles had never existed? It’s a question posited in Yesterday, the film from director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis, where a young singer-songwriter awakes from an accident only to have discovered The Beatles have been wiped from existence. While the question itself brings up all sorts of alternate timelines, the film itself really isn’t interested in exploring that part of its concept. Instead Yesterday is a romantic comedy built upon sentimentality and saccharine, opting for the kinder, gentler crowd-pleaser in the vein of McCartney than the rough edges of Lennon.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring musician busking and playing sparsely crowded pubs when he’s not working at a Costco-like warehouse store. The only bright spots in his life are his music and the friendship of Ellie (Lily James), who also serves as his roadie and manager, booking him his tiny gigs. Feeling his dream slip through his fingers, Jack is determined to give up but on fateful night he’s hit by a bus while riding his bike as a blackout sweeps the globe. After healing and getting discharged from the hospital, Jack picks up his guitar again and plays “Yesterday” to his friends, each blown away by the soft ballad they’ve heard for the first time. Realizing that the world has been scrubbed of The Beatles’ music, Jack quickly realizes that he might find new life as a singer-songwriter by recreating the music lost in this bizarre incident. The gambit quickly pays off as Jack is encountered by Ed Sheeran (playing himself) who boosts the music and sets Jack up with the brash, hyperactive record executive Debra Hammer (an over-the-top Kate McKinnon). Superstardom is finally within reach for Jack, but the guilt of knowing the songs aren’t his tears at his soul.
With its sweet sentimentality and interest only in using the music of The Beatles as a means to honor The Beatles, Yesterday is a film ill-equipped to handle the very questions it brings up. The film asserts that the timeless music of The Beatles would guarantee their songs status as instant classics, which I don’t really think would be true in 2019. Times and tastes change, and have changed greatly over the 50 years since The Beatles called it quits. So, for example, the idea that the earlier hits of The Beatles such as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Help!” would hold up to modern tastes is woefully out of touch. I’m still scratching my head over the scene where Jack plays “Back in the USSR” to a sold out arena going out of their mind – are the kids today just in love with references to crumbled totalitarian empires? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to honor the legacy of The Beatles, but Yesterday is just weird way to do it because it’s a film that assumes timeless qualities aren’t, in fact, dictated by the time in which they were produced; in cinematic terms, Casablanca wouldn’t be Casablanca had it been produced in the ‘60s.
To be absolutely transparent, I’m not much of a Beatles fan. In fact, I find the idea of waking up in a world without The Beatles to be quite pleasant sounding. That being said, though, there are any number of complications that would arise as many of my favorite bands were influenced by them. But what that means in Yesterday isn’t that much. The Rolling Stones still exist and when Jack performs a Google search it pulls up the band as they look today, meaning The Rolling Stones are still playing well into their 70s in this alternate universe so one must assume the British Invasion of the ‘60s still happened but without its main catalyst. Of course, this results in a lazy joke that the band Oasis didn’t exist. I mean, I thought we moved past the Oasis-Beatles jokes in the ‘90s. Perhaps the weirdest – and this movie is pretty weird – side effect of this Beatles blackout is the fact that cigarettes don’t exist. Like, what in the holy hell is the connection there? How are The Beatles tied to the prevalence of cigarettes, something that existed well over a hundred years before the band’s formation? It’s just another example of how the high concept behind Yesterday operates in service of just non-sequitur gags that aren’t about the concept or even exploring it further. It’s a bewildering experience to behold.
In all fairness, the cast of Yesterday really tries their best with material. Himesh Patel delivers a strong performance that sees the young breakout star hitting all the comedic and dramatic notes required as well as flex his musical muscles when tackling The Beatles greatest hits. As always, Lily James is a bubbling, radiant presence. In a film overwhelming with fantastical elements and bizarre connections, the two leads anchor the uneven film as well as any pair of stars could possibly achieve. The rest of the cast, however, don’t quite pull it off. Ed Sheeran isn’t much of an actor even playing himself. Then there’s the usually reliable Kate McKinnon as the greedy record executive. I don’t know what movie she was in, but it’s not the same movie as the rest of the cast. The SNL veteran turns it up to 11 and yet is perhaps the only actor who seems to grasp the full insanity that is Yesterday.
Danny Boyle’s ode to The Beatles underwhelms not because it’s nothing more than an ode to The Beatles, one of the most popular bands ever. It underwhelms because it brings up numerous questions that it has no interest in answering. The most consistent element of Yesterday is the fact that the makers of the film really love The Beatles and express that admiration through an incredibly cheesy sense of sentimentality. It’s a celebration that only reflects a portion of the band’s complicated legacy, but worst of all is the fact that the film has a truly intriguing concept but is only interested in the surface.
An homage to The Beatles from acclaimed director Danny Boyle, Yesterday may be about a world without The Beatles but it’s much more interested in celebrating the softer, gentler side of The Fab Four through a bizarre romantic comedy than actually examine its intriguing concept with any depth.