Imagine a world without The Beatles. Imagine all the people who never heard “Let It Be,” “Penny Lane,” “A Day in the Life” or any of their songs that revolutionized music.
That’s the simple premise of Yesterday, which imagines a music history without Paul, John, George, and/or Ringo. The Fab Four are wiped from the Earth when struggling artist Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) wishes for a miracle, gets struck by a bus and awakens in a world in which only he knows The Beatles’ tunes. Ka-ching, ka-ching!
While the film is as familiar as a Beatles’ song, it’s as impossible to resist. The script by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time) gives audiences a sweet love story as Jack’s rise to stardom pulls him away from his devoted manager, Ellie (Lily James), as she stays in Suffolk to work her day job as a schoolteacher and he jets to LA to pursue his dream. The pair has great chemistry with James drawing on her Cinderella charm, while Patel creates an endearing underdog in Jack and fuels a soundtrack of summer fun performing The Beatles’ greatest hits.
As Jack enjoys his success, his peers — including Ed Sheeran (who is a good sport about poking fun at himself) — yearn to know the stories that inspired “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “In My Life,” and the film sometimes strains under the simplicity of its premise as it reworks the same conflict over a few dozen Beatles’ songs. Jack’s success is bittersweet as he knows in his heart that he doesn’t come by it honestly, even though his exuberant covers of these songs electrify the crowds. He struggles with his betrayal of Ellie and with selling out his artistic integrity for success. His music brings joy to people around the world, which leaves him with the choice to erase The Beatles forever or continue living a lie.
Directed with whimsical energy and the right flavour of cheese by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs), Yesterday doesn’t seek to reinvent The Beatles’ music. Both the approach and the story are relatively safe, but the film is a novel exercise in nostalgia. The earnestness of the film is too sweet to deny as Jack saves Beatles’ tunes from oblivion and revisits Liverpool haunts like Abbey Road, Penny Lane, and Eleanor Rigby’s grave to jog his memory. Yesterday reminds audiences of the magic of The Beatles by making them recognize the ways in which music in general defines pivotal moments in their lives.
Yesterday also makes a strong case that this generation won’t see an act on par with The Beatles. As Jack navigates the biz and lets his soulless new manager (a deadpan funny Kate McKinnon) sculpt him into a star, Yesterday places The Beatles’ songs within the American Idol era in which stars are pre-packaged and manufactured like products. The hustle teaches Jack that a true artist is one who draws from his experiences and pours himself into his songs. The songs speak to Jack’s audience, but not in the same way Beatlemania made the Fab Four speak to their generation and inspire music fans today. Yesterday is an impossibly charming essay that reminds us why few artists live forever.