Ever since the Beatles performed live on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, they’ve remained a top-tier staple of musical pop culture. Fifty-five years later, it’s hard to imagine what the music industry, or mass entertainment itself, would be like without their influence. Yet Danny Boyle’s Yesterday asks that very question, imagining a world where the Beatles never existed and only one man remembers the band’s iconic music. Yet the film’s premise only goes so far as a thematic analysis, instead inhabiting a rather conventional “rise to fame” story with few big twists. It’s still a fun conventional storyline, boosted by a clear reverence for the Beatle’s genre-defining legacy and an endearing debut performance by Himesh Patel.
Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling British guitar player/singer who’s reached that point in life where he doesn’t want to play professionally anymore. His jobs so far have consisted of child entertainment and bar gigs, but nothing remotely resembling a big break. His manager and best friend Ellie (Lilly James), also the film’s love interest, has faith in Jack’s music but unfortunately she’s his sole supporter. Jack simply thinks he’d be better off teaching again, as it would take a miracle to continue this musical gig.
That miracle comes in the form of a sudden planetary blackout which transpires just as Jack’s bike gets hit by a passing bus. He loses two front teeth, but wakes up to a world where certain famous objects and figures never existed, most notably the Beatles. There’s no sci-fi explanation as to how it happened- Boyle just wants us to contemplate a world where this impossible idea has become reality. No mention of John, George, Paul or Ringo on Google, and none of Jack’s friends recognize his performance of ‘Yesterday’ on the guitar. They just think it’s a shockingly great song that Jack made up on the spot, which gives him an idea: record the Beatles songs as his own. It’s plagiarism yes, but restricting these songs to one man’s memory might as well be an equally big crime, if not bigger.
From there, Jack’s journey to global stardom strides a samey path, starting with local CD success before finding a fan in Ed Sheeran, playing himself. Sheeran gives Jack his break, inviting him to open tours before his manager Debra (Kate McKinnon) sees an opportunity in this upcoming singer to become the next big thing. Given how Sheeran, like every musician post-Beatles, was inspired by the band’s success, it’s clear that Yesterday also doesn’t seem interested in exploring Back to the Future 2-style space-time alterations that would arise from their pop culture absence. Just insert a social media montage of people loving Jack’s “original” songs and move onto the next scene.
If Yesterday nails one thing, it’s the timeless frenzy surrounding the Beatle’s music. While their work is intrinsically tied to the counterculture/Vietnam era, titles like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Revolution” and “Help” transcend decades simply by being amazing songs in their own right. Both corners of this perception are addressed in Jack’s journey, with the Beatle’s music drawing widespread crowds but little understanding behind the visual significance of Strawberry Fields or Abby Road. This lead to humorous moments where Jack must navigate everyone’s obliviousness while memorizing the song lyrics from scratch. It’s also a frustrating endeavor, especially when he must conceal horror at other characters criticizing the lyrics for not sounding modern enough. There’s just something funny, yet relatable, about Jack performing “Let it Be” to his parents, only for them to sympathetically regard it like a piano recital rather than a forgotten classic.
It’s a shame Yesterday’s personal conflicts never exceed their clichés. Patel sells Jack’s bottled up fear and uncertainty toward his newfound fame, but it’s still fame based on a “liar revealed” story and goes how you’d expect. His relationship with Ellie fares little better. Any moviegoer could tell just by looking at their dynamic that Ellie “always loved” Jack and Jack’s unwillingness to pursue romance out of professional curtesy would never last. “Rise to fame” stories always push the hero between his newfound stardom and the love that was always in front of him, and this one is no exception. You’ll sympathize with these characters, but their happiness is still driven by plot expectations rather than natural characterization.
It’s also a bit jarring to watch Yesterday merge real and fictional elements of the music industry together. This is Ed Sheeran’s most noticeable random cameo since Game of Thrones and it plays akin to Lebron James in Trainwreck, where he’s an actual character rather than a throwaway gag. Yet Sheeran’s contrasted with Kate McKinnon playing Kate McKinnon as a record producer, essentially a subdued SNL caricature of the Hollywood fame machine and its desire to seize new talent. Both get their fair share of laughs, but the combination of these two feel like Yesterday’s trying to wink at the camera and play everything straight.
Still, their presence enhances Jack’s moral contemplation: he’s using the work of four music icons no one remembers to boost his career, and the guilt of that fact haunts him as their music becomes popular again. There’s no chronological specification on this rise to fame- for all we know, Yesterday takes place anywhere between a few weeks to three months. Thanks to Patel’s performance, however, Jack never comes across feeling amoral nor selfish. He’s just getting a glimpse of what Beatlemania might look like in the modern age, warts and all.
This cultural reverence for the Beatle’s music keeps Yesterday entertaining despite its tropey framework. Boyle even shows his admiration in the film’s visual effects, transitioning from scene to scene with the same psychedelia-inspired art style long affiliated with their album covers. And its message is surprisingly intimate. Despite his musical ambitions, Jack loves The Beatles as much as any fan and views playing their music as a way to restore something lost to the world. That’s probably the most relatable reaction anyone could have in his position, and I doubt every moviegoer would want to do the same.
Grade: 3 stars out of 5
Yesterday is light-hearted and enjoyable, but ultimately safe. You’ll be impressed by Himesh Patel’s musical talent but also wish Danny Boyle pushed the visual/narrative style to Slumdog Millionaire heights, rather than play out his unique premise conventionally. And yet, Jack Malik’s dilemma is still a compelling one: remain the only recipient of Beatles songs, or be a gateway to share them with the world. It works, thankfully, because we understand the Beatles’ importance more than fifty-five years later.