“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Lily James asks a down-on-his-songwriting-luck Himesh Patel as he stocks shelves in a part-time warehouse job. The film immediately cuts to a new location to see this question through, but I’ll let you know right here. The good news is that Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s escapist, cover-band comedy featuring about a dozen Beatles songs is exactly what a massive wave of audiences wants to see right now. The bad news is that it will likely be a hard day’s watch for just about everyone else.
In Yesterday, a global blackout doesn’t just suck the power out of every building and machine in the world. It sucks out the memory of the Beatles ever existing. Their records have vanished. Internet search results reveal no mention of their songs or the men who wrote them. Seemingly only one person in the entire world still knows about the Beatles, and that is Jack Malik (Patel), who appears to have been thrown into some alternative universe where various staples of pop culture (in addition to the Beatles) have vanished with no explanation.
Jack also happens to be a failed singer-songwriter, and he quickly sees an opportunity to recall the lyrics of famous Beatles songs and pass them off as his own. What results is a slow, but steady rise to karaoke fame, which gets in the way of a possible romance with his childhood best friend, Ellie (James), who was his biggest fan (and manager) back when his music reached the lyrical heights of “The Summer Song.”
Yesterday is a curious offshoot of the typical jukebox musical. First, it’s strictly a romantic comedy. And unlike its contemporary, Across the Universe, the film never comes off as an attempt to fully recapture the spirit of the Beatles and what their songs truly mean in context. In fact, this insincerity is a constant tension in the film, because Jack can barely even remember some of the lyrics, yet he has to reinvent a story for each and every hit he appears to muster on his own. At no point does his own personal story and romance truly mirror the experiences of John, Paul, George, or Ringo, and that’s to the film’s immense credit. Patel is a great performer here, because he balances his unlikable actions with an underdog spirit resembling his own humble acting career.
The screenplay is by Richard Curtis, known best for producing foundational romantic comedies (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, About Time), and it’s clear his writing favors Jack and Ellie, who are far more fleshed out than the actual tribute to the Beatles, beyond the major hits Jack would be more likely to remember and reproduce. At one point, this film was supposed to be called All You Need Is Love, but apparently that would have been giving the game away (not that the film exactly hides this intended message at any point).
If love is all you really need, then Yesterday will suit your cinematic fancy. It’s harmless, joyful entertainment with an insane proposition requiring far too much explanation than we actually receive, which is sure to infuriate anyone expecting sci-fi-esque exposition for a premise that was never designed to make you think, but rather, to make you feel.
What would it feel like to be the only person in the world with access to beautiful art? There’s a trove of storytelling possibilities the film only briefly delves into, including the realistic effect of credibility when it comes to songwriting, seen clearly when Jack struggles to make anyone care about these wonderful songs when he’s just playing a guitar in a coffee shop. It’s not until he’s opening for Ed Sheeran (who plays himself in more ways than one) that anyone seems to recognize that the music itself is worth adoring.
The ethical implications of Jack’s ongoing plagiarism get further complicated by an off-key third act, which diverts Jack’s deserved descent into madness with a feel-good message that could use some help. Correlating Yesterday to any real-world lessons about the relationship between art and the artist is likely a fool’s errand, which seriously brings down what would otherwise be a universal film. Instead, it’s simply a good film with some horrifying rabbit holes that just aren’t all that fun to think about.
The plot may be nonsensical, but the heart and comedy surely isn’t. Though the film never reconciles the actual soul of the Beatles with its own story, it does slip a sliver of ecstasy into what it’s like to love the music as a fan. Entire scenes are dedicated to characters simply dancing around and letting someone else’s heartfelt lyrics infectiously flow through them. The film can also be stretched into an engaging moral quandary about the importance of restoring lost art as it rubs up against how that art might be misinterpreted by modern eyes (even invoking “Hey Dude” is a crime against art itself, basically).
Yesterday was made to be a crowdpleaser for fans of the Beatles, but to a lesser extent for anyone truly obsessed with the minutiae of their history. It has the laid-back sensibility of a John Carney musical (by way of Begin Again and Sing Street), but also the romantic British wit courtesy of its own screenwriter. It might make you twist and shout, or it might make you run for your life. But no matter what, your actual troubles will likely seem far away…at least while you’re watching it.