The first time I saw the preview for Yesterday, my initial thought was that it was going to be either very cool or really terrible. Fortunately, it's the former. Writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle are working with a risky premise. It's original, yet riddled with potential pitfalls. Saying the picture doesn't hit any of them wouldn't be accurate. Nonetheless, it gets more right than wrong, resulting in a fun, breezy story packed with great music.
Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling musician who's on the verge of giving up his dream of making it. Manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James) tries to be supportive, encouraging him not to pack it in. Jack's life changes dramatically when a bizarre event occurs. A 12-second worldwide blackout takes place at the exact moment his bike hits a bus. When he regains consciousness, he's in some sort of alternate reality in which the Beatles never existed. Jack is the only one who remembers the band.
After overcoming initial bewilderment and accepting the situation for what it is, he begins passing Beatles songs off as his own. The songs quickly attract the attention of pop star Ed Sheeran (playing himself quite well, actually) and his manager (Kate McKinnon). Before long, Jack is a global sensation. The weight of his secret eventually weighs on him, as does the realization that Ellie has long been in love with him, a fact he's inexplicably ignored.
Yesterday could have been a one-joke “no one remembers the Beatles” comedy. Thankfully, it's a little more than that. The movie uses its clever premise to tell a story about a guy who plagiarizes because those amazing songs are just sitting right there. If he doesn't do something, the world will never know them. In a flash, Jack has the adulation and respect he's been chasing unsuccessfully for so long. Watching him go through the stages -- from reluctance, to active deception, to paranoia that he'll somehow be caught – is compelling.
The no-Beatles idea also sets up a sweet romance. Everyone in Jack's life tells him that he should be with Ellie. He's told himself that he can't, though, despite the abundant evidence that she's crazy for him. Their relationship is tested by his success, which she could never help him achieve, pulling him in a different direction. Suddenly he's jetting around the world and hanging with rock stars. The movie's best scene finds Jack and Ellie talking in an airport coffee shop, with her essentially letting him know that it's now or never for them.
The music of the Beatles appears throughout Yesterday, with songs carefully selected to accentuate the sequences in which they're used. Himesh Patel is a pretty decent singer who does an admirable job covering them. That helps make his character seem true, as does his nice low-key performance. Unfortunately, full musical numbers are rarely shown, just snippets. Getting to hear at least a couple tunes in their entirety would have been awesome.
Lily James, meanwhile, earns the title of Most Valuable Player. The more movies I see her in, the more I like her. She's just a ray of sunshine onscreen, projecting goodness and charm. Although Ellie is slightly under-written – she doesn't have much going on aside from unrequited love – James makes her the emotional heart of Yesterday. We get a little angry seeing how Jack takes her for granted because we don't want to see her hurt.
A couple aspects of the movie stumble. The cause of the blackout is never explained, nor is the reason why it's the Beatles that no one remembers. Maybe no satisfying explanation exists anyway; still, not even remotely addressing it is weird. As talented as Kate McKinnon is, her comedic style is at odds with everything else in the film. Her performance feels out of place. Finally, while the plot has a sentimental third-act scene that touches on a question every attentive audience member will be asking, you can't escape the feeling that the picture is dodging a big chunk of it.
Those are generally minor flaws. Stylishly directed by Boyle, Yesterday works because it's funny, romantic, and impeccably acted by Patel and James. Don't demand too much logic. Just enjoy the music and the fantasy element and you'll have a terrific time.
out of four
Yesterday is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.