If you love the Beatles, chances are you’re going to love Yesterday, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’ love letter to the iconic band. Put simply, it revolves around the premise that the Beatles are the greatest band ever, quite literally capable of changing the world. If you buy into that, and accept the heaping helping of cheesiness in Curtis’ script, then Yesterday will be a light, harmless charmer with a wonderfully eccentric premise and incredible soundtrack.
A modern-day fable set to the Beatles sound, Yesterday is every bit a Richard Curtis screenplay. The Love, Actually writer paints on a big emotional canvas with characters that fall in and out of love as quickly as the strum of a guitar. Only in this case, that passion is for the music of the Beatles. This is where Jack, played by breakout newcomer Himesh Patel, enters the picture. A down on his luck musician/store clerk/busker, Jack’s aspirations to be a big rock star haven’t earned him much but poorly-attended gigs at Suffolk pubs and the occasional music festival. He does have a champion in his corner, though, and that’s his manager/best friend Ellie (Lily James, at her down-to-earth best), who encourages him not to give up on his dreams no matter what. Unfortunately, or fortunately, as it turns out, his final gig is punctuated by a sudden global blackout that leads to a collision with a bus. But more than that, the momentary loss of power has also zapped out of existence a number of things we would consider normal.
Think of it as the musical version of the Thanos Snap. Suddenly vanished is any mention of the Beatles. They simply never happened. No “White Album”, no “Abbey Road”, nothing. A funny running gag finds Jack searching on Google for things that are missing, only for funny alternatives to pop up. You can imagine what he gets when searching for John, Paul, Ringo, and George. Just like that, Jack is faced with an opportunity. Being himself and performing his own music (“The Summer Song” a bland and oft-mentioned tune) hasn’t gotten him anywhere, but what if he could recreate The Beatles’ discography? Suddenly, he’s trying to remember the words to “Eleanor Rigby” and “Let it Be”.
When Jack starts singing these songs, it’s like a life-changing experience for everyone who hears them. His sudden transformation into a legendary songwriter shocks Ellie, but she always believed he had it in him. Their relationship, in which one has been placed in the friend zone (It’s probably not who you think), is sweet but lacking in any real depth, which I would argue is a common thread in Curtis movies. It doesn’t detract from Patel and James’ sincere, engaging performances. They just could’ve used a bit more gravity to show how important these characters are meant to be to one another. When Jack is suddenly the hottest singer/songwriter on the planet, performing ahead of Ed Sheeran (poking fun at himself) and scoring a huge record deal, Ellie’s reaction to it is inconsistent, but Curtis eventually finds the right footing to set her on. If you’re expecting anything less than a happy ending, might I remind you this is the same writer who did Love, Actually?
While Boyle’s eclectic musical tastes have always been a key component in his films, this is the first time he’s done anything quite like this. He’s also not someone we think of for rom-coms, but he proves surprisingly adept at it. I’ve always appreciated his ability to take grandiose stories and make them feel personal. Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, and others are examples of him doing this, and Yesterday is another. This is quite a big story on paper: world-altering event, the greatest rock band ever, and a rags to riches tale all wrapped up in one. It can all get somewhat cumbersome, and certainly this amazing premise isn’t explored as fully as it should’ve been, but we’re always brought back to this simple tale of a boy and his love for the Beatles. Boyle has his usual array of visual tricks to energize the plot when things start to sag, and they do. There’s so much energy to his fast-cutting style, full of lights and color and words barreling across the screen like a locomotive. It’s a wonder Boyle hasn’t really gotten into music videos. He’d be damn good at it.
Also damn good is Himesh Patel, whose clear, strong singing voice lend credibility to Jack’s rise to rock superstardom. Others in the cast are superb, as well. Kate McKinnon is appropriately loathsome as a music exec eager to cash in on Jack’s talent, while Game of Thrones actor Joel Fry steals the show as Rocky, Jack’s oafish roadie.
Sometimes love isn’t all you need. Yesterday isn’t particularly deep, it wouldn’t pass harsh scrutiny, and some will certainly take issue with Curtis’ trademark over-sentimentality. But it’s that vast appreciation for the Beatles’ legacy that is also the film’s greatest strength, and could create a new generation of fans in the process.