It takes quite a unique movie, dare I say even a special one, to take an absolutely preposterous concept and make it wholeheartedly joyful with extra whimsy. That is Yesterday combining Academy Award winner director Danny Boyle with all-star romantic comedy writer Richard Curtis. Know ahead that it is pure farce and fantasy, right there with something like Penny Marshall’s Big. Brush off the eye-rolling salt and you will find beaming smiles of sugar. That is the kind of serendipitous territory this movie zips through for the love letter of love letters to great music and the connecting pop culture we cherish.
A random cosmic electrical accident of happenstance blacks out Earth for a matter of seconds. When the world comes to, Clacton-on-Sea struggling artist Jack Malek (EastEnders mainstay Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus on his bike and entire planet experiences some very selective amnesia. Before this accident, Jack was a wholesale store employee and one step above a busker chasing stardom on any open mic or gig he or his dear friend and hopeless romantic question mark Ellie (Cinderella and Baby Driver darling Lily James) could find. After performing on a side stage at the Latitude Fest for crumbs of people and loyal friends, he decides to hang up his guitar in defeated “if it hasn’t happened by now” fashion before getting on that bicycle ride towards incidental fate.
Pause and imagine this movie’s concept. Healing up after the accident, Jack learns that the world no longer knows or remembers the music of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Imagine taking any wildly popular thing and having the entire world forget, except you. Imagine the hilarity of shooting blanks on Google searches. Imagine the odd humor where everyone becomes a head-cocking shrug of a “who doesn’t know (blank)?!” joke, once again, except you. Realize that possible knowledge, power, and fun, especially when it’s not just The Beatles that the enormity of public consciousness forgets. If you can fantasize within that realm and forgive a whole heap of logic, you will embrace Yesterday.
Possessing a gold mine of borrowed (or is it stolen) inspiration, Jack begins to record and perform the Beatles catalog as if they were his own creative output. Beginning with a single streamed playlist, his work explodes across social media. His skyrocketing popularity draws the courting attention of superstar Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and oily American music agent Debra Hammer (Saturday Night Live’s MVP Kate McKinnon). With complete and fabled success, each new song from this completely unknown performer captivates audiences at home and abroad.
Himesh Patel’s performances in Yesterday emulate renewed first-time reactions in this present digital and connected age of Image-branded fame and instant gratification. Watching this imaginary shooting star story makes you wonder if the Fab Four’s half-century-plus old lyrics and rhythms would capture audiences with the same love and universal appeal as they did in their actual time? Likewise, what makes their music so memorable and significant, the song, the performer, or both? Enjoy that delightful pondering.
Looking past the fantasy, the pendulum of curse and wish fulfillment in Yesterday narrows to the simplicity of how we all emulate greatness. We all like to pretend. We all do it with every embarrassing karaoke number, talent audition television program, YouTube cover video, windows-down car sing-along concert, kitchen jam session, and shower solo of a favorite song. There’s no harm in the enjoyment of dreaming. It’s just a matter of how far one takes it because clear as day, Jack is living and profiting off a lie amid the temptations of money, success, and popularity.
If your logic meter for plot holes is exploding and the initial premise has you tuning out, the cloying romance of Yesterday will likely not help matters. Lily James is luminous and fetching, as always, but she is saddled with the ever-pining love interest role across from a nice guy protagonist with an ungodly level of obliviousness to her. You can’t get mad at her. You can lament over the material that gives her so little independence other than waiting around for the one boy to notice. Cute as it may be with the repetitive silly screenplay interruptions that break the romantic tension over and over (many delivered by the scene-stealing doofus roadie played by Games of Thrones cast member Joel Fry), Yesterday is one place where Richard Curtis and his overused tropes from years of romcoms are unfortunately tired and reductive.
The saving grace is the beauty and brilliance of The Beatles at the center. Danny Boyle brings his technical prowess and Dutch angles to softer fare than Trainspotting and 28 Days Later and this counts as a welcome, laid back cinematic breeze. The toe-tapping and shoulder-swaying is incredibly contagious with each nostalgic rendition of a familiar ditty or ballad. Without question, loving the music helps you fall for the movie. To say this is a star-making turn for Himesh Patel would be an understatement. Soothing and charming, there is a warm honesty that goes with both Jack Malek’s own wishing and Yesterday’s desire to flat-out put a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Turn the volume up and indulge in such wonderful reverie.