So ingrained they are in the landscape and history of popular culture that it isn’t even worth ruminating on influence of The Beatles. It is a given, a fundamental cornerstone on the trajectory of all music released since. Removing them from history alters the course of popular culture so much that it becomes nigh impossible to ponder what life without them would be like.
Yet that is precisely what Yesterday would have us do.
Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) constructs this world with the help of writer Richard Curtis (Love, Actually). At face value, this is a task so impossible that it defies the concept of suspension of disbelief. Subtract The Beatles from history and the ripple effect is astounding. Who would exist still? Who wouldn’t? What pieces of pop that we view as instrumental would have ceased to exist? It’s in the avoidance of these questions where Yesterday shockingly succeeds.
Boyle and Curtis don’t waste their time pontificating the ramifications of their historical revision due simply to the fact that, well, it would be impossible. The one acknowledgement they offer is the absence of the band Oasis. “Of course,” says Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), seemingly the one man on earth who knows who the Fab Four are.
Jack is a struggling songwriter stuck playing dead end gigs attended only by his friends, his manager Ellie (Lily James), and a wildly disinterested public. Resigned to the fact that he’s going nowhere, he puts down his guitar and vows to start living in reality. That very night, however, he’s hit by a bus and wakes up into a world where The Beatles never happened. Seeing a way to make his dreams come true, he begins performing their hits as his own, sending him to the top of music charts. Soon, Jack begins to question whether or not he can handle fame, and wonders at the simple life he might be forced to give up.
There’s no doubt a heavy dose of contrivance involved in the film’s premise that is absolutely necessary for you to buy into. Why does this bus accident shove him into this new world? Why is it preceded by a bizarre worldwide blackout that lasts for twelve seconds? How is Ed Sheeran still a thing in a world where John, Paul, George, and Ringo never happened?
These are questions better left unpondered. Yesterday’s proposition is simple: just accept it. Audiences today have a problem with this concept, of course. They want explanations and hand holding. They need airtight reasoning. They crave premises to be explained fully. Many will then have a problem with this film.
Which is too bad. Those who can accept the idea at face value and not think too hard about the whys and implications of the film are delivered a surprisingly charming romantic comedy written by one of the masters of the genre. While it never reaches the level of other Curtis-penned films like Love, Actually or Four Weddings and a Funeral, it still manages to be delightful exploration of the power of being yourself and recognizing the good you have in your life.
Jack is of course oblivious to the romantic designs of Ellie, who has stuck by his side and quietly loved him for decades as he pursues his dreams of musical stardom. His rise to fame thanks to the attention of Sheeran (who plays himself) and his manager, Debra (a wonderful Kate McKinnon), puts them at odds. As his fortune rises, must she fade away? Can he have both? What will he sacrifice to obtain his dream? What, really, is his dream?
It’s these questions that propel the film, silly premise and all, and creates a charming little love story. Patel and James are magnetic together and it’s hard not to be upset at Jack’s cluelessness. It’s the kind of narrative frustration upon which a good rom-com is built as we hope and pray that Jack gets his shit together enough to see what he’s been blind to his whole life. It’s schmaltzy, sure, but it’s effective. And Patel and James are so gushingly good together that we can’t help but cheer Jack on as he journeys through his self-discovery.
Yesterday also happens to be one of the greatest tributes to the music and legacy of The Beatles ever put to film. The Beatles are the great musical unifier, transcending mere genre. Transcending culture. Transcending any arbitrary label or division you can imagine. Throw a metalhead, a rapper, a country lover, a classical musician, and someone who “doesn’t really like music” into the same room and play “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and chances are they’ll all sing along. Grab a 90-year-old and an 9-year-old and play “Help!” and more than likely they’ll both be dancing.
We can quibble, of course. We can argue that the popularity of The Beatles has everything to do with being in the right place at the right time; that their ascent was beautifully choreographed and marketed to ensure maximum effect; that stripped of the context of the larger cultural movements of the era the music would not have landed like it did. Perhaps these are worth discussing, but not here. Yesterday is a love letter to their legacy and waxing intellectual beyond just the music is pointless.
Admittedly, that’s a tall order. We’ve trained ourselves over the last few decades to nitpick plots and premises in order to find holes in logic and narrative. Some audiences will have problems not doing this and will, therefore, be able to tear apart much of the film. That’ll be their loss, however. If you’re willing to accept the premise as is then Yesterday is a magical romantic comedy with charm to spare.
Yesterday is now playing in theaters everywhere.