What is it about the premise of Yesterday—struggling singer songwriter wakes up from an accident only to discover that he’s the only one alive who remembers the Beatles—that has people so damn excited? I asked a few friends on Twitter what the fuss was all about and the consensus was basically this: The Beatles are so essential to our collective consciousness, such a part of our cultural DNA, that the idea of a world without them has mind-blowing, time-travel-y possibilities. How would it affect the entire trajectory of the world? What things would exist—and wouldn’t exist? Would our concepts of melody, of boy bands, of mysticism, of fandom, of surrealism, of, heck, the very nature of peace and love be entirely different?
Turns out the creators of Yesterday have something a bit less ambitious in mind. Instead, Yesterday is a bit of wish-fulfillment whimsy, brought to you by Danny Boyle, the director of Slumdog Millionaire, and Richard Curtis, who has written many delightful British films, notably in this case, Notting Hill.
I mention Notting Hill because, as I watched Yesterday, it occurred to me that it was, in many senses, a note-for-note remake of that film. The big wish fulfillment there was “regular guy falls in love with megastar.” Here it’s “regular guy is the only one who remembers the Beatles.” There are other patented Richard Curtis grace notes: Our hero Jack (Himesh Patel) has a gangly, goofy, stoner sidekick named Rocky (Joel Fry), who is essentially a stand-in for Rhys Ifans’ Spike. He also has a tightknit group of witty friends, who give him affectionate grief at dinner parties, an absolute Richard Curtis mainstay. Of course, there’s a girl—Jack’s manager, Ellie (Lily James), who is secretly in love with him. Like Notting Hill, there’s a scene where Jack runs through the streets trying to catch her before she leaves town.
The first half of the film is the most fun, as Jack adjusts to his new reality. When he plays “Yesterday” for his friends and they say they’ve never heard the song, nor heard of the Beatles—one friend suggests they must be an obscure band like Neutral Milk Hotel—he thinks they’re putting him on. In an ongoing gag, Jack goes to Google, typing in “Beatles.” The insect “beetle” keeps coming up. (Presumably, the Volkswagen Beetle has also been lost to the mists of time.)
Eventually, Jack realizes what a strange, precious, and dangerous gift he’s been given. But it still takes a while for his music to take off. There’s a funny bit where he performs “Let it Be” for his parents and his debut keeps getting interrupted by the doorbell, and then a beer run to the fridge. “Shush, Jack is debuting his new song, ‘Leave it Be,’” Jack’s mother says, trying to quiet the room.
It takes none other than Ed Sheeran, playing himself, to recognize the greatness of Jack’s music and, in some ways, he’s the most poignant and interesting character in the film. At some point, Ed realizes that Jack is a better songwriter than he is, or will ever be. He forlornly calls himself Salieri to Jack’s Mozart.
Once Jack gets super famous, the film loses a bit of its momentum. Kate McKinnon joins the fun as an aggressively money-grubbing agent—but her character is so broad, it’s slightly out of whack with the film’s tone. The love story takes center stage, which is fine but, charming as they are, Patel and James are no Grant and Roberts (this is hardly an insult; literally no one is Grant and Roberts). And the film doesn’t really delve into any of those sci-fi conundrums. At first, Jack discovers that Oasis, the British rockers who modeled their sound after the Beatles, don’t exist, and I got excited, thinking the film might explore more of such possibilities. Instead, a bunch of random brands have been eliminated from the collective memory—for reasons that are never explained. Then there’s a rather ballsy twist toward the end of the film that will delight some viewers and possibly rankle others. I fall into the rankle category, but at least I admired the big swing the film took with it. Yesterday is perfectly pleasing entertainment (with the not insubstantial bonus of Beatles songs!), but frankly, it could’ve benefitted from taking a few more of those big swings.