There’s an alternate reality version of myself who is probably in love with Yesterday. My undergraduate years were characterized by musical discovery across a wide range of genre and time periods, but The Beatles was one of those bands where I enthusiastically devoured as much as I could as often as I could. And they absolutely deserve their place in the annals of rock history, not just for the seminal work they created in eight years’ time but for the influence they propagated in their contemporaries and the musical acts of decades to come. But Beatlemania is also something that a lot of us grow out of after the whimsy of that initial discovery, and while we retain that love for the band we move on to other things and come to realize that one band is not the end-all-be-all of musical innovation. Yesterday is entirely steeped in that sort of fanatical devotion to the band, and while it manages to be a bit more thoughtful and charming than one might expect from something so narrowly driven, it also can’t help but remind you just how obnoxious Beatles diehards can be.
The plot of Yesterday is a form of nightmare wish fulfillment that doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny upon close examination, but it is completely indicative of the sort of mindset one would have to fantasize about being a modern Beatle. A global blackout leaves most of the world with collective amnesia about the existence and impact of The Beatles, and only struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) remembers the band or their songs. Realizing an opportunity to actually build a career from himself, he starts singing and performing the songs, only to be discovered by Ed Sheeran (playing himself) as a prodigy who grows to overshadow Sheeran’s alleged brilliance. (Yesterday has nearly as much bizarre reverence for Sheeran as it does The Beatles, which either speaks to screenwriter Richard Curtis’ love of Sheeran or Sheeran’s inflated ego.) But, of course, Jack’s meteoric rise to fame comes with costs to his personal life, most notably to his relationship with his former manager Ellie (Lily James).
If you wanted to see a world fundamentally transformed by the decimation of The Beatles’ influence on popular culture, Yesterday is strangely unconcerned with those logistics, as the blackout only seems to have erased random staples of popular culture such as Coca-Cola, Harry Potter, and the band Oasis, though that last one might actually be a somewhat unfair dig at the band’s derivative nature. Instead, Danny Boyle directs the hell out of a relatively bog-standard imposter’s rags-to-riches narrative with the Beatles’ sudden non-existence as the high-concept hook, and while the film does take the time to examine the commercial nature of pop stardom and the soul-wrenching consequences of that stardom that likely affected The Beatles themselves, Boyle is much more concerned with delivering a love letter to the music with an eclectic and endearing cast of characters. Patel is a successfully incredulous straight man to a world gone mildly mad, but the show is continually stolen by Jack’s perpetually oblivious father (Sanjeev Bhaskar), his dumb but well-meaning roadie (Joel Fry), and his cynically wealth-obsessed new agent (Kate McKinnon). Yesterday is full of humorous performances that help to elevate the material’s hackneyed takes on music fame and imposter syndrome, so much so that it’s almost enough to help you forget how obnoxiously it perceives The Beatles as universally unassailable.
But then suddenly, Yesterday’s not half the film it used to be, when it introduces its romantic elements. At first, it seems like Curtis’ screenplay will circumvent the tired trope of the virginal small-town girl whose affection the hero needs to win back, as both Jack and Ellie vehemently state that they have a strictly manager-musician relationship built on a foundation of friendship. Their chemistry is tangible, but it doesn’t feel romantic until the script forces Ellie into a drunken confession of her feelings, so thus begins the tedium of watching two characters who didn’t feel romantically interlinked force a different sort of chemistry than was originally established for the sake of familiar story beats. It would have been nice to see a version of this where the female best friend wasn’t reduced to a literal longing for yesterday, and the desperate gestures that the film tries to convince us are romantic actually paint Jack as a stalker and a creep. At one point Ellie bemoans the fact that Jack put her in the “friend zone,” but it’s Jack who refuses to let her live a life of her own once he gets an inkling that she’s interested. Call me new-fashioned, but these might be some tropes better left in the past.
Yesterday is intermittently funny and probably a bit more industry savvy than its marketing would lead you to believe, but it’s also perpetually bogged down by appeals to antiquity and unreserved reverence for a band that owed at least some of their musical godhood to how they were marketed as such. I had fun with it, but I also feel like if I brought my mom, she’d have even more fun with it. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s also a sign that maybe the way it invokes familiar tunes overshadows its potential to build upon the lessons of the past.