Imagine if the Beatles had never existed. It was devastating enough for me as a teenager when the band broke up. How could life as we know it go on? If there had never been any Beatles, I rationalized grimly, at least we wouldn’t know what we’d missed.
In his audacious new movie Yesterday, director Danny Boyle poses an even gnarlier idea: suppose The Beatles had existed, and enjoyed their incredible nine years of productivity together—but then suddenly disappeared from the collective memory of basically everyone on Earth? Everyone but one guy. Imagine the potential for comedy (not to mention plunder and exploitation) if that guy were a struggling singer-songwriter who could take his pick from the entire song catalog of the Fab Four, certain that no one in the audience had ever heard of John, Paul, George, or Ringo.
Scripted by veteran Richard Curtis (Four Weddings And A Funeral; Love Actually), for the ever genre-bouncing Boyle, Yesterday is a sly, persuasive morality play about the wages and nature of success dressed up as a pop-cultural comedy. It’s also entertaining as hell, especially for those of us who do remember The Beatles, thank you very much, and will appreciate every in-joke, downbeat, visual and audio cue Boyle employs with such shameless glee throughout his tall tale.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is marginally employed as a stock clerk at a big-box warehouse store in his native Suffolk, England. But he lives to sing and play guitar at neighborhood pubs and sparsely attended local festivals, gigs arranged by his self-appointed manager, Ellie (Lily James), his longtime best friend and most ardent cheerleader.
On the night Jack is ready to give up on his dream, his bike is clipped by a bus. After he wakes up in the hospital, minus a couple of broken teeth, everything is the same—except that when he plays “Yesterday” on the new guitar Ellie buys him, no one has ever heard of the song before. Or Paul McCartney. Sure enough, when he rushes home and Googles “Beatles,” all that comes up are pictures of shiny black insects.
Apparently a 12-second global blackout has shifted Jack into an alternate reality where his friends, family, life, and culture are the same (except for a few other random omissions that are some of the movie’s funniest throwaway jokes). But despite his initial protests that the music is not his, when he switches his playlist to Beatle songs, acclaim follows. His video on the warehouse company channel goes viral. Ed Sheeran (playing himself) pops round to take him on tour to Moscow (guess which song is a big hit there). A slinky, shamelessly craven L.A. agent (the hilariously acerbic Kate McKinnon) lands Jack a deal with a ginormous record label. (When he tries to sneak one of his own original songs into the session, she airily decrees it “Simple, without being charming.”)
The tension between how much Jack is willing to sacrifice of himself for the fame he thinks he wants gives the story depth. Meanwhile Boyle riffs cheerfully on Beatles iconography. The band’s career stages are cleverly referenced in Jack’s early black-and-white promo stills, skinny suits and later Help-era turtleneck. During the slo-mo bus impact, the music swells in an eerie remix of those closing notes from “A Day In The Life.”
Boyle also fools around with the notion that even the most celebrated legacy suffers when separated from its context. People keep trying to “improve” the song lyrics (“Hey Dude,” anyone?) or Jack’s Beatles-inspired suggestions for album titles. When someone asks him what “a hard day’s night,” actually means, Jack doesn’t know.
Patel is wholly engaging as the conflicted Jack. James is both radiant and playful, and Joel Fry is excellent as an embarrassingly clueless buddy who achieves maturity on the road with Jack. And a lovely what-if scene toward the end ties it all up on an irresistible grace note.
**** (out of four)
With Himesh Patel and Lily James. Written by Richard Curtis. Directed by Danny Boyle. A Universal release. Rated PG-13. 117 minutes.