What would you do if you woke up one day and realized you were the only one in the world who remembered the songs of The Beatles? It’s the kind of daydream many of us have had, usually combined with time travel — maybe you’d go back and dribble paint before Jackson Pollock, beat Agatha Christie to the mystery-novel racket or invent Twitter so you’d have the power to ban racist world leaders from the service. If you were screenwriter Richard Curtis, though, and you found yourself in a world where the Fab Four never made music, your course would be clear: somehow wrap the rediscovery of those songs into a Hollywood romance with only the most tenuous connection to the phenomenon of love as it is experienced on planet Earth.
A puzzling match for the directing talents of Danny Boyle, who generally likes a little more edge than is found here, Curtis’ Yesterday tells of an unsuccessful singer-songwriter (Himesh Patel’s Jack Malik) who becomes a worldwide star when he “writes” songs like “Let It Be” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” only to find his path to fame leads him far from the love of his life. Neither a no-nonsense delight like “She Loves You” nor the White Album-style head trip its premise might suggest, it’s more of a “Yellow Submarine” sort of film: crowd-pleasing and sometimes enjoyable, but pretty damned dumb when you stop to think about it.
We meet Jack as he busks the streets of Suffolk, endlessly strumming some ditty about the summer that fails to make listeners feel sunny. Even when he lands a spot at a big rock fest, nearly the only adults in his tent are his four or five loyal friends.
A nobody like this wouldn’t seem to need a manager, but Jack has one: Ellie (Lily James), who chauffeurs him to the occasional gig and gives much-needed pep talks. Some assume they’re a couple, but they’re not, and the viewer is left to draw the obvious conclusion: If they’re not together, it’s because she doesn’t like him that way. Midway through the film, an awkwardly dramatized scene will rely on us understanding that the opposite is true: She has secretly longed for him, but Jack never thought of Ellie as anything more than a sister.
This is not the usual movie-romance baloney, in which a duckling is ugly until the leading man gets a load of her third-act makeover. Ellie is as lovely and lovable at the pic’s start as at the end — more so, in fact, given her steadfast belief in Jack’s dubious gifts. Never convincing us that this unlikely dynamic is real, the film will compound things once Jack understands his heart’s mistake, having Ellie issue an extremely out-of-character ultimatum and pushing him away.
But back to the start. On the night that Jack finally decides he’s quitting music for good, a mysterious Y2K-style event somehow kills all the electricity on the planet for a moment or two. At the same instant, Jack is hit by a bus; when he awakens in the hospital the next day, he’s in a Beatles-free world.
The picture has some fun with this, as we should expect: Jack tries out a new guitar by strumming the move’s title song, and brings his friends to astonished tears. When he starts to understand what has happened, he spends the afternoon Googling “Beatles” and finding nothing but hard-shelled insects. Rolling Stones, yes; Beach Boys and Bowie, still here. Oasis? What do you think?
A tangent: Obviously, in a Beatles-free world, Noel and Liam Gallagher would never have had a hit. But Curtis makes only the oddest acknowledgements that the world would be changed in other ways. There’s no Coca-Cola in this universe? Okay, if you say so. But pretty much everything else in pop culture is as we know it. That’s both a giant failure of imagination and a silent insult to the impact of the songs we’re supposed to be honoring here.
Understanding that he’s the sole repository of pop music’s greatest catalog, Jack races to reconstruct everything he can from memory; when he has trouble recalling a song, Boyle helpfully transforms misremembered lyrics into a stop-and-start music video. When he finally gets some of them recorded and out into the world, the world notices: Ed Sheeran drops by Jack’s house and invites him to open for him on tour, where the nobody is soon upstaging the star. (The real-life pop star quickly concedes that Jack’s the better songwriter, and slinks away in awed defeat; but isn’t framing Sheeran as the Salieri to a Lennon/McCartney Mozart kind of overstating the achievements of Mr. In-Love-With-Your-Body?)
Commerce calls. Kate McKinnon plays the film’s most entertaining character, Debra, a music agent whose eagerness to milk Jack’s talent fits the Saturday Night Live performer’s gifts perfectly. McKinnon reins herself in a bit, looking Debra’s new find in the face while deadpanning a list of the ways he’s defective as a would-be pop icon. Still, she flies him out to Los Angeles for recording sessions, setting the star-making machine in motion. For some reason, Jack brings his tour roadie along: Joel Fry’s Rocky is rarely very successful as comic relief, and if his name was meant to trigger an “oh, I forgot that one!” moment for Jack, the recording of “Rocky Raccoon” did not make the film’s final cut.
Curtis’ script skips over some inconvenient questions (how does a perhaps-menacing stranger in Moscow wind up connecting with another odd bystander in Liverpool?) and chooses not to address philosophical ones that might ruin its fun: Isn’t it possible that the Beatles’ personalities had something to do with their success? That pop masterworks would elicit a very different, perhaps underwhelmed response if they were unveiled a half-century after they were written? The film instead digs into thwarted-love contrivances and a subplot about Jack’s conscience, a device that begins promisingly but builds to a wholly unbelievable climax.
Patel is likable in the lead, and casual Beatles fans will enjoy his performances of the many songs Jack re-composes. But it’s odd how little the film’s arrangements play with these sturdy songs. The only performance that really stretches is a live one of “Help!” in which Jack, nearly desperate in his offstage life by this point, rocks hard enough he seems to be crying out for rescue. The scene hints at a couple of directions Yesterday might have gone, instead of building to the kind of tiresome, forced romantic gesture that would be unsatisfying even if a supernatural blackout caused the world to forget every hack move in the rom-com playbook.
Production company: Working Title
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Richard Curtis
Producers: Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis, Bernard Bellew, Matthew James Wilkinson, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan
Executive producers: Liza Chasin, Lee Brazier, Nick Angel
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Patrick Rolfe
Costume designer: Liza Bracey
Editor: Jon Harris
Composer: Daniel Pemberton
Casting director: Gail Stevens
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes