The latest cinematic ode to The Beatles meekly attempts to answer its own pointless question: what if The Beatles never existed? Sorry, what if they did exist, but then an unexplained blackout causes any proof of their existence to be erased from the Earth, except for the memory of one aspiring singer? Despite its occasional charm, Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle, is a saccharine, oversimplified, and deranged homage to the music of The Beatles.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) wants to be a successful singer, but he’s stuck playing bars, birthday parties, and empty festival tents. His biggest fan is his manager Ellie (Lily James, never not charming), who is biased because she’s secretly in love with him. After a particularly sparse gig, Jack decides to quit. While riding home on his bike, the entire world experiences a 12-second blackout, causing a bus to hit him. When he awakes in the hospital, he discovers that none of his friends remember The Beatles, and there are no traces of them online. Even his record collection is absent of their music. Other things have disappeared too, like Coca-Cola and Oasis, but he only cares about The Beatles. After realizing this cataclysmic shift in the universe, Jack’s immediate instinct is to furiously jot down as many lyrics and chords to Beatles’ songs as he can remember, so he can play them and get famous.
And famous he gets! One thing leads to another, and Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran) brings Jack on tour, connects him with a manager, and puts him on the fast track to fame. The track to fame is so fast because every Beatles song is the most beautiful, incredible song anyone has ever heard. Ellie, whose main personality trait is that she’s Jack’s number one fan, can’t come along on the journey because she’s a school teacher. Their longtime friendship maintains, but when Ellie starts seeing someone else, Jack realizes he’s losing what’s truly important. (How he realizes this is too deranged to spoil.)
Given the outlandishness of the premise, you’d think Yesterday would do more with its question, maybe venturing into Twilight Zone-type territory. Instead, the film takes the simplest, lamest possible route. It’s like if someone asked, “Do you want to go the scenic route? It will only take a minute longer,” and you replied, “No, I’d rather go by the strip malls.” Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis could’ve thoughtfully examined whether or not The Beatles’ music would be as popular in 2019 as it was in 1964, instead of automatically assuming it would be.
When Jack finally meets two others who also remember The Beatles, they thank him for keeping the music alive, saying “a world without The Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse.” If The Beatles hadn’t existed, the world would be different, but still normal. A more intriguing story would be one where Jack plays Beatles songs, and they don’t become popular. Or maybe one that examines Jack plagiarizing The Beatles, who themselves plagiarized often.
It also can’t be stressed enough how casually the movie dismisses these massive global changes. It’s casually mentioned, for example, that cigarettes don’t exist. Cigarettes! Can you imagine? A movie about an alternate timeline where cigarettes are erased from the memory of all but a few people is way more fascinating than what would happen if a British boy band disappeared.
Even for the biggest Beatles fan, this movie won’t hold much appeal. It doesn’t reimagine the band’s music or reinvigorate their songs with new life. And honestly, the morning after watching it, the song that was stuck in my head was “Shape of You.”