A world without the Beatles sounds a little bit like a world without sunshine or blue skies. As a member of one of the many generations born after the fab four even broke up—never mind Ed Sullivan—my awareness of their place in our culture is wordless. They’re as firm a foundation in Western music as Beethoven or Mozart. Hence why the premise of Yesterday could, on the surface, be some kind of dystopian Twilight Zone nightmare: One day after the power goes out all around the world, a struggling musician realizes he’s the only person alive who remembers the Beatles. But if it is a dash of Rod Serling styled magical realism, it’s the rosiest and most rainbow-encrusted twilight we’ve ever entered.
Captured with a jejune joyfulness, Yesterday, which was the closing night film at the Tribeca Film Festival, is presented by director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis as a kind of fizzy daydream that might occur on a beachside with too much wine and Abbey Road on rotation. Nothing more or less than a pleasant detour down the Beatles’ cultural imprint—by way of imagining if it occurred today—Yesterday is content at being simply a celebration of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and it’s one it’d be foolish to decline joining.
As much a pseudo-time machine to pop culture clichés of the 1990s and early ‘00s as the flower power generation—the era in which Curtis wrote and directed Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually—Yesterday begins and ends as a low-key romantic comedy of similar fairy tale logic. The type of logic that finds Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) as a failing singer-songwriter who is still happy-go-lucky enough to be playing to bored children next to idyllic English coastlines with his best mate/manager Ellie, one he incredulously has not noticed is played by Lily James or is hopelessly in love with him. Why else would she, as a full-time teacher, spend her weekends driving his guitar to one bad gig after another?
Yet even Jack’s optimism has its limits. Fortuitously, however, on the same day that he gives up on being a musician he is also in a nasty collision with a bus while riding his bicycle. But to be fair to that driver, electricity from all over the world had literally blanked off at that moment, from New York to Tokyo. Liverpool seems to have been hardest hit though since when Jack wakes up, he discovers no one remembers the Beatles or has heard any of their music. Even their records in his vinyl collection have vanished as if into thin air.
Amusingly, this is one of several pop culture staples we learn throughout the movie that have been erased, but it’s the Beatles that’ll be the most useful for Jack since he quickly seizes on the idea that he can pass off their songs as his own. Soon he’s on a haphazard rise to fame, fortune, and friendship with the likes of Ed Sheeran—even as this popularity takes him away from his small town life and Ellie, the woman he realizes he might love after she chooses to stay behind and remain a provincial music teacher.
The emphasis of education is an important one in Yesterday. On the surface, there’s an intriguing values contrast between the gaudy and greedy world of corporate America when Jack goes to Los Angeles and Ellie’s devotion to making sure her children have the same teacher throughout the year. But more than city mouse versus country mouse, the theme underscores the potency in Boyle’s light touch: His film is a crash course in remembering the importance of the Beatles’ legacy.
That might sound trite, but the movie finds a much more creative and earnest way to honor a pop star act than the myriad of emptyheaded musical biopics we’ve been inundated with for decades. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody or any other version of the Dewey Cox story, Boyle and Curtis discover an unfamiliar road that still basks in the Beatles’ musicality by studying the type of hole their absence would leave. Thus when Jack begins to fill it, even for his own gain by tasting, as Kate McKinnon’s delicious record producer surmises, “The poisoned chalice of fame and money,” he is still acting as the good teacher by passing the Beatles’ history onto a new generation—and that goes to audiences too who are forced to reconsider the poetry and potency of Lennon-McCartney and Harrison compositions.
As the conduit to pass that on, Patel is a genuine discovery in the role of Jack. Introduced as another bearded millennial burnout, he is slowly revealed in a star turn to be a charismatic lead that not only does justice to the Beatles’ songbook one cover at a time (though he is especially great at “Back in the USSR” and “The Long and Winding Road”) but can also carry the movie often above its stereotypical plotting.
For while it is a sincere love letter to the 1960s’ most transcendent pop act, as a narrative it is up to Patel and James’ natural charm to carry through a very by-the-numbers romance. Suffering from a rather forced conflict of Jack and Ellie being able to only express their feelings when they’re on different continents, James continues to be a performative acrobat, elevating material to somewhere closer to her level, just as she did with the Mamma Mia! sequel/prequel that Curtis also contributed the story of. She’s also complemented well by Patel and a visual dynamism by Boyle that attempts to evoke Beatles record labels and general ‘60s pop art graphics, thereby burying conventions under creative excess—Daniel Pemberton’s wry musical score also proves prudent, particularly when it samples the cacophonic crescendo in “A Day in the Life” whenever things get heavy.
It mostly works, but one can be forgiven for shrugging at the fairly pat ending, as well as the fact that other than one hilarious dig at a certain ‘90s era college alt-rock band, the movie largely ignores how different pop music would be if the Beatles never existed. It’s simply more telling that of all the major pop culture touchstones that this blackout snaps out of existence, the Beatles are the only one you realize you’d truly miss (although some fanboys and fangirls may beg to differ at one below-the-belt erasure).
Nevertheless, it is the music scene where Yesterday has the most fun. Ed Sheeran’s cameo-plus-plus as an early supporter of the unknown Jack Malik and then the bloke who realizes he’s gotten left behind will launch a thousand memes. He’s like John the Baptist realizing the messiah is at hand. That last line is also spoken by McKinnon’s Mandi, a scene-stealing comic MVP in the movie. Just layered enough to feel like a real corporate narcissist and not another SNL character, McKinnon’s wolfish smile and constantly calculating eyes should be considered a star turn in their own right and further proof Hollywood needs to start offering her leading roles.
All of these elements buttress Yesterday’s main mission of paying worship to the church of the four apostles. It could have been a little more or subversive about its vision of Beatles-free pop, but the homage is well earned and keenly executed in such a winsome package that it has all the markings of the sleeper hit of the summer. For when Patel picks up his guitar and croons, it feels like years since the multiplex’s been this clear.
Yesterday premiered at Tribeca on May 4 and opens nationwide on June 28.