When you’ve got Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually) collaborating on a film about The Beatles, it seems pointless to judge it by any other metric than the Marie Kondo philosophy: does it spark joy? In the case of Yesterday, a blindingly sunny ball of charisma, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel in his film debut) is an aspiring singer/songwriter who’s one bad gig away from throwing in the towel completely. He has approximately one diehard fan, his best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James), who also happens to be not-so-secretly in love with him. After playing a kiddie tent at a music festival, he decides to cut his losses and go back to teaching, the career path he had chosen before trying to pursue music full-time. His mind is made up.
Until he bikes home one night in the rain and is hit by a truck during a mysterious power failure that engulfs the entire world in momentary darkness. When he wakes up in the hospital (sans two teeth), everything seems normal. Mostly. Except that when his friends gift him a new guitar to make up for the one that got smooshed in the bike accident and he breaks it in with “Yesterday”, they act as though they never heard it before.
That’s because they haven’t.
Somehow, the blackout erased all memory of the Beatles (along with a handful of other cultural touchpoints) from the world. Which is, you know, awful for civilization, but potentially a really great opportunity for a singer who can now pass himself off as the writer of some of the twentieth century’s greatest songs.
Jack’s journey into the underbelly of the music industry is chaotic (his Mephistopheles is Kate McKinnon, full of malevolent glee as she tempts him with fame and fortune), and he spends the majority of the film panic-stricken and guilt-ridden. Success was supposed to be the thing that made his life fulfilling, but instead, he just feels lost. How can he find a way to honor the music that everyone else has forgotten, without spending his life as a fraud on a global scale?
Yesterday is, put simply, impossible not to be charmed by. How can anyone resist a soundtrack full of Beatles music, lovingly rendered by star-in-the-making Patel, who shows incredible poise and charisma in a musically demanding role? Full of endearing performances across the board and at least a few genuinely touching moments (one of which is a well-executed surprise that I wouldn’t dare spoil), Yesterday succeeds through sheer force of good will. How rare and how delightful it is to see such an entirely uncynical film outside of the G-rated children’s genre! (And also it behoves me to mention that Yesterday must have used some kind of sorcery in the making of this film because Ed Sheeran has a not-insignificant role in the proceedings and I am mostly on board with it?)
It’s a film engineered to make audiences smile, but it also has a lovely little message about preserving art and passing it along so that others can enjoy it. The Beatles hardly seem like they’re about to be forgotten anytime soon, but the point is well-taken that if you find yourself as the custodian of some piece of music or art or novel that you love, you owe it to the world to protect its memory. And how on earth can you criticize that?
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Cast: Himesh Patel, Ana de Armas, Lily James, Kate McKinnon
Release Date: 28th June 2019