What if the Beatles had never existed? This delicious movie, from Notting Hill screenwriter Richard Curtis, explores just how sad that would be while also paying tribute to the Fab Four. Yesterday is nothing if not fan fiction.
With the feel of a modern fairy tale, this comedic fantasy kicks off by introducing us to Jack Malik (lovable British TV actor Himesh Patel, in his big-screen debut), our crooning, guitar-slinging hero. All he wants to do is warm up this cold world with some well-crafted songs, stirringly sung to appreciative audiences.
Unfortunately, the reality is a bummer. Though he does have a knack for songcraft and a lilting, rich voice, no one seems to give a flying fig. Despite his talents and energies, and those of his indefatigable gal pal/manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), Jack routinely faces half-empty bars and no opportunity to get his music out into the world. He is forced to take a job at a big-box warehouse to pay the bills. Is it time to give up his musical dream?
Jack thinks so and is biking back home from his latest flop when he is hit by a bus. When Jack awakens from his accident, he finds out he is the only person alive (he thinks) to remember The Beatles.
Of course, he doesn’t realize this immediately, but after a series of events (he plays “Imagine” for his friends and they all think he wrote it himself; he Googles The Beatles and the bug pops up instead of the band), Jack slowly clues in to what has happened and an opportunity presents itself. Can Jack take credit for the Beatles’ songs?
Viewers will like Jack and relate to him. It’s hard not to. We understand that Jack is a good guy, down on his luck. But how far will he push this colossal misunderstanding? Pretty far, as it turns out. He takes baby steps to figure out if he can really get away with claiming and performing Beatles music as his own, and soon events snowball until he is in way over his head.
Ed Sheeran plays himself quite winsomely, as he asks newcomer Jack to open for his tour as he admires “Jack’s songs.” Saturday Night Live star Kate MacKinnon plays a power-hungry agent who will remind you of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert as she dangles fame and fortune before Jack’s humble eyes.
The fleeting and vapid nature of fame is a subplot here as Jack wrestles with his conscience. Sure, he is experiencing success beyond his wildest dreams, but at what cost? He venerates John, Paul, George and Ringo’s artistry and has a harder and harder time appropriating it for his own gain, though part of him truly wants to “save” their music. He can’t imagine a world devoid of it.
Beatles’ fans will enjoy the 20 song snippets from the Liverpudlians’ catalog, although the small tastes of these fab songs will leave them wanting more. (Although, you will be humming “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” et al for days afterward.)
Patel and James’s chemistry buzzes along pleasantly. Like Notting Hill’s couple, movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) and bookseller William Thacker (Hugh Grant), Jack and Ellie’s sweet relationship is both forged and tested by the demanding idol of fame. Will they get past the fraudulent and frivolous to a place of authentic love? You don’t know for sure until the end, but it’s fun to cheer them on anyway. (Universal Pictures)