It’s always a fun thought experiment to try and work out how the world would change if major events never took place, but it’s impossible to completely tally up the ramifications. It’s this problem that most damages Yesterday, Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’s high-concept romcom that posits – ‘what if the Beatles were wiped from existence and only one man remembered their music?’ It’s an intriguing question, one that allows for an ethically sticky but still breezy and fun rise to fame story, but in failing to reckon with how world culture would actually be affected by such an event, Yesterday ends up feeling frustratingly empty.
The one Beatles-rememberer is Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a profoundly unsuccessful singer-songwriter from Essex who is knocked unconscious just as the worldwide mind-wipe occurs. Armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s songs, Jack sets about reintroducing the world to their music, all the while making a name for himself as the planet’s greatest popstar. Yesterday’s story rattles along at an enjoyably rapid pace, never getting boring but also never feeling like it’s making the most of its premise – the loss of the Beatles has meant the loss of Oasis, but otherwise nothing notable has changed, with even the British Invasion of the ‘60s still having apparently taken place.
Curtis’s script further undoes itself by chucking in other things that were wiped from existence for a cheap laugh – some of which would have changed the world so profoundly that it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief. If the fantasy side of things doesn’t work, though, the more human story and the actual performances do, with Patel giving a real star turn in what is sure to be a major breakout role. He’s lovably goofy and surprisingly affecting, and can really belt out a Beatles number.
Lily James has less to work with as schoolteacher Ellie, Jack’s best friend and biggest (initially only) fan who is head over heels in love with him. Their romance takes a backburner at points to the wish-fulfilment story, but James gets the most she possibly can out of the role, keeping the love story compelling. Joel Fry is also great as Jack’s drunken but utterly loyal road manager, Rocky, often threatening to steal the whole film. Perhaps most impressive on the performance side of things, though, is Ed Sheeran, gamely parodying himself and nailing the best joke of the whole film.
Boyle’s typically conspicuous stylistic flourishes don’t always land, but he can really muster up an involving set-piece, including a rooftop performance of ‘Help’ so exhilarating that it briefly washes away all the film’s flaws and just lets you bask in the music and excitement. It’d be hard to make the Beatles back catalogue un-involving, but credit to Boyle for how well he conjures up the thrill of hearing a great song for the first time. You’ll leave the cinema humming all your favourite Beatles tracks, which does seem like Yesterday’s primary goal, and, as a celebration of the Fab Four, there are pleasures to be had in this unabashedly sentimental tribute.