By Chic DiCiccio
The premise of “Yesterday” is fascinating. What if someone woke up one day and The Beatles never existed, but one person could recall all their songs? If that person were a musician, they would have a bevy of songs to pawn off as their own thus catapulting them to fame and fortune. But that would come with a price, most notably the knowledge that your genius is fraudulent.
That is the jumping off point of “Yesterday,” which lays that dilemma at the feet of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), an aspiring musician who plays to mostly empty pubs in Suffolk, England. Jack is hit by a bus during a global blackout that triggers an unexplained cosmic memory wipe. When he wakes and sings “Yesterday” for his pals, he finds that they have never heard the song before. One friend even has the audacity to say “it’s not Coldplay” to him, which makes no sense as there wouldn’t be a Coldplay without The Beatles, but it’s best not to dig that deep into the logic here.
Jack quickly learns that the Fab Four has indeed been erased from existence and he proceeds to crib as many of their songs that he can remember. This lands him on a local TV show where he performs “In My Life” and attracts the attention of Ed Sheeran (playing himself), who again … would not exist as a musician if not for The Beatles.
He’s quickly approached by Sheeran’s manager, Debra (Kate McKinnon), who whisks him away from his childhood best friend/manager, Ellie (Lily James). Debra is cold, calculated, cynical and sees Jack as nothing more than a revenue stream. His popularity skyrockets and is only equaled by his level of guilt over what he’s done.
There are loads of patented Richard Curtis screenplay tweeks in “Yesterday,” with the main running joke being different people not recognizing greatness when Jack does. His parents continually interrupt “Let It Be” and Sheeran himself recommends changing “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.” Jack does little to make these songs personal to him and seems to just be a walking karaoke machine, but he can’t quite remember those pesky “Eleanor Rigby” lyrics.
Danny Boyle directed “Yesterday,” but you’d never know it. There is little of the Boyle flair that can usually elevate material (like “Steve Jobs” or “127 Hours”) to more than it is on the page. He and Curtis clearly want to celebrate The Beatles, but their music is more of a backdrop where an audience will say, “Oh, I know that one, too” then move along.
The real story lies in the romance (or lack thereof) between Jack and Ellie, which clearly will have a happy ending. James is fantastic as the friend zoned pal that adores Jack for who he is but is ignored at every turn. Patel performs the songs and his comedic timing is fantastic, but their love is always an inevitability, never an uncertainty.
That’s the biggest problem with “Yesterday.” It’s hard to believe that a human being wouldn’t notice that his or her best friend of almost 20 years is actually in love with them and wants their relationship to be more than just buddies. Curtis’ script desires to build up a “will they or won’t they” plot and it never really gains any steam.
There’s nothing too egregious about “Yesterday,” but it doesn’t hit the self-inspection depths that it strives to reach. It’s fun, crowd-pleasing, but never truly challenging. It plays the rom-com hits and never comes close to a deep cut.