What if you had a dream, a seemingly impossible one? And what if, one day by some freak occurrence, some unexplained act of nature and science and magic and who-knows-what, you suddenly had the power to make that dream come true? Excep … what if you made your dream come true by taking something from someone else, instead of using something of your own?
That is essentially the question posed by director Danny Boyle’s newest film, Yesterday. Our protagonist is a Jack Malick (Himesh Patel), a down-on-his luck singer/guitarist/songwriter, playing weddings and children’s birthday parties and open mics, dreaming of the big times but never coming much closer to it. He has manager of sorts — his childhood friend and schoolteacher Ellie (Lily James) and a roadie of even worst sorts — the drunken, itinerant goofball Rocky (Joel Fry). Until one night, the world goes completely dark without any explanation. Jack gets hit by a car and wakes up in a world where no one has ever heard of The Beatles and — more critically for him — no one has ever heard any of their music. Except for Jack, it seems. Jack promptly parlays this into ever-expanding fame, pretending to write the songs that have moved generations of people, and eventually explodes into becoming an international superstar.
From there, Jack is faced with a barrage of choices and conflicts — about Ellie and sorting out his feelings for her, about fame and what it means to him, about whether he wants to go along with the mercenary but successful instincts of his predatory new manager, Deborah (a delightfully heartless Kate McKinnon), whether he wants to abandon everything he once was to become something that he … might not actually deserve to be. That’s the question that’s the crux of Yesterday: what if you achieved the fame of The Beatles, if your music was loved by millions … but it was all unearned?
It’s an interesting question. And the answer that Danny Boyle gives us is an interesting one, even if sometimes it feels like he’s pulling his punches. I will freely and willingly admit that I … really loved this film. It’s sweet, it’s charming, it’s funny. How it affects each viewer will be dependent on a few things — first and foremost, how you feel about The Beatles. They’re a group that I have a deep and loving connection to, due to a parade of songs that I grew up with, learned by hearing my father sing along, learned by listening to my uncle play their tunes on the guitar around campfires, something almost constant in my childhood. If they’re not your thing, then a solid chunk of the film — the one that plays heavily with nostalgia — is going to be lost on you, feel heavy-handed and mawkish. And to be honest? That’s valid. Boyle lays it on thick, and if anything, the film is at its worst when it leans too hard into the idea that The Beatles are the greatest thing that’s ever happened to music. It totters into sentimentality and starts to choke on its own cloying emotion.
But fortunately for the most part? That’s not what the film is. Ultimately the film is about Jack, and how he deals with this strange blessing and the guilt that comes with it. Jack becomes an overnight sensation, but he can never quite shake the feeling that he doesn’t deserve it. That dilemma is the film at its best. That sense of unease, of imbalance, of shame that you weren’t good enough but that you cheated your way in — Patel does a terrific job of showing how Jack runs this gauntlet of emotions and how he plans to deal with it. Patel is marvelous as Jack, a sweet, glum young fellow who never quite seems to believe his own good fortune, even when fame is knocking at his door (quite literally at one point, when Ed Sheeran shows up at his house after hearing one of his performances).
Boyle makes a smart decision here by focusing less on “what would the world be like without The Beatles” and more on “what would your life be like if you — without earning it — became The Beatles. Yes, Jack can sing and play guitar and has a gift for showmanship, but he knows, in the dark part of his heart, that everything he does is built on a lie. A lie that can literally ever be found out, which makes it that much more intriguing.
The film is anchored by some very good performances, too. Lily James does great work as Ellie, even though the character is underwritten and deserved to be more than the pining friend. McKinnon is hilarious as a ruthless, heartless vampire of a record executive who is all the while refreshingly honest about it. Even Ed Sheeran — whose music I don’t particularly care for — is surprisingly fun here, letting the film take endless potshots at him and being an excellent sport about it.
If there’s a real complaint to be had about Yesterday, it’s that it could have been more. It could have delved deeper into the evolution of pop music, into what the musical landscape would be like without The Beatles (prime example being, how does Ed Sheeran become Ed Sheeran without The Beatles?). The question of just how important are The Beatles is ultimately unanswered. But … that’s not the movie Boyle set out to make. Instead, he made a more intimate, personal one, a love story both about a man and a woman, but also a man and his music. And he does so by injecting enough heart and sweetness and levity to keep it firmly on its relatively predictable rails, sometimes teetering precariously towards cheesy, but mostly just staying the course and letting you enjoy the story built around that music that we know so well.
Header Image Source: Universal