Not such an easy game to play
The premise of “Yesterday,” a feel-good movie from that master of melodrama, Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire” 2008), is that only one person in the world remembers The Beatles and their songs. Boyle hauls out the Hollywood meme that one person has knowledge that others don’t, and we know that kind of knowledge is power (and fun). The classic of the genre is “Back to the Future” (1985), in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) goes back in time to meet his future parents and introduce 1955 teenagers to “Johnny B. Goode” and Chuck Berry’s “duck walk.” And there’s “Groundhog Day” (1993), with Phil (Bill Murray) using accumulated knowledge to court and win Rita (Andie MacDowell), who otherwise wouldn’t give him the time of day.
“Yesterday” won’t achieve the famed status of these two films, but it’s clever and charming and, through most of its run time, carefully assembled. It’s light stuff and it works. Unlike most of the knowledge-is-power films, it doesn’t rely on time travel. Instead, a 12-minute world-wide blackout somehow erases (almost) all memory and evidence of Coca-Cola, cigarettes, Harry Potter, and, central to the story, The Beatles. Our protagonist, the barely talented singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) retains partial memories of the Fab Four and their songs, and parlays that knowledge into super-stardom.
The film benefits in part from what doesn’t happen. Jack doesn’t become an immediate success; parents and neighbors don’t take him seriously, and early gigs find him struggling to be heard and appreciated, though he’s singing The Beatles’ songbook. Unlike the narrative arc in most “success” films, Jack doesn’t become a narcissistic jerk—even while his high-powered agent (Kate McKinnon) promises that she’s going to “corrupt” him, and even when he’s taken under the wing of pop star Ed Sheeran (played by the real Ed Sheeran, currently the biggest selling musician in the world). And because Jack’s knowledge of the lyrics of The Beatles is incomplete, he must actually struggle and work to recover words and phrasing from the fragments he recalls.
What makes the film especially poignant, and different from its famous predecessors, is that Jack’s knowledge—and his use of it to further his career—is understood to be illegitimate. Jack feels undeserving and guilty: the imposter syndrome. He’s fearful of being found out and condemned (and we’re afraid for him) and, as it turns out, there are others who have avoided the memory loss occasioned by the blackout, who also remember The Beatles, and who understand what Jack is up to. Will they out him?
These tensions, an understated but compelling performance by Patel, along with the sheer joy of hearing (and watching) the music being re-created and presented to adoring audiences, are the strengths of “Yesterday.” Yet it’s not a film without flaws. The music, played by a B-list musician, doesn’t rise to the level of other recent music-nostalgia films (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman”). Jack’s sidekick Rocky (Joel Fry), while necessary to the narrative, is neither a developed nor interesting character. “Saturday Night Live” alum McKinnon is brilliantly funny in her first scene as the agent Debra, but morphs into a caricature. Jack’s first agent and later love interest Ellie Appleton (Lily James), is the perfect girl next door, but she remains little more than a pretty face, there to stand by her man and provide a woman to make the inevitable couple.
Perhaps the least satisfying aspect of the film is its resolution of Jack’s situation. Of course he gets the girl, but as a musician he is condemned to a life of entertaining youth groups (and the like) with Beatles’ songs, a role that lacks creativity, originality and status and fails to tap into the desire and ambition that Jack once demonstrated as a struggling songwriter and performer. The worst didn’t happen to Jack — and the world is better off for what he did —but maybe the second worst did: a man without a career of his own.
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran (as himself), Kate McKinnon