Yesterday is about a singer-songwriter who gets hit by a bus, wakes up in a world where The Beatles never existed, and achieves worldwide fame by passing Beatles songs off as his own—just some encouragement for aspiring filmmakers who don’t think their crazy movie idea will ever sell. Where’d this weird concept come from? Maybe screenwriter Richard Curtis had to scrap his original Beatles musical after he saw Across the Universe, or maybe Universal Pictures could only afford the song rights if a non-Beatle provided the vocals. How else could they have negotiated the low price of $10 million?
Anyway, Yesterday is a real movie, and it knows how preposterous it is: you wouldn’t cast Lily James as the dorky, overlooked best friend if you weren’t already operating in the land of nonsense. The other half of the movie’s will they/won’t they duo is Jack Malik, a musician whose career is going pretty miserably until he’s suddenly the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles. After Jack decides to become the lone Beatle of this new reality, he quickly ascends the ranks of the music business, but risks losing the only person who believed in him when he was playing pubs in Suffolk.
Jack Malik is portrayed by Himesh Patel in his feature film debut, and for a first-timer on the silver screen, Patel is absolute gold. He acts with just as much range as he sings—and his voice is worthy of the Beatles mantle. His chemistry with Lily James is so electric that it’ll send butterflies into your stomach when you’re watching them onscreen. James has been given frizzy hair in an attempt to obscure her reputation as a beauty icon, but it’s her convincingly bashful performance that really brings authenticity to the role.
Also playing their part with aplomb is Danny Boyle, despite seeming like an odd choice for director of this particular movie. Yesterday is a reminder of how joyously kinetic his style can be when it’s not papered over something as self-serious as Trance or T2 Trainspotting. Boyle brings an infectious energy to the movie that we haven’t seen out of him since Slumdog Millionaire—perhaps his new niche is crowd-pleasers starring characters with the last name Malik.
But what about the Beatles of it all? Poised with bubblegum pop simplicity, Yesterday allows itself to be a straightforward celebration of Liverpool’s fab four. Both the filmmakers and the characters are invested in providing an enjoyable Beatles experience. As the movie progresses, the musical focus is drowned out by the (admittedly formulaic) romance, but that’s kind of the point: Yesterday’s well-dispersed musings on fame and authorship suggest that our life soundtrack is really about the guest appearances.
Deeper looks into this subject are brought up but never explored. One evocative shot touches on the relationship between celebrity culture and economic well-being, but the theme is dropped as soon as it’s insinuated. Though it could be more meaningful at multiple turns, Yesterday prefers to remain another effective romance from the writer of Notting Hill and Love Actually—add a little Beatles flavor, and it comes together quite well.