Yesterday” isn’t the first movie to use Beatles songs as its foundation – see also 2001’s “I Am Sam” and 2007’s “Across the Universe” – but writers Jack Barth and Richard Curtis deserve credit for coming up with a killer hook. Struggling British singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) gets hit by a bus at the exact moment of a 30-second worldwide blackout and awakens to a planet that’s the same in every way except that the Beatles never existed.
The humor is exactly what you’d expect, but nonetheless it’s a lot of fun to watch Jack’s befuddled reaction to people who’ve never heard the Feb Four’s songs. He plays “Yesterday” for his friends – including manager and longtime bestie Elle (Lily James, “Baby Driver” and lots of proper British historical pieces) – and assumes they’re playing a cruel joke on him when they complement his songwriting. It’s not a joke but rather a gift: Jack can become a modern pop God by playing Beatles songs.
Director Danny Boyle’s film takes a lot of angles into Jack’s situation, commenting on the music industry, mass and individual music tastes, and songwriting ethics. Jack’s success (and struggles – after all, who knows the exact lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” without being able to look them up?) is humorous to watch, but there’s always an undertone where he feels uncomfortable, like he’s stealing. Adding a nice dash of mystery to the proceedings, a bearded guy pops up at all his concerts.
“Yesterday” slightly trips by trying to add a second through-line of humor via talent scout Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). The “SNL” veteran does her usual thing of playing the clichés broadly, trying to wring humor out of them. She gets a few good lines, but a little McKinnon goes a long way, and there’s too much of her in “Yesterday.”
It’s not much of an annoyance, though, because the film never strays far from its heart, which is the should-be romance between Jack and Elle. Even more of a fantasy element than the mass Beatles amnesia is the notion that Jack has friend-zoned Elle all his life. This is simply not a realistic portrayal of how straight guys see the girl next door when she looks kind of like Natalie Portman and is crushing on him. Still, James gets the desired reaction wherein we yell at the screen for Jack to wake up and smell the hottie.
Despite Jack’s inexplicable blind spot, Patel is a likeable lead. Although he is – as Debra says – “a skinny guy who is somehow round,” he has low-key charisma and chemistry with James. He also nails the Beatles tunes in that delicate range where he’s good enough that we can believe he’s making these songs popular again, yet he’d clearly still be a Joe Schmo Troubadour without these other-dimensional hits. Jack’s trademark original tune, “Summer Song,” is perfectly described by Debra: She hates it, but not enough to listen to it again to discover why she hates it.
Doing the opposite of McKinnon is Joel Fry as Rocky. He’s initially the loser who crashes on whatever couch he can find, but Jack’s roadie reveals hidden depth as “Yesterday” goes forward. Another nice surprise is Ed Sheeran playing himself, a musician whose voice you’ll recognize even if you don’t follow modern music; he’s remarkably ubiquitous for today’s era of diversified tastes. He gets fun little lines like – in response to Jack’s dad saying he looks like Ed Sheeran – “I am Ed Sheeran.”
Ultimately, “Yesterday” is a sweet-hearted dramedy that never strays too far from Beatles songs or the lovable, broken-hearted Elle. Indeed, when the novelty of the central premise wears thin, James keeps a viewer invested.