Danny Boyle’s Yesterday imagines a world in which all the people, living all around the world, had never heard of John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. That is, all except for struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), as he wakes up from a coma one day to find out songs such as “Hey Jude,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Yesterday,” and others were never conceived.
At this point, you would expect Rod Serling to pop around the corner and tell the audience that Jack has been transported into The Twilight Zone. Now that might have made Yesterday much more interesting than what Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love, Actually) have concocted. Instead, we get something that aims to be sweet while also getting you to tap your toes to the endless playlist of Beatles music. It, at least, accomplishes that latter part.
Patel is terrific as Jack, a man who almost gives up on the music industry after all of his gigs wind up being inside bars and other venues that get him nowhere. He’s talented, and his small fan base tells him that and to keep going. But he sees teaching as being something that is more profitable and will help him get by in life. But a worldwide blackout leads to Jack getting hit by a bus and going into a coma. When he wakes up, he performs “Yesterday,” which his former tour manager, Elle (Lily James), and other close friends fall in love with. They think it’s a song he originally wrote. But, when he says it belongs to The Beatles, they ask him the one question no die-hard fan wants to hear: Who?
The sudden blackout not only led to a crash that put Jack in a coma; it wiped clean everyone’s memory of one of the most popular bands to have graced the planet. None of their songs or history is even searchable on Google. So, Jack discovers how he can get some recognition for his craft, and that is to make everyone think all these songs he’s singing are actually his.
What do you know? It works. Jack becomes an overnight sensation, with millions of views on YouTube, Instagram, and other social media platforms. It even captures the attention of Ed Sheeran (playing himself, and, oh, so well).
But that’s where Yesterday begins to falter. By introducing this alternate universe, many things aside from the erasure of The Beatles are different. For example, cigarettes never existed. Saturday Night Live is now known as Thursday Night Live. These are all supposed to be jokes that Curtis and Boyle insert as something cutesy and funny but add nothing to the story. It gets to a point where one questions if it may have been more interesting to further explore what else is gone from history rather than just The Beatles.
Making his feature-film debut, Patel is not only able to carry the film on his own; he can also cover the songs of the Beatles tremendously. Even those who aren’t the biggest fans of the band can appreciate the incredible song performances. But watching a movie with good musical performances can only go so far.
There are certain scenes in the film in which Jack fears being discovered. Although this new world knows nothing about The Beatles, there’s this constant fear that someone will call him out for stealing their songs. The scenes in which he’s shown having nightmares are brief and don’t quite have the dramatic weight they should. It’s all lightly treaded, unfortunately, and makes one beg for more.
Yesterday exists more to be a love letter to the Beatles than it does to be a story about letting sudden fame get to your head. The moments of discovering your true self and finding what life is really all about take a back seat to Boyle and Curtis showing the audience just how much they adore the band and how you should, too. In the end, Yesterday is an intriguing premise, but certainly needed more than just a bunch of recognizable songs to make it worthwhile.