The vibe of Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” is so delightful and infectious that, for most of the film, all the troubles with the plot seem so far away. Fans of The Beatles could be charmed into willingly, even joyfully, suspending disbelief during this story in which, after a freak global power outage, certain massive pop culture presences suddenly never existed. This charming, nonsensical romp asks you to imagine there’s no Beatles, and it’s easy if you try to ignore all the glaring holes in logic and focus on the fun.
Yes, every beloved Beatles’ song is erased and forgotten in an instant, with the lone exception of a talented but unsuccessful singer named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel). Coca-Cola, cigarettes, Harry Potter and presumably many other unexplored touchstones and inventions are erased from existence and the collective consciousness of humanity. Fortunately Jack got hit by a bus the moment the lights went out all over the world, and somehow, all the catchy tunes and most of the Beatles’ lyrics remain in his mind. Lucky for humanity, he knows how to play music and decides to try to pass the songs off as his own.
Lily James (“Downton Abbey,” “Cinderella”) co-stars as Jack’s long-suffering best friend Ellie, a lovely young lady who believes in and promotes his talent, driving him to gigs and, in a plot point almost as unbelievable as the Beatles’ one, pining unrequitedly for him. With a little help from his friends, the erstwhile Beatles, the rest of the world starts to like Jack as much as Ellie does when his newfound fame grows.
The introduction of this concept is the best part of the film. The viewer’s mind reels with all the possible directions this nutty story might take, and it is undeniably pleasurable to watch Ellie, Jack and an enthusiastic local record producer lay down the track for “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” These scenes play to the film’s strengths: charming actors, unfiltered Beatles nostalgia and thrillingly unanswered questions about where this premise will lead.
Unfortunately, this premise does not lead nearly as far as it might; it leaves so many unanswered questions and ignored threads. The concept of an immigrant (Jack is of South Asian descent) appropriating these quintessentially British cultural treasures is full of interesting potential, absolutely none of which is mentioned or explored at any point.
Jack is a failed musician who only becomes successful with his stolen songs; when he tries to sneak one of his own tunes in, it is roundly rejected. Several times, people ask Jack who inspired his songs or how his process works, and he has little to say. We cannot really pull for him as an artist, because we are left to assume that perhaps he is not one. This is another avenue that just hangs in the air.
This is a romantic movie primarily, written by Richard Curtis of “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” fame. As such, this charming story often cried “Love Me, Do,” but the lack of internal logic nagged at me. The premise is science fiction, but the film is not committed to exploring and maintaining the rules of an invented universe like a science fiction film must. Once we accept that this weird thing happened, there is no further explanation or explication of it.
With one huge exception at the end of the film, which you will either find bewitchingly wonderful or offensive and creepy, all other implications of a world with no Beatles are left unexplored, and this is ultimately a love story about choosing between fame and love, with a particularly good soundtrack.
Having pointed out the many shortcomings of “Yesterday,” it should be noted that I absolutely loved the silly thing. I grinned like an idiot when Jack played the title song for his friends, who, impressed by having heard it for the first time, declared it nice but not as good as Coldplay. I clapped like a seal when Ed Sheeran, having forlornly declared Jack the Mozart to his Salieri, suggests that “Hey Jude” might be better as “Hey Dude.” It is easy to point out the things that don’t make sense in “Yesterday,” but it is even easier to enjoy. The message that “All You Need is Love” is simplistic and dopey but, hey, it worked for The Beatles.
“Yesterday” is currently available to rent.
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