The fantasy-comedy Yesterday poses the question “What if there were a rupture in the space-time continuum so that the Beatles never existed, but somehow you remembered them and could reconstruct their songs and pass yourself off as the greatest songwriter of all time?” Yes, that’s quite a hypothetical, but a lot of good movies are born from dopey adolescent fantasies (”What if I could go back in time and … ,” “What if a spider bit me and … ”), and this one at least has some element of shame built in. The daydream isn’t “What if I had actually written those songs?” but “What if I could be famous for something someone else did?” In a fame-whoring age, it’s a good, dumb premise.
Only the first half works, though. It’s fun when our failed musician turned superstar hero, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), realizes what has happened and “writes” one classic after the next, attracting the attention of an awed Ed Sheeran (amusing as himself). There are a few irresistible scenes: Jack’s attempt to play “Let It Be” to his distracted parents, the withering patter of a talent agent (Kate McKinnon) as she assesses Jack’s look (“You are skinny … yet somehow round”). The screenwriter, Richard Curtis, is nearly unrivaled at tracing the alternating currents of grandiosity and abashment that fuel a certain kind of child-man, but after a jolly start (Blackadder, Notting Hill), he went a little soft in the head (Love Actually), and Yesterday finally comes down to whether Jack can get up the nerve to tell his lifelong best friend, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), that he, you know, likes her that way, while she wishes he were still a failed musician and could be with someone as modest and mousy as she is. Can you imagine? You get credit for writing the Beatles’ songs, but it still can’t buy you love.
Curtis isn’t the director of Yesterday; Danny Boyle has been brought in to lend his shallow virtuosity. But fluid transitions don’t make the movie less clunky. Patel has an appealing presence and a lovely, McCartney-like tenor, but the musical numbers leave an odd taste. Beyond the individual songs, it’s the Beatles’ evolution — their long and winding road — that fires our collective imagination. Watching people go bananas over “She Loves You” in 2019 just seems wrong, especially when it’s side by side with “Let It Be” and “Something.” You can suspend your disbelief over the global blackout that wipes the Beatles (and Coca-Cola) from history, but “I Want to Hold Your Hand” released simultaneously with “Hey Jude?” You can’t be serious.
Yesterday directed by Danny Boyle. Universal Pictures. PG-13.
*This article appears in the June 24, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!