Run time: 1 hour 56 minutes
Stars: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, James Corden
Director: Danny Boyle
Imagine a world in which the Beatles never existed and you'll get the high concept behind this comedy from the rather unlikely team of screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), both 62.
Your enjoyment of Yesterday will be in direct proportion to your ability to swallow its far-fetched premise, which sounds terrible on paper but plays out somewhat better on-screen. After an unexplained worldwide power outage, struggling British singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) crashes his bike, regains consciousness and realizes he's one of the very few people on the planet who remember the Fab Four.
This presents an ethical dilemma. Should Jack claim Beatles songs -— 15 of them — as his own and ensure himself global pop superstardom? Of course he should. The Beatles stole plenty of licks themselves, after all (as you can see in Jakob Dylan's new film about musical appropriators including the Beatles, Echo in the Canyon; in fact, McCartney once confessed, “We were the biggest nickers in town — plagiarists extraordinaires."). This movie's funniest moments find Jack “debuting” tunes such as “Let It Be” — or, as a well-meaning listener mistakenly calls it, “Leave It Be” — and “Hey Jude,” which Ed Sheeran, playing himself, persuades him to change to “Hey Dude."
The ginger-haired Sheeran's meta-tastic performance provides many of the movie's humorous high notes, along with Kate McKinnon's sharp turn as a heartlessly money-grabbing record-industry exec. Her character is a blatant cliché, but the SNL scene swiper manages to breathe hysterical new life into it.
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If only Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) had the same luck with her trope of a role: the long-overlooked platonic pal who manages Jack's career while quietly pining away for him. It's hardly believable that Jack wouldn't notice that this gorgeous, charming woman is in love with him and instantly reciprocate those feelings. But the script's gear-grinding machinations require an obstacle to keep these two apart in order to set up the obligatory rom-com climax.
Patel, an unknown outside of the U.K., where he spent eight years on the long-lived and much-loved soap opera EastEnders, makes a winning big-screen debut as Jack. While he's unable to reinvent classic Beatles tunes like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and the film's title track completely (who could?), he infuses his musical performances with genuine emotion. Most effective is his rooftop rendition of “Help!,” which devolves into the desperate cry of a near nervous breakdown (which it was when John Lennon wrote and sang it).
The filmmakers’ decision to ignore Jack's ethnicity almost entirely (save for a clever gag about the White Album) seems a curious choice, however. Although the idea of portraying a color-blind society is admirable in theory, the real-world result is that it renders Yesterday more generic and, ironically, less universal than it could be.
But if you don't think about it too much, there's much to be enjoyed here — hey, Ringo liked this movie — including a poignant performance by Boyle's old Trainspotting mate Robert Carlyle, 58, in a top-secret role that's part of a third-act plot twist. Then again, perhaps it's no surprise that in the end, Yesterday's director gets by with a little help from his friend.