As soon as I saw the trailer for the comedy fantasy Yesterday, I was immediately sold on the premise: a struggling musician who is hit by a bus, wakes up to find that he is the only person on Earth who remembers The Beatles. Using this knowledge he begins performing songs written by The Beatles as his own work and is thrust into the limelight he so desperately wanted as an aspiring musician. Even though the film did run a tad long, the combination of using Beatles music to anchor a surprisingly philosophical romantic comedy proved irresistible.
Directed by Danny Boyle (T2 Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), Yesterday starts with a brutally honest introduction to the world of struggling musicians. One of them, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), works a part-time day job he hates, lives at home with his parents and goes from small gig to small gig playing to tiny crowds that mostly consist of his supportive friends. After an exciting opportunity proves to be a major disappointment, the singer/songwriter finally gives up on his dreams and lets his manager and life long friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James) know he’s played his last gig. He accepts that he will never get to fulfill his dream of becoming a successful musician. But fate has other plans for him.
After bidding his musical career farewell, a mysterious global blackout occurs as Jack rides home on his bike and he’s hit by a bus during the 12-second darkness. With a couple of prominent teeth missing, Jack wakes up in hospital to a world where The Beatles never existed (along with a few other important things). He quickly realizes he can use his knowledge of the Fab Four’s catalogue to carve out the musical career he desperately wants. But as time passes and his fame on the rise, his conscience starts to eat at him as he feels like a fake for taking credit for “writing” songs that aren’t his.
Yesterday is filled with solid performances across the board. Himesh Patel delivers a perfect balance of comedy and heartfelt drama as Jack Malik – the nobody musician who gets in way over his head when he becomes the most prolific and most talented musician of the modern world. His character finds himself in a most unique situation and does what many people would probably do – cash in.
But even as he makes us laugh with his awkward situations and his British humor, Patel is still able to portray the inner turmoil of somebody who knows what he’s doing is wrong and is slowly losing the most important person in the world – the woman he loves.
Lily James also delivers a wonderful performance as school teacher Ellie Appleton who is also Jack’s manager. She’s the funny, supportive friend and rock that Jack needs to push forward even as she’s unable to join him when he finds massive success. Ellie has been in love with Jack for most of her life but has been waiting for him to love her back. James conveys these hidden feelings long before her character reveals the truth to the rising megastar and is simply fantastic to watch on screen with her oblivious co-star.
Of special note, the icing to the cake of solid performances in Yesterday comes from Kate McKinnon playing Debra Hammer, Jack’s American agent and corporate shark in the music business and knows how to get what she wants. McKinnon brings American-style comedy flair that compliments the British cast and she’s hilarious, giving a wonderful blend of humor with the ruthlessness of a sociopath and she delivers some very memorable moments in the film.
Danny Boyle (with legendary screenwriter Richard Curtis) has made a funny and heartfelt movie that explores strong themes while letting the audience sing along to The Beatles catalogue. What does it mean to be successful and what are we willing to sacrifice for fame? Jack is willing to give up his integrity, his identity and chance at love to have a successful career built on the talents of other artists. Yet, finding the fame and fortune he was desperately craving may not be enough. Often the most important things we have are right there in front of us, only we’ve become so obsessed with what we don’t have it’s hard to see them.
Despite dragging a bit too long in places, Yesterday is a funny and heartfelt look at the cost of fame in a world where the existence of The Beatles music seems to be an inevitability. The entire cast is engaging and delightful to watch bringing this strange musical fantasy to life, and fans of The Beatles will enjoy the abundance of their songs and cultural references to their career and history. What it means to be truly successful may be one of the oldest stories in cinematic history, but Danny Boyle explores these themes with a lighthearted film that easily – and earnestly – delivers its most important message by the time the credits roll: sometimes all you really need is love.