Near the beginning of “Yesterday” Jack (Himesh Patel), a struggling musician with the habit of working Beatles lyrics into everyday conversation, says, “I think I hear something special in my songs but no one else does.” He’s about to give up his aspirations of musical stardom when a strange twist in the time and space continuum sets him on the path to success and self- discovery. Director Danny Boyle’s new musical fantasy weaves a fantastical story with a very down-to-earth moral.
Set in Clacton-On-Sea, England, the story is set into motion after Jack’s manager Ellie (Lily James), a school teacher, childhood friend and his biggest fan, books him a disastrous music festival gig. His spirit broken he says, “This is the end of our long and winding road,” before hopping on his bike for the ride home.
As he pedals along the planet is thrown into an unexplained twelve second world-wide black-out. In the darkness he’s hit by a bus, left on the road with his guitar, now in pieces, by his side.
When his friends give him a new guitar he thanks them with a tune. “A great guitar requires a great song,” he says strumming the Beatles’ classic “Yesterday” to their rapt attention. “That song is exquisite. How come I never heard it before?” asks Ellie. Turns out Jack woke up to a world where no one has heard of the band or know any of their songs. Google John, Paul, George and Ringo and Pope John Paul II comes up. Search for The Beatles and it asks, “Do you mean beetles?”
Soon, with the Beatles’ back catalogue in his back pocket, the success he’s always wanted comes his way but at a steep price.
“Yesterday” is an underdog, jukebox musical without an ounce of cynicism. Written by Richard Curtis, it succeeds because of its good-natured earnestness. The story may be a bit wonky, frothy and obvious but Boyle bases the tale on many of the same themes that make the Beatles timeless, love and relationships, self-awareness and most of all the shared joy of the love of music. It may sound corny, and it is, but the primal, underlying messages are unassailable. One character offers Jack advice on how to be happy, “Tell the girl you love that you love her. Tell the truth.” It’s not Shakespeare but neither was “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” and those words still resonate throughout pop culture.
In this case less is more. Boyle dials back some of the flamboyant style of his others films to focus on the characters. Patel and James are winning, charismatic and heartfelt, while Kate McKinnon provides a funny and somewhat outrageous take on a Los Angeles music manager who offers Jack a drink from the “poisoned chalice of money and fame.“ In a summer where Keanu Reeves has already played a heightened version of himself to great success in “Always Be My Maybe,” comes a magnified Ed Sheeran. He plays a mentor of sorts to Jack and even suggests he change the name of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”
“Yesterday” asks and answers simple life questions. As a study in what makes people happy—money and success or a simple life filled with love and joy—it embraces the hokey nature of the story to convey real tuneful truths.