A Beatles expert on "Yesterday": Is Danny Boyle's jukebox fantasy worthy of the Fab Four?

In this romantic comedy, only one man remembers The Beatles, and he passes their songs off as his own

By Kenneth Womack

Published June 28, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

Himesh Patel in "Yesterday" (Universal Pictures)
Himesh Patel in "Yesterday" (Universal Pictures)

Directed by Danny Boyle, the filmmaker behind "Slumdog Millionaire," "Yesterday" is a charming romantic comedy that works from an intriguing thought experiment: What if the music of the Beatles was suddenly and ineffably erased from the world?

Written by Richard Curtis of "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually" fame, "Yesterday" addresses this question with lightheartedness and warmth through the character of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), an aspiring singer-songwriter who’s at the end of his rope, career-wise. The only person who has faith in him is Ellie (Lily James), Jack’s manager, best friend, and the woman who has pined for him for nigh on a decade. In one of the film’s many quasi-Beatles Easter eggs, we learn that Ellie has been smitten with Jack and his incipient talent since he performed Oasis’ “Wonderwall” back in their school days. The fact that Jack seems immune to her barely-veiled lovesickness for him proves to be positively beguiling at times, but if "Yesterday" is nothing else, it’s a rom com that wears its heart unabashedly on its sleeve.

The movie’s thought experiment commences with a bizarre worldwide electrical storm during which the hapless Jack (and his equally hapless guitar) collides with a bus. In short order, he discovers that he’s the only person on Earth who has any memory of the words and music of the Beatles. When his friends good-naturedly replace his guitar, he breaks into a rendition of the Beatles’ classic “Yesterday,” only to be met by their blank stares of unrecognition. When Jack assures them that it’s “one of the greatest songs ever written,” one of them snaps back that “it’s not Coldplay.”

But the jokes end there as far as the music of the Beatles is concerned. Passing off the Fab Four’s compositions as his own, Jack captures the world’s imagination with lightning-quick fashion. Before long, he’s approached by the cynical Debra ("Saturday Night Live" star Kate McKinnon), his new manager-in-waiting, who informs him that “We pay, and you write songs, and then you make a ton of money. And then we take most of it.” McKinnon’s Grinch-like performance makes for a treat, although her caricature — oozing, as it does, with show business corruption — seems out of place in Curtis’s kindhearted screenplay.

The movie benefits from an intriguing subplot involving pop star Ed Sheeran playing himself as Jack’s competition. At first, Sheeran approaches the new pop sensation as a kindly elder statesman of their craft. But hilarity ensues when Sheeran — as Salieri to Jack’s Mozart — attempts to cajole Jack into changing “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”

Things come to a head, of course, with our star-crossed lovers. To say anything more would be to risk revealing the movie’s romantic pleasures. Suffice it to say that "Yesterday" hardly disappoints when it comes to fulfilling its baseline rom com aspirations. But when it comes to elevating its storyline above the genre and asking deeper questions about the ethics of Jack’s gambit and its implications, "Yesterday" goes quiet. In such moments, a very good movie falls short of becoming a truly great and lasting one. In contrast with the Beatles’ music, it’s hard to believe that "Yesterday" will have staying power beyond the current summer season.

And speaking of the music: "Yesterday" has an interesting side effect that bears mentioning. In the film, Patel proves himself to be an affable singer and performer. His versions of Beatles’ hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Let It Be” are more than serviceable, easily drawing us into their inherent greatness. But ultimately, Patel’s renditions succumb to the fate of so many Beatles’ cover versions over the past six decades, paling in comparison to the originals and sending us running back to the Fab Four’s LPs to enjoy their music in all of its perfect, unadulterated sublimity.

Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, and "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life." His latest book, co-authored with Jason Kruppa, is "All Things Must Pass Away: Harrison, Clapton & Other Assorted Love Songs."

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