A struggling musician named Jack (Himesh Patel), still barely hanging onto his passion in life thanks to the unwavering support and encouragement from his best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James), gets hit by a bus and is knocked out on the night when all power mysteriously gets cut off across the globe for a minute. He wakes up in the hospital to a new reality where The Beatles never existed, and he’s the only one on the planet who remembers their songs. By introducing the world to John, Paul, George and sometimes Ringo’s genius, he becomes an overnight sensation as the greatest songwriter of all time.
Thus is Yesterday’s high-concept comedy/musical premise. Yet we all know that even the best ideas can fizzle out if not supported by a solid story structure, credible character arcs, and an intriguing examination of the themes it gives birth to. Without much thought beyond the premise, the above synopsis could work as a short story or an SNL video skit, but would probably become episodic and stale by the time we reached the second act. Even though the concept is Yesterday’s main selling point, writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle use it as a springboard to create an engaging romantic comedy that’s also a heartwarming exploration of its many themes. As one might expect, Yesterday is a testament to how not only The Beatles, but great art in general, enriches the human soul and makes us grateful to be alive.
The second best scene in Yesterday—the first a third act reveal I won’t spoil here—comes when Jack randomly starts playing the title song, unaware that it’s being released into this particular universe for the first time. Boyle focuses at length on close-ups of Jack’s friends, who were expecting another pleasing but expected tune from him, only to gradually be captivated by one of the most beautiful songs of the 20th Century. Whatever distractions or worries they have at the moment visibly dissolve, until the music becomes the only thing that matters. Boyle then cuts to long shots of the beautiful English countryside while Jack sings, as the sequence somehow manages to make us feel as if we’re also listening to a song we’ve all heard a million times prior for the first time in our lives. Yesterday occasionally remembers to take a breather from the narrative flow in order to re-instill this feeling in us.
Yesterday is a smart and intricate dissection of whether or not great art that’s universally recognized as such would be considered so if it came out at a different time and from a different place. While many might assume the introduction of The Beatles’ greatest work into a virgin universe would result in widespread acceptance, Curtis and Boyle have a lot of fun with how the modern world would react to the songs and would tweak them to fit the times. The film is chock full of astute humor about, say, who the hell Sergeant Pepper is or how “Hey Dude” makes more sense than “Hey Jude.” (Thankfully, the “I used to beat my girlfriend” lyric from “Getting Better” isn’t mentioned.)
Many stories about an artist’s sudden rise to stardom explore the inner conflict of personal life vs. professional, and the tragedy of how some attachments to the previous, non-famous existence have to be excised in favor of fame and fortune. Curtis doesn’t rewrite the rules of this concept, but wraps it around his trademark rom-com formula that mixes old Hollywood romance with caustic British wit and chummy banter. In true genre fashion, Jack and Ellie have had feelings for one another for a decade, but never acted up on them until Jack gets snatched away to tour the globe, leaving him to decide whether or not he should pursue his career or choose Ellie. The plot points are expected, but Curtis’ sharp dialogue and the palpable chemistry between Patel and James should satisfy those looking for that Notting Hill or Love Actually feeling.
While Curtis’ attention to character keeps us emotionally engaged, Boyle’s manic editing and quirky visual choices, such as names of locations floating around the frame, propels the story forward like a well-oiled narrative machine. With her effortless charisma and magnetism, Lily James proves herself to be a formidable rom-com star. Himesh Patel certainly fits Curtis’ archetype of melancholic and self-deprecating male protagonists, but also leaves a strong impression with his beautiful singing voice and stage presence. If it accomplishes nothing else, Yesterday lets us relive the grandiosity of The Beatles as if it’s our first time. A fab accomplishment indeed.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.