Directed by Danny Boyle
The central conceit of “”Yesterday” is both simple and wonderful as the starting point for a film. What if somebody found themselves in an alternate reality in which nobody had ever heard of The Beatles but that person could remember their songs and became famous pretending ownership of them?
Himesh Patel plays Jack, a struggling, ready to quit singer-songwriter who can’t seem to get anybody to take notice of his own compositions. Except for his long supportive best friend Ellie (Lily James) who manages his act, his bookings, and his transportation needs. That is, until Jack finds himself in just such an alternate timeline, in which he mentions The Beatles and even sings the title song, with nobody around him having any clue who they are (and yes this is a very specific alternative timeline with no Beatles but with everybody he knows just the same as they were otherwise).
But what people do seem to know, almost instantaneously, is that they love the songs he’s suddenly singing. Except his parents, who don’t seem supportive or appreciative of his work either before or after the change. The new fans include Ed Sheeran who hears him on local radio and promptly skyrockets him to success as his opening act.
At which point the film starts to stumble a little. The premise works better than almost anything that follows – not that it falls apart, it’s just that the rest of the film doesn’t seem as well developed. Jack’s meteoric rise to fame is largely predicated on the involvement of Sheeran’s manager, played here by Kate McKinnon. McKinnon plays Debra Hammer with all the subtlety of the name – in a broadly comedic parody of a music executive that might work well in a different project or in a short, easily exited “Saturday Night Live” skit. Here it’s funny but out of place.
Ed Sheeran plays himself, and makes fun of himself along the way, but he’s still that Ed Sheeran playing those Ed Sheeran songs. Reportedly, the original choice for the part of the star musician was Chris Martin of Coldplay, which would have raised similar problems. After all, if this is a timeline without The Beatles, you have to avoid the risk of thinking about musicians one or two steps away from their own Beatles influences. Would their own music and songs be the same without it?
“Yesterday” need to be viewed as a nonsensical story of somewhat mismatched parts, rather than as a logical multi-verse scenario. This is pure fantasy not science fiction. Here Jack can worry about lyrics when trying to recall songs and then perform them perfectly, down to the arrangements. Here Jack can meet an elderly John Lennon (played by an uncredited but recognizable Robert Carlyle) who wasn’t a musician but was a lovely guy with one happy marriage.
Patel is excellent in the lead role, and the supporting performances are all solid, but the real star here is the discography of The Beatles. The film plays to both the audience’s nostalgia (as with the recent “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman”) but only works, even on that fantasy level, if we’re at least a little okay with the idea that people who have never heard any of these songs before will immediately fall in love with them. On that level, it works well, and is fun to watch, but it doesn’t feel as if the exit strategy was ever as well conceived as the initial pitch. “Yesterday” needed more consideration of all the days that followed.