There’s a good chance that if you’ve heard what “Yesterday” is about, you probably only know its basic, minimal plotline.
Oh, you’re thinking, a struggling musician hits his head and wakes up to a world where no one has heard of the Beatles ... except him. He claims he wrote their songs, and becomes the biggest pop star in the world.
Well, yes, that’s a big part of it. What people who haven’t seen it don’t know is that it’s very funny, it has touches of sadness (in a wistful way), it’s a tad romantic, it’s got a gaggle of Beatles tunes, all but one of them done up in versions you haven’t heard before, and it’s a true original. Unlike seemingly every other movie where someone gets hits on the head, then wakes up to a “new world,” then conveniently gets hit on the head again near the end, returning things to “normalcy,” there’s no second hit in “Yesterday.”
Singer-songwriter Jack (Himesh Patel) has had it with playing his original music in empty coffeehouses. His manager and best pal Ellie (Lily James) believes in him and keeps pushing for him. But after yet another miniscule audience, he says to her, “If it hasn’t happened by now ...” and announces it was his last gig.
It’s during Jack’s nighttime bike ride home that the film introduces its fantastical, magical premise. There’s an event, a 12-second, world-wide, total power outage. Nicely accompanied by the finale of the orchestral glissando at the end of “A Day in the Life,” Jack is hit by a bus, wakes up in a hospital, and is told he’ll be fine. As John Lennon once sang, “Nothing has changed, it’s still the same.”
Not quite. Jack soon finds that his favorite band, the Beatles, never existed. They’re not on Google, none of their albums is in his collection, Ellie hasn’t heard of them. But Jack knows every one of their songs - save a lyric here and there. And he starts amazing friends and family and music fans with them.
So, yes, this becomes the story of what Jack might do - even when it becomes a moral dilemma for him - if he can claim he wrote, and then start performing, a treasure trove of what he knows are some of the best pop songs in the world.
But this charming movie expands way beyond that idea.
Giving nothing specific away here, that unexplained power outage did more than remove just the Beatles from pop culture, the revelations of which provide a big chunk of the film’s humor. When Jack is invited by an amateur producer to record some of “his new songs,” the film makes note of the Beatles’ proclivity for adding handclaps to their songs, showing it done here using color-coordinated kitchen gloves.
It’s when Jack appears on a TV show, singing a solo rendition of “In My Life,” that pop singer Ed Sheeran - playing himself - gets into the act, inviting Jack to open for him at a show in Moscow - where, naturally, Jack plays “Back in the U.S.S.R.” “You wrote that on the flight over?” asks an amazed Sheeran, to which he gets a quiet, “Yeah.”
The script presents a mystery element via a couple of middle-aged folks - A Russian man and a British woman - who might be following Jack around. It takes a swipe at the record industry, in the form of an all-business, soulless shark named Debra (Kate McKinnon) who wants to be Jack’s new manager. Jack has an idea to make a “double album that will change popular music forever” but is told by record execs that if they call it “The White Album,” there might be some diversity issues.
Things begin to come to a head at a rooftop concert, where Jack delivers a driving punk version of “Help!”, and really takes off at a Wembley Stadium show. Patel does an outstanding job of getting across the ethical confusion Jack is going through, and he proves to be a fine musical performer, adding new dimensions to very familiar songs.
This is a crowd-pleaser for hardcore Beatles fans as well as general audiences. It has a great resolution and ending, and it features a recording of the Beatles doing “Hey Jude” over the credits. Feel free to sing along.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Richard Curtis; directed by Danny Boyle
With Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon