Yesterday (2019)

“A world without the Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse,” a character grimly notes in Yesterday.  As a superfan, I will readily second that assessment.  Life without “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Here Comes the Sun” would indeed be a dour existence.  Modern music would lose the star around which it spins.  But, the impact of the Beatles extends far beyond their discography.  As a group of personalities, they were a cultural supernova, a shockwave that permanently reshaped Elvis Presley’s rock revolution with dry British sarcasm and defiant indefinability.  The world wouldn’t just be a dimmer place without the Beatles, it would also be vastly different.

That hefty premise sits at the center of Yesterday, an otherwise fluffy little fantasy movie.  Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a young musician whose career seems stuck in a bog.  He lugs his guitar to pubs and plugs his original compositions to indifferent boozers.  Ellie (Lily James), Jack’s stalwart manager and confidante, harbors a lifelong crush on him and tries desperately to heave his career out of the mud.  As Jack hits rock bottom, he gets badly injured in a hit-and-run accident.  He wakes up in hospital, bandaged and groaning, where he slowly notices something strange about the world:  No one has heard of the Beatles.  I mean, not one note of their music.

Jack nabs a guitar and strums a few bars of “Yesterday” for some spellbound friends.  He races home and finds that many more things have been subtracted from existence.  (In a sly joke, the movie notes that without the Beatles, there’d be no Oasis.)  Soon, Jack starts pounding out Beatle standards and passing them off as his own work.  Predictably, the world devours his music and turns him into a global phenomenon.  Jack, wracked with guilt over his plagiarism and confused by sudden feelings for Lily, must confront the reality that getting everything he wants will involve losing everything he needs.

Yesterday tiptoes around the fact that it creates an unappealing world by keeping its tone breezy and fun.  Writer Richard Curtis puts a grounded, humble young man at the center of his story, and paints a collection of colorful, daffy supporting characters around him:  Jack has cheerfully oblivious parents, a drunken goofball for a roadie (Joel Fry), and a sardonic, fast-talking manager (Kate McKinnon).  These comic relief players rotate throughout the movie, and help to keep it firmly in the flyweight category.

The movie is also abetted by engaging lead performances.  Patel is perfect as the Everyman (or…I guess, the Nowhere Man) who tastes the bittersweet ale of sudden superstardom.  James plays Ellie as plucky, smart, and with a rapidly-vanishing reservoir of patience. They have a real, grounded chemistry with each other, and this helps the rom-com angle of the film to connect.  Patel also belts out the Beatles catalogue with an appropriate blend of reverence and gusto.  His energy alone helps fuel the movie.

It’s been said that the Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 30,000 copies, but those buyers went out and started 30,000 rock bands.  Their influence reverberates throughout the indie music we hear fifty years later.  The Velvet Underground would never have existed without the Beatles.  Nor would Ed Sheeran, as we know him.  Or Coldplay.  No one played stadium gigs before the Beatles.  On a personal level, I don’t know if I’d have ever picked up a guitar or learned to love music without “Let It Be” or “Across the Universe.”  It’s a reality I don’t even want to think about, but Yesterday correctly sidesteps this with a story that’s both entertaining and thoroughly disposable.  If anything, the movie reminds us that we live in a world with the Beatles, and we’re infinitely better off for it.

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Author: Todd Wofford

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