Watching Yesterday, the new film about a world without the music of the Beatles, I couldn’t help but think about all the times I’ve seen accomplished musicians butcher the lyrics to “Come Together” on stage during some sort of climactic jam — even musicians who arguably owe their existence to the influence of the Fab Four. Liam Gallagher’s abysmal attempt to sing it at Dave Grohl’s CalJam two years ago comes to mind, but in his defense, it does have a lot of verses and weird word variations. Most of us would probably get something wrong without googling it or a lyric sheet.
Imagine not being able to listen to the songs you love ever again and wanting to recreate them, at least by singing them, but having to remember all the verses and choruses from memory only. After struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) gets hit by a bus during a Y2K-style global blackout, he soon finds himself in this very position, realizing that the universe has seen some changes, one of them — for reasons that are never explained — being a total wipeout of the Beatles and their music. Of course the first thing our hero does is head to the computer, and though he’s clearly not a very good googler (he types in John, Paul, George and Ringo, but not the individual member’s names?) he soon comes to realize that not only is the band’s incredible catalog of music non-existent, but so too are bands they inspired such as Oasis. Thankfully (again, who knows why?) The Rolling Stones survived.
The premise of this musical fantasy (some might say tragedy) by screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) is, let’s just admit it, pretty dumb. But Yesterday still succeeds thanks to the zestful pacing of director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) and effective performances by pretty much all the actors involved. Patel comes off as relatable if not always likeable in the lead here, while Kate McKinnon knocks it out of the park by infusing her signature wackiness as an opportunistic music biz vulture/manager. The rest of the supporting cast are all affable and watchable: Lily James as Jack’s long suffering bestie/manager/potential love interest Ellie, Joel Fry as his bumbling roadie/assistant Rocky and Ed Sheeran playing himself as a cool bloke who’s only a little bit as douchey as we might expect. (His ringtone is his own “Shape of You.”)
The biggest thing the movie’s got going for it is of course the music itself, and Patel’s talent vocally and on the guitar is good enough to remind the audience of the Beatles’ prolific output (it reportedly cost the filmmakers about $10 million to use it all). He’s obviously no Paul or John, but Patel’s singing and strumming abilities are exactly what’s needed to support the central premise of Yesterday, which is that no matter the era, no matter what technology can provide, no matter the marketing machine, and no matter who, what, why or how it’s created, truly great art will prevail (and the Beatles gave us some of the greatest).
Jack was just about to give up his dream to be a rock star, and this bizarre new Beatles-less world provides him with one more chance. But at what cost? Selling out is only the tip of the iceberg because, as you don’t forget for even a second while watching, our star is lying, passing off the work of the greatest songwriters of our time as his own, taking the fame and riches that comes with that, and making concessions to the industry along the way (thanks to a suggestion by Sheeran, “Hey Jude” becomes “Hey Dude”).
We don’t see a lot of Jack’s internal struggle with this (he seems to toil more with remembering lyrics) anymore than we see real chemistry between him and Ellie. When the film pivots to romance between the pair, it’s actually hard to buy. But Yesterday is still a love story, celebrating — if not exactly delving deep into — the life-affirming, life-defining power of great music, and doing so not with a flashy bio-pic as is popular right now, but with a sweet little inspirational story about an average “Jo-Jo.” And that’s not an easy game to play.