How would the world change if the most famous and influential music group of all time had never existed? According to director Danny Boyle’s slight and intermittently charming Yesterday, not very much at all. When English musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) wakes up from a bus accident following a mysterious worldwide blackout, everything seems exactly the same: He’s still an aspiring singer-songwriter whose only dedicated fan is his best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James). He still works a dead-end job stocking shelves in a big-box store and lives at home with his parents. The world, in terms of both geopolitics and pop culture, is no different. But when Jack pulls out his new guitar and plays The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” his friends are stunned. What is this amazing new song that he just wrote?
Thus Jack discovers that a strange cosmic event seems to have erased The Beatles from history, everywhere but in his own memory. Improbably, the entire remaining history of popular music remains unchanged (in a rather obvious joke, the only other musical artist Jack discovers has been erased is Oasis), and so one friend of his scoffs that “Yesterday” isn’t as good as Coldplay’s “Fix You,” and pop mega-star Ed Sheeran (somewhat smugly playing himself) is the one who discovers Jack playing Beatles songs and gives him his big break.
Never mind that neither Coldplay nor Ed Sheeran would be who they are without The Beatles; the point of the script from rom-com titan Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, etc.) isn’t to delve deeply into an alternate history without The Beatles (as well as, it turns out, without some other even more significant things). It’s to use this wish-fulfillment premise for a sweet if underdeveloped romance and deliver some platitudes about the perils of stardom that could be imported from any non-fantastical music biopic.
Once Jack starts passing off Beatles compositions as his own, he skyrockets to stardom almost instantaneously, thanks to Sheeran and hilariously profit-driven manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), whose deadpan assertions about the cynical way the music business works sound like something from a much more pointed satire. It seems unlikely that audiences in 2019 would respond to Beatles songs with this level of enthusiasm (probably the most realistic part of the movie is the short stretch in which Jack is playing Beatles songs to empty, indifferent pubs), but the movie is really about what happens to a formerly passionate artist when he starts getting credit for work that isn’t his own. Jack rips off The Beatles, but it could just as easily have been The Rolling Stones or Justin Bieber or some entirely fictional musician.
The middle of the movie, focused on Jack’s meteoric rise and the way he gets caught up in the corporate machine, is the most familiar and the least interesting, as Jack loses touch with his roots and the people who were important to him. Patel, a British TV star making his big-screen debut, has great chemistry with James, and their inevitable love story is pleasant and not too overstated. Like Curtis’ 2013 time-travel romance About Time, Yesterday doesn’t do much with its fantastical premise, which barely holds up to even minimal scrutiny. There are a couple of feeble fake-outs related to the existence of the real Beatles, but the final act largely refrains from following through on the implications of the set-up, opting instead for feel-good cutesiness.
Boyle brings some confident energy and style to the story, and he mostly keeps the pace lively. Some of his visual touches come a little close to showbiz rise-and-fall cliches, and he rarely gets below the surface of Curtis’ innocuous screenplay. But for a movie that’s only interested in celebrating the power of love and a good pop song, Yesterday fulfills its modest ambitions with warmth and gentle humor. It wouldn’t, however, make any impact if it were magically erased from existence.