Yesterday tells the story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), an aspiring musician who almost gives up on his dreams until a worldwide power outage somehow wipes away all societal memory, and possibly even the existence, of the The Beatles. Think of it as a kind of a snappening (Coke, cigarettes and a couple other pop culture behemoths disappear too), but not as well explained. Screenwriter Richard Curtis, in previous screenplays such as About Time, has a habit of using high concept plot devices without explaining the “how” behind them. We give him a pass because the event or device itself isn’t the point, it’s the impact the device has on the characters’ relationships.
In many ways, Yesterday shares a lot of similarities with Curtis’ previous scripts for films like Love Actually and About Time, and I’m not just saying that due to the use of “All You Need Is Love” in a key scene. Curtis is primarily concerned with love, and making another statement about how its importance is is greater than things like fame and money. If you go into Yesterday willing to accept a lot of the typical characteristics and flaws of his scripts, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. I did. I loved the music, but of course I did. It’s The Beatles; just re-imagined a bit. The covers are extensive and mostly respectful and fun. I liked the characters and the performances, and that includes the supporting work by Ed Sheeran. That’s a surprise because I dislike almost everything about Sheeran and his catalog.
Patel and Lily James, who plays Jack’s longtime manager and friend Ellie, have decent chemistry, and I enjoyed Kate McKinnon in her best film role yet as a greedy music exec. The performance is still a bit over the top, but it fits with the tone and style of this flick.
What didn’t work for me was at times this did just seem like little more than an advertisement for how great The Beatles music is. Much of the humor seemed a little to proud of the fact that it was cleverly weaving Beatles references into a film that is entirely about The Beatles.
(Spoiler Warning) The film’s central premise also becomes a liability in the final act. We operate under the assumption, for 90 minutes or so, that the power outage changed history so that The Beatles never existed. Then the film takes a hard left and reveals that John Lennon still exists in some form in this world, and actually is still alive at the age of 76. That raises the question: What about the other three members of the band? Are they still alive? Did they ever exist? What impact did the power outage have on them? I can go along with Curtis using a weird device in his script with little explanation, up to a point. I enjoyed About Time despite a lot of unanswered questions about two of the characters’ abilities to travel through time. The problem here is Curtis, at the last minute, tries to explain things and does a poor job of it.
I’m happy to say I had a good time watching Yesterday, despite my initial negative reaction to the trailer. My ability to suspend disbelief did get quite a workout, but spending two hours with The Beatles, or at least people covering their songs and constantly taking about them, put me in a good mood. In these times, that alone is worth the price of admission.