Yesterday is a movie designed down to its very DNA to make you feel good. It’s a sweet, mildly supernatural rom-com bolstered by some of the best music in the world and a killer sense of humor. It has its flaws, but they’re relatively easy to overlook given how good the movie will make you feel.
Jack Manik is a struggling musician who’s considering returning to teaching elementary school after failing to make any headway as a singer/songwriter. After a particularly dismal night, he picks a fight with his friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) and rides home on his bike alone. Also that night, there’s some sort of worldwide power outage, and Jack gets hit by a bus when a traffic light fails. When he wakes up in the hospital the following morning, he discovers in that time that the Beatles (and a few other things) have been wiped from history and/or the universal consciousness. Since Jack does remember them, it doesn’t take him long to start obsessively writing and recording anything he remembers, passing off the Beatles’ work as his own. Chaos, romance and a lot of Beatles covers ensue.
Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) and written by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love, Actually) Yesterday can’t keep itself from bleeding optimism from every pore. Curtis is a master of the ensemble rom-com, and while the romantic aspects of Yesterday are weak, the film’s funny enough to be distract from its missteps. Kate McKinnon is inspired as the label rep looking to sign – literally – the next Beatles, Ed Sheeran parodies himself surprisingly well, revealing a secret, jealous asshole under the benign exterior audiences know and openly question.
Like Notting Hill, Jack has a set of well-meaning, but occasionally useless, friends, Joel Fry’s (Game of Thrones) Rocky being first in our hearts. He’s a disaster, but when Jack starts hitting the heights of stardom, he chooses Rocky, the world’s worst and drunkest roadie to assist him. Even the locations start to feel like part of the ensemble because Boyle highlights their personalities – from LA to Suffolk – so specifically and mines brilliant humor from each one.
There’s also a lot of comedy and insight to be had the simple gag of people hearing the Beatles for the first time. Everyone reacts differently, and that plus some key revelations in the back half of the movie give Yesterday the opportunity to showcase all the different ways humans interact with art – with worship, with jealousy, with greed, etc. – and favoring those who choose simple enjoyment.
But as enjoyable as the film is, it’s far from perfect, and most of that comes down to the tedious and outdated romance between Jack and Ellie. Ellie’s had a crush on Jack since she saw him sing an Oasis song at a children’s talent show when they were both 9. For his part, Jack is pretty self-obsessed and totally oblivious to Ellie’s feelings even though they are stupidly obvious. When she finally does fess up, he’s too wrapped up in his own furor to deal with it directly, so they try… and try… and try… to have a conversation about their relationship without Jack leaving or getting upset with her. But Ellie takes all of this in stride, pining away for Jack and hoping he’ll realize he wants a life with her before they’re both dead. She literally says at one point, “I’ve been waiting half my life for you to wake up and love me.” This couple is impossible to root for at this point, but their story receives a lot of attention and that hurts the film.
The days of rom-coms with mediocre dudes winning accomplished women feel like a generation ago, along with the toxic trope of someone – woman or man – suddenly waking up to feelings they never knew were there. Some of you will want bellow “He’s just not that into you!!” at the screen nearly every time Jack and Ellie are alone together. It’s frustrating to watch two performers as seasoned as Patel and James twerp around in this lame subplot.
But beyond the unique premise, the music, the laughs and the problematic love story, Yesterday still has so much heart. It is a stark naked love letter to not only the Beatles’ music, but men themselves and the values they represent. Jack’s dogged by guilt at getting credit for something he knows he didn’t (and probably couldn’t) do on his own. To make matters worse, the guys he’s stealing from were ostensibly really good guys, and eventually used their music to try and change the way people thought. Yesterday renders Jack’s dilemma with sensitivity and his struggle to do right by everyone in the face of temptation feels as familiar as “Hey Jude.” This is a film that’s easy to love and hard to hate, which feels pretty apropos given the artists it honors.