(Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.)
There have been more than a few movies inspired by the Beatles. The most recent major release was Across The Universe (2007), a musical drama that chronicles the lives of three young adults enduring the tumult of the 1960s. Yesterday, written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill) and directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) isn’t a musical, but it uses the Beatles’ catalog liberally to tell the story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a former teacher and struggling singer-songwriter living in a seaside town in Suffolk, England.
Malik’s career is basically nonexistent — he mostly plays for indifferent pub crowds and at toddler birthday parties — until an inexplicable global blackout, which happens at the exact time Jack gets hit by a bus, wipes away all evidence that the Beatles ever existed. Jack seems to be the only person on Earth who remembers them, so naturally, he starts recording Beatles songs under his own name, and he becomes a massive star.
In addition to fitting into a lineage of “movies inspired by the Beatles,” Yesterday is also another movie about showbiz, a narrative that is particularly popular right now. The two biggest dramas of 2018 were Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born, both of which portrayed the music industry as predatory. Yesterday takes that trope and amplifies it. Jack’s manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) is so plainly evil that she recalls Parker Posey’s sleazy performance as record label exec Fiona in Josie And The Pussycats (2001). She believes Jack’s music (i.e., the Beatles’ music) is better than anything she’s ever heard, which is great, because it means she will be able to afford to buy the Malibu coastline in its entirety.
Debra easily gets the most laughs in Yesterday followed by Jack’s tour manager Rocky (Joel Fry) and — wait for it — Ed Sheeran, who plays himself. Most of Sheeran’s lines are self-flagellating quips about his own genius (his ringtone is “Shape Of You”) and though he is no great actor, his presence as a “world famous British musician” establishes the film in the now. (Boyle asked Chris Martin to play the role first, but he declined.) When Jack opens for Sheeran on tour playing songs like “Back In The USSR” and his breakout hit “She Loves You,” Sheeran is forced to reconcile with the fact that he might actually not be the greatest living songwriter (ha). Of course, all of the jokes at Sheeran’s expense positively flatline the second one of his songs soundtracks what is supposed to be a tender sex scene between Jack and his devoted childhood friend Ellie (Lily James). No one fucks to Ed Sheeran, don’t tell me otherwise, and I wonder if that was written into his contract.
Believable characters don’t exist within the surreal world that frames Yesterday, and that ultimately results in a mediocre movie. The relationship between Ellie and Jack, which is supposed to ground the film in the romantic comedy framework, relies on tired tropes. Ellie loves Jack and believes in his music despite the fact that it is clearly not good at all until he starts ripping off the Beatles.
In one scene, Jack is ready to give up on songwriting entirely and return to teaching when Ellie, who is herself a teacher, delivers a monologue that is basically just “those who can’t do teach,” as if being a rock star is somehow a noble profession. She puts herself down in order to lift him up, which seems to be her only true motivation in life. Patel and James play their respective roles with a giddy intensity, but the writing between them relies on more than a few cringe-inducing lines like that one. This is just another story of a man breaking into show business only to realize it’s corrupt and he would rather live a small life alongside the woman who he loves, for no other reason than because she loves him.
The film’s portrayal of the music industry is flat and predictable, too. Debra is a highlight, but she’s also the same power-hungry manager we’ve seen over and over again, though she’s eons better than A Star Is Born’s Rez Gavron. When Jack attends a meeting about the name and the branding of his new album, the head of marketing (Lamorne Morris) suggests that the album be called One Man Only. It’s a dig at the number of songwriting credits that usually accompany most pop releases, but it’s also a winking reminder that most of the Beatles’ catalog was co-written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Yesterday also does little to emphasize how much pop music is a product of a generation, and how impossible it feels to qualify the Beatles’ songs as objectively perfect without recognizing the role they played in defining rock music as we know it. Yesterday is fantasy, but it doesn’t commit to an internal logic, which will inevitably lead viewers down useless rabbit holes and lines of questioning like: Would Jack even be wearing a Fratellis T-shirt without the Beatles? Would he have a Killers poster hanging on his wall without the Beatles? Would people in 2019 really react so enthusiastically to a song like “Hey Jude” or would they be like, “The fuck is this?” Music belongs to its moment, and while the Beatles certainly sounded like the future in the ’60s, it’s doubtful that these songs would be lionized in the same way had they not revolutionized mid-century pop. It’s true that it feels impossible to imagine a world without the Beatles, but Yesterday treats the songs as all-around too good to fail, which is absolutely bludgeoned when Jack sings “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
Buying into Yesterday requires the viewer to suspend disbelief, but I craved a Jordan Peele movie moment in which a character dutifully explains why and how a supernatural event happened. The film’s only real tension is one unanswered underlying question: Were the Beatles really wiped from history in a blackout or is Jack simply in a coma, living out a deluded fantasy? If there were ever a movie — aside from The Wizard Of Oz — that would leave audiences satisfied with an “it was all a dream” ending, this would be it.
Yesterday is in theaters 6/28.