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Yesterday imagines a world without the Beatles — but can’t decide whether they mattered

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It’s a charming comedy that devolves into a limp romance

Yesterday (Danny Boyle film) via Tribeca Film Festival

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been updated throughout for the film’s wide theatrical release.

Alternate-universe writers love painstakingly tracing how one historical change might rewrite pop music. In The Man in the High Castle, where Japan and Germany won World War II, Nazi censors strangled rock ’n’ roll in its crib. Wolfenstein, another fantasy about the Axis powers winning World War II, features a Nazi-fied alternative to The Beatles — renamed “Die Kafer,” with their iconic Abbey Road crosswalk photo set against a sinister fascist cityscape.

Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’s film Yesterday also imagines a world where The Beatles never existed, but it’s indifferent to this kind of world-crafting. The film is a celebration of the Fab Four that’s more focused on fandom than rock history. Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly focused on anything. Yesterday is a breezy, moderately funny romantic comedy with an excellent soundtrack — but one that never commits to its characters, themes, or clever premise.

What’s the genre?

Yesterday starts as a high-concept comedy that runs with a single weird idea: an inexplicable event has removed The Beatles (among other things) from history, and seemingly only one man remembers their existence. The filmmakers gradually mix in some mildly cutting satire of the music industry, then settle into a straightforward story about small-town romance and the entirely expected downsides of fame.

What’s it about?

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician with a single fan, his manager and childhood friend Ellie (Lily James). After a dismal gig at a local festival, Jack decides to hang up his guitar. But a mysterious global blackout hits while he’s biking home, and he’s knocked unconscious in the chaos. He wakes up in a world with a few missing pieces. Pepsi exists, but not Coca-Cola. Saturday Night Live is now taped on Thursdays. And to Jack’s increasing bafflement, nobody has heard of The Beatles.

Seeing a golden opportunity, Jack reboots his career and claims The Beatles’ music as his own. Soon, he’s discovered by local celebrity Ed Sheeran (played by himself), and sought out by a sociopathic but highly capable manager, Mandi (Kate McKinnon). Hailed as the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation, Jack prepares to release an album, but he’s increasingly consumed by guilt over his deception. To make things worse, he discovers that Ellie has been in love with him for years, but she can’t leave her life as a schoolteacher to join him in Los Angeles.

Photo: Universal Pictures

What’s it really about?

How individual pieces of art take on cultural and historical significance, and what’s left when that significance is stripped away. After the blackout, Yesterday plays up the contrast between Jack’s reflexive reverence for The Beatles and everyone else’s level-headed skepticism. His parents interrupt a rendition of “Let It Be” to chat with a neighbor, a friend dismisses “Yesterday” as soppy, and Jack sputters with the incredulous indignation of anybody who’s just had part of their core cultural canon questioned — until someone gently points out that he’s being a bit egotistical about his work.

These moments perfectly capture the feeling of having an aching, inexpressible love for a piece of media that nobody else understands. And they’re made all the more interesting because Jack isn’t a Beatles superfan, just someone who osmosed the songs alongside billions of other people. He’s thrust into the role of defending something he’s always taken for granted — and also trying to preserve it, as he puzzles out the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” before skipping to the familiar chorus in frustration.

But Yesterday is a film for Beatles fans, or at the very least, anyone who will enjoy hearing Patel perform a dozen-plus renditions of their greatest hits. So despite some characters’ skepticism, Yesterday’s Beatles songs are imbued with a timeless, mystical power that turns Jack into a celebrity almost overnight.

Strangely enough, though, Yesterday implies that the band was basically artistically irrelevant. Pop music, pop culture, and the record industry seem mostly unchanged in this world — in fact, the film goes out of its way to confirm that Beatles-influenced bands like Coldplay and Radiohead still exist. As far as Yesterday is concerned, The Beatles’ biggest contribution to music was inspiring Oasis.

The filmmakers resist extrapolating from any of the historical changes they’re making, so this suggestion might not be intentional. But it’s an extremely weird take for a Beatles love letter, and it raises needlessly confusing questions about why the band’s songs are so powerful, since characters have apparently been listening to similar music for decades.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Is it good?

Yesterday is well-paced and often funny, especially in its early sections, where it’s exploring Jack’s everyday life and the rules of his new reality. It uses technology like smartphones and search engines in a way that feels natural and makes for more efficient storytelling. McKinnon is a gleefully sharkish antagonist, though she’s lightly sketched. Patel plays Jack as charmingly hopeful yet pragmatic, and he’s a good performer who can carry the film’s many musical numbers.

But as the film shifts focus to Jack’s relationship with Ellie, his motivations become increasingly unclear. Ellie isn’t given much personality beyond being a kind and supportive girl next door, and the revelation that she’s had a crush on Jack since high school — and denies it until the worst possible moment — is more sad than sweet. (It gets even more depressing with the addition of a romantic rival who appears consciously aware of his role as a disposable plot device.) There’s just no reason for these characters to hook up, beyond the hoary assumption that every male-female friendship is based on secret unrequited love.

Boyle and Curtis are making an alternate-history film that’s not primarily about alternate history, which is a completely valid choice. But the film’s central romance is badly underwritten, and its slapdash, joke-driven worldbuilding pokes holes in a plot that was fantastical to start with. Yesterday is a story about the pure and timeless nature of music — but it often comes off as more rote than heartfelt.

What should it be rated?

Some relatively muted sexual situations feel like PG-13 material, but we’re talking about a film that’s composed largely of a guy performing crowd-pleasing Beatles songs — it’s mostly as earnest and innocuous as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

How can I actually watch it?

Yesterday is getting a wide theatrical release on June 28th.