Yesterday is really two movies, one better than the other.
The better movie in Yesterday, the latest by director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), with a script by Richard Curtis (Love Actually), is a light, cute, modern fairy tale that assumes one’s love of the Beatles* (yes, this movie could not get more British). It presents a simple yet striking what-if: Jack** Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling, mediocre musician, suddenly enters a world that resembles our own in (almost) every way but one: Only he remembers The Beatles.*** Through a series of convenient but credibly implausible circumstances, he then rides this newfound knowledge to astronomical success, doling out hit after hit seemingly from divine inspiration to all around him, while only he (?) knows the truth.
Yesterday hits all the classic beats of the rise-to-fame morality tale. Success soon forces Jack to abandon his friends and family in England. Most important of all these to him is Ellie Appleton (Lily James), a teacher, his part-time manager while he was still playing at bars and empty tents at music festivals, and–much to his dismay–not quite his love interest. Meanwhile, he struggles to maintain his integrity against the wages of commercialism in the music industry, embodied with enthusiastic cynicism by Kate McKinnon, playing a cutthroat record executive.
It is familiar, certainly, but well-executed. Patel ably portrays the bewilderment of a musician who suddenly hits it big, nonetheless marred by a literal Imposter Syndrome in which only he (?) knows he’s the imposter.
The gigantic value-add of the movie is, of course, the Beatles. This is a movie made for Beatles’ fans, nodding at and coddling them at every opportunity (especially with a surprise “cameo” near the end). It does an excellent, almost flattering job of portraying how a world without The Beatles would have gratefully greeted each “new” Beatles’ song, even in the diluted or distorted forms Jack can manage. And it also deftly displays Jack’s struggles to maintain some of The Beatles’ more idiosyncratic gifts to the world against his own faulty memory and against skeptics, giving us a sort of alternate-universe dramatic irony.
Speaking of alternate universes, the inferior movie in Yesterday is the sci-fi alternate universe puzzler on which the whole thing depends.
To be fair, Yesterday is a romantic comedy, not a Primer-style authentic treatment of quantum mechanics. Even so, there are standard-bearers within sci-fi for the same kind of thing we see in Yesterday. In the novel Replay by Ken Grimwood, for example, the main character, who thinks he is the only person in the world knowingly caught in a time loop, discovers another such individual upon seeing Earthsea, a movie somehow created in 1975 by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, even though the main character, from our universe, knows that it shouldn’t exist. Replay also involves a third individual aware of the time loops, but who turns out to be a malevolent force, something Yesterday toys with while ultimately taking a lighthearted twist away from it.
This was the more acceptable manifestation of the alternate-universe fiction in Yesterday. The less acceptable one was the many, many questions raised by the dialectic of musical history it imagines in the Beatles’ absence. An early joke in the movie has Jack discover that Oasis doesn’t exist just after confirming that the Beatles don’t, which … is quite fair, honestly. Aside from that, though, musical history seems to be exactly the same; Coldplay still releases “Fix You,” Ed Sheeran (playing himself) has the same songs he does in our universe, etc.
This is a problem for a movie that is a love letter to The Beatles: It is seemingly arguing that the course of musical history would have been almost exactly the same without them. But that can’t possibly be true. Would the Dave Clark Five or the Rolling Stones have led the British Invasion in their absence? Would Beatles-aping bands like The Monkees or Electric Light Orchestra not exist either? How did The Beatles never come together in the first place, and what happened to all the band’s members? Would Brian Wilson have made Pet Sounds without the Beatles to compete against? There are plenty of similar questions one can ask (to say nothing of the other unexplained and unnecessary disappearances of certain staples of our reality), and the movie breaks down somewhat under close consideration.
Which is why it’s probably best not to consider Yesterday too closely. Enjoy it as a love letter to the greatest act in modern music, and as a light, cute, romantic-comedy-cum-fairy-tale, and you’ll be fine. And be sure to stay for the credits, which provide welcome evidence, after a movie without the real deal, that our reality is not Beatle-proof.
* Such love is not lacking in this reviewer.
** I felt justifiably obligated to see a work of alternate-universe fiction about the Beatles’ whose main character is named Jack that came out two days before my birthday on my birthday.
*** Jack’s plight made me wonder what item of pop culture I could “recreate” under similar circumstances if it disappeared entirely.