Imagine there’s no Beatles. It’s easy if you try… according to inexcusably lazy comedy Yesterday, which proposes that, absent the incalculably enormous impact the Beatles have had on not just music and pop culture but upon culture itself, the world would nevertheless look exactly as it does today. Which seems impossibly unlikely, and also feels like a huge insult to the Fab Four.
The unexplained high-concept here: One night there is a momentary worldwide electrical blackout that lasts for only a few minutes, during which struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus and knocked unconscious. After he wakes up, he slowly comes to the realization that he’s the only person who knows about the Beatles and their music. He discovers this only because he starts playing “Yesterday” on his guitar, and his friends — including his manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Darkest Hour) — think it’s a new song that he himself has written. Google confirms it: there has never been any such band as the Beatles. Has Jack somehow slipped into an alternate universe? Is God a Rolling Stones fan (they still exist here) and used the blackout to erase all evidence of the Beatles from history and from everyone’s memory? Thanos Snap?
Whichever the case — and it really doesn’t matter — it’s just an excuse to tell yet another story about a not very talented guy who enjoys unwarranted success, for Jack goes on to “write” and record all the Beatles songs, which turns him into a global phenomenon. Because of course the songs are terrific… to our ears, in the cultural context in which we know them. But would “I Want to Hold Your Hand” really have the same impact, brand-new, in 2019 as it did in 1964? How would “Eleanor Rigby” or “Let It Be” land today? The Beatles’ songs exist in a bizarre vacuum here, literally excised from the social and artistic environment in which they were written and performed and received. Songs like these, like all of the Beatles’ work, are so very much of their particular moment in time — which of course is part of how and why they endure — and there’s no sense of that in Yesterday. (I don’t think timeless means quite what this movie seems to think it means.) These songs would surely sound odd, anachronistic, maybe even random if they were presented as created now.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about Yesterday is that it isn’t even a revue of Beatles’ music, like those shows that end up on Broadway and in the West End, and now are transferring over to movies, as with Mamma Mia! Only a few of the songs are actually performed in anything close to their entirety. It’s all mostly just a one-note running joke about how no one except Jack knows all those famous Beatles lyrics and tunes, combined with a blah romance: Ellie is naturally in love with the oblivious Jack, and now is losing him to fame and fortune. Patel, an Indian-British TV actor making his feature debut here, is charming enough (and, small favors, at least it’s not another white guy sailing to unearned adoration). But Yesterday is, at its very best, inoffensive to the point of blandness; even Kate McKinnon (Ferdinand, Office Christmas Party), in a small part as a Big Music shark who latches onto Jack, is only briefly allowed to bring her usual glorious spark to the screen. At its worst… well, there’s a moment toward the end of the film that is so cheaply manipulative that it feels like a punch in the gut, and not in any good way, and leaves a sour taint over the whole endeavor.
I’m sure director Danny Boyle (T2 Trainspotting, Steve Jobs) and screenwriters Richard Curtis (Trash, About Time) and Jack Barth imagined they were paying tribute to what is probably the greatest band in the history of rock ’n’ roll — and maybe some of the most profoundly influential people in the history of humanity — with this movie, which is replete with their songs (or snippet reminders of them) and with a whole planet of 21st-century people newly discovering them and going crazy for them. But it utterly defangs the music we know and love so well, diminishes its significance and the meaning it has for so many of us. And ultimately, Yesterday very clearly says that if you took the Beatles away, nothing would be different and no one would even notice.