The premise of “Yesterday” promised big things. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling, moderately talented singer-songwriter from Suffolk, England, is hospitalized after colliding with a bus during a mysterious, momentary global blackout. Emerging from a coma, he is astonished to discover that, for everybody but himself, the Beatles never existed. His vinyl Beatles albums have vanished. When he Googles the Beatles, only insects come up. He manages to remember the lyrics to many of the Fab Four’s greatest hits, and soon he is performing their songs as his own and being hailed as a genius.
Far-fetched, yes, but a fantasy ripe with thematic possibilities. What would the world, and not just the music world, be like if there had been no Beatles? The problem with the film, as directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and written by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), is that, except for a few other odd omissions, Jack’s brave new world looks and sounds remarkably like the old one.
I can’t imagine this blandness was intentional. Why set up a great premise only to flatten it out?
It doesn’t help that Patel never conveys what it might be like to suffer such an emotional dislocation, knowing that he alone is the vessel for this lost legacy. He’s so uncharismatic that he makes even his Best of the Beatles renditions sound unexciting. It doesn’t feel right that he becomes a worldwide sensation. The movie misses entirely what made the Beatles such a phenomenon. The notion that anybody can perform “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and wow audiences in the same way that John, Paul, George, and Ringo did is just plain nutty.
The filmmakers work in a soppy love angle that only drags things down even further. Ellie (Lily James), Jack’s longtime friend and sometime manager before he hits it big, harbors an unrequited crush on him. He is, of course, too dim to recognize her banked ardor, and eventually his fame pushes them apart. You can see where this is going. Fame – big surprise! – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Love conquers all.
It’s as if the filmmakers were intent on trashing their film’s best possibilities.
There are a few compensations. The scene where Jack attempts to play “Let it Be” to his distracted, uncomprehending parents in their living room is pretty funny. Kate McKinnon, playing a predatory music manager who wants to package Jack as the next big thing, strikes a few sparks, although her scenes are derivative of many other movies about showbiz wickedness. What presumably was intended as stinging satire is instead fairly ho-hum. And James, in a rather thankless role, is lovely. Her Ellie is better than Jack, or this movie, deserve.
Of course, there is also a wealth of Beatles songs on the soundtrack, and despite Jack’s subpar renditions, their beauty still pokes through. I can’t imagine a world without the Beatles, but I can well imagine a world without this movie. Grade: C (Rated PG-13)