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Imagine There's No Beatles: 'Yesterday' Proves Too Clumsy For Its Clever Conceit

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring singer-songwriter who finds himself taking credit for The Beatles' catalog in <em>Yesterday</em>.
Jonathan Prime
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring singer-songwriter who finds himself taking credit for The Beatles' catalog in Yesterday.

I'll say this much for the breezy but dispiriting musical romance Yesterday: It has a clever conceit that it doesn't make the mistake of trying to explain. What explanation could there be for how The Beatles suddenly vanished from history, leaving behind only one lonely fan who remembers some of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs ever written? Like a lot of surreal comic fantasies, the movie just invites you to shrug and go along with its cheerfully ridiculous premise.

I was glad to do so, up to a point. The lead actor, Himesh Patel, best known for the British soap opera EastEnders, has an engaging presence and a lovely singing voice. There are worse ways to pass two hours than listening to Patel warble more than a dozen of The Beatles' biggest hits, even if he's no match for John, Paul, George and Ringo. But the movie is directed with uncharacteristic blandness by Danny Boyle, who brought so much more dynamism to movies like Slumdog Millionaireand Steve Jobs. And the screenwriter Richard Curtis, the one-man British whimsy factory behind Love, Actually and Notting Hill, seems less interested in exploring the Beatles' cultural legacy than in trapping his characters in another one of his patented rom-com formulas.

Patel plays Jack Malik, a young man from the English county of Suffolk who's about to give up on his dreams of a music career, despite the encouragement of his best friend and part-time manager, Ellie (Lily James). While riding his bike home one night, Jack gets hit by a bus and knocked unconscious right at the moment of an inexplicable worldwide power outage. He makes a speedy recovery, but the world around him has irrevocably changed. Jack realizes this when he's playing his guitar for Ellie and some other friends. He decides to perform The Beatles' 1965 hit "Yesterday," and the others are awestruck by what they assume is his own composition.

After running several frantic Google searches, Jack confirms that the impossible has happened: Somehow The Beatles never became The Beatles, and immortal songs like "Let It Be," "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Hey Jude" were never written. Until now, of course. After frantically scribbling down all the lyrics he can remember, Jack begins performing the Beatles' songs, passing them off as his own. His appearance on a local TV program captures the attention of none other than Ed Sheeran, who gives a sharp, self-effacing performance as himself. Sheeran is floored by this newcomer's obvious talent and makes him his opening act, which is all Jack needs to become an overnight sensation.

Jack's meteoric rise is meant to tell us something, namely that the appeal of The Beatles' music is so universal that it can captivate anyone, anytime and anywhere. That's easy enough to believe, but Yesterday handles the music so clumsily that it almost gives you reason for doubt. Patel sings beautifully — he does an especially stirring rendition of "In My Life" — but the movie chops most of the songs up into fragments and litters them almost interchangeably throughout the story. It so takes our affection for The Beatles for granted that it never bothers to give the music a proper showcase. It doesn't let those songs soar and seduce us anew.

In reducing The Beatles' catalog to a greatest-hits cover album, Yesterday disregards some of the more intriguing possibilities of its goofy premise. What would the state of contemporary popular music even begin to look like if one of its greatest, most influential pillars had been removed? Because they're making a lightweight pop confection, the filmmakers don't expect you to trouble yourself with such concerns. But the questions they force us to dwell on are so much more banal by comparison: Will Jack and Ellie end up together in the end? Can world-famous celebrities ever be compatible with the working-class nobodies they fall in love with? It was a compelling enough dilemma in Notting Hill, but by now the Richard Curtis template is starting to wear awfully thin.

Kate McKinnon does give the movie a welcome blast of comic energy as Debra, a witheringly cynical music agent who takes Jack on as her latest client. Art is simply product to Debra; again and again, she tells Jack he's going to be rich beyond his wildest dreams. So long as the money keeps rolling in, she couldn't care less about what the Beatles' songs mean or where they came from. She sums up this movie's worldview all too perfectly.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.