Movie Review: ‘Yesterday’ imagines Beatles-less world in magical rom-com

June 28, 2019

Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures via AP

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Yesterday' (Jason Fraley)

A unique premise doesn’t always guarantee a great movie, but every once in a while, such a premise is executed with such heart that we can’t help but leave the theater feeling changed.

That’s the case with the new rom-com fantasy “Yesterday” by director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”). It poses a fascinating question: What would the world look like if the music of The Beatles never existed? Better yet, what would happen if only one person remembered their music and decided to sell it as his own?

The story opens with Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) barely scraping by as a struggling busker in Essex. One magical night, a global blackout takes out the entire electrical grid, causing Jack to hit his head in an accident. When he comes to, he’s the only one who remembers The Beatles. One could go multiple ways with this gift, but Jack hatches a scheme to record and release the music as his own. But is international fame and fortune worth it when his meteoric rise is built on a lie? Would he better off settling down with longtime gal pal Ellie Appleton (Lily James)?

In the land of magical-realist fantasies, you either go with the premise or you don’t. If you roll your eyes at whimsy or prefer cold cynicism over warm sentimentality, this flick ain’t for you. But if magical realism is one of your favorite genres (like yours truly), you’ll eat it up the same way you did “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “Field of Dreams” (1989) or “Groundhog Day” (1993). If anything, the premise expands the nonexistence experiment to an anthropological level; rather than the protagonist’s life not existing (i.e. George Bailey), it’s an entire band’s catalog.

Who better to helm this Fab Four salute than British master Danny Boyle, whose anti-drug breakthrough “Trainspotting” (1996) made the British Film Institute’s Top 10 Films of the 20th Century, and whose underdog quiz-show gem “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) won Best Picture at the Oscars. In “Yesterday,” Boyle shoots diagonal “Dutch angles” to show the world off kilter. There’s also a recurring image of a blurry mirror every time someone enters the front door, signaling that the past no longer reflects reality, but rather a skewed alternate reality.

The oft-gritty Boyle may seem like an oddball pairing with the more saccharine writing style of Richard Curtis, who penned the Oscar-nominated script for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994) then wrote and directed the holiday favorite “Love Actually” (2003). Somehow it works, as Curtis taps into the fantasy elements he used in the time travel rom-com “About Time” (2013) as he fleshes out a story concept by Jack Barth, who got his start on “The Simpsons.”

Here, the script is endlessly fascinating. The catalyst is as clever as any in recent memory, setting up a juicy “fun and games” section where unsuspecting fans react in awe to songs they think they’re hearing for the first time (“Yesterday”), while family members interrupt sure masterpieces (“Let It Be”). Best of all, Ed Sheeran hilariously plays himself, coming to the “Amadeus” realization that he’s the Salieri to Jack’s Mozart, helpless in songwriting contests (“The Long and Winding Road”) and boneheaded in his edits (“Hey Jude” as “Hey Dude”).

Don’t expect an answer to the magic. The cause of the phenomenon is never explained, nor does it need to be. Sometimes it’s better not to know why Bill Murray is repeating the same day. As HBO’s “The Leftovers” urged, let the mystery be. Or, as McCartney sang, let it be.

Instead, the film prefers to riff on how the band’s absence affects other elements of society. Pop-culture products, from Coke to cigarettes, have subsequently disappeared. The Rolling Stones still exist, but Oasis does not. Helter Skelter just swallowed Champagne Supernova.

Some of the film’s detractors wish the movie went even further in this direction, showing the intricate butterfly effect of their music, which I suppose is fair. Instead, the film focuses on the central romantic relationship, but that’s fine by me. Beneath the fantasy elements, the movie is at its heart a romantic comedy, delightfully fueled by the chemistry of its two young leads.

Newcomer Himesh Patel shines in his first major film after the BBC soap opera “EastEnders” (2007-2016), grinning through missing teeth with impressive comedic timing, while Lily James delivers her most down-to-earth performance after a rags-to-riches rise in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” (2015) and a game-for-anything waitress in Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” (2017).

Their romance is the key, more than anything written by John, Paul, George or Ringo, because this is a film about living for others more than living for yourself. In this light, the script stays true to its thematic core, hinging on the protagonist’s internal growth from selfishness to humility. We revel in Jack’s quest to do the right thing, not because he’s going to get caught, but on his own terms as the only way to cleanse his soul. In other words, it’s easy to tell the truth when you fear consequence; it’s harder (and more rewarding) to do it by moral choice.

His journey starts with egotistical deceit, desperately trying to remember the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” and visiting locales to “inspire” himself: Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Abbey Road. By the time we reach the “bad guys closing in” of Act Two, we wonder how long Jack can keep up the charade, especially under the pressure of his greedy manager (Kate McKinnon), who claims to have his best interests but doesn’t really care for him. With the pressure building and his guilty conscience ramping, his rendition of “Help!” is a heartbreaking cry for help.

Just as you think the script is taking the easy way out with those who inevitably confront him, it does a 180-degree turn at Jack’s “all is lost” moment for a soul-touching twist in the “dark night of the soul.” You’ll whisper, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” as the movie suddenly transcends the superficial joy we expected from the trailers and delivers something deeper.

That is to say, it teaches us blinding truths about the priorities in our own lives. Perhaps fame and fortune isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you wind up assassinated by a crazed fan. Should we strive to be bigger than The Beatles? Or should we simply strive to be good people? “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

In the end, the movie’s lesson is that the secret to happiness comes down to two things: (1) “Tell the person you love that you love them” and (2) “Always tell the truth to everyone all the time.” If you walk away with that lesson alone, “Yesterday” will make your tomorrow brighter.

I believe in “Yesterday!”

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