Look, I love the premise of Yesterday. I think about these kind of questions all the time: what if there was some important or lucrative piece of information that only I remembered? What would or could I even do with it? So the whole concept of a world suddenly existing where the Beatles no longer exist — yet I somehow still remember them — is inherently fascinating.
The “reason” this happens in Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (which premiered Saturday night as the closing night film of the Tribeca Film Festival) is never fully explained or explored, it just happens. We know there’s a worldwide power outage and that, after the power comes back, everyone has forgotten about The Beatles (and, cleverly, a few other popular entities) — except for Jack (Himesh Patel, who is wonderful in this movie) who, at the moment of the outage, is hit by a bus.
Did the world end, yet Jack was thrust into an alternate timeline where the only difference is that hugely popular cultural touchstones are gone? I have so many questions, but Yesterday doesn’t seem that interested in answering them. Actually, that’s the weirdest thing about this movie. It has a killer premise, yet the movie seems to actively resent its own fantastic idea and just, instead, decided to become a fairly average romantic comedy — only with a lot more Beatles songs than the average rom com. Anyway, yes, it’s baffling.
Jack discovers the absence of The Beatles when he performs “Yesterday” for a group of friends who seem baffled that Jack had written such a beautiful song. (I do wonder what his friends would have thought if Jack had belted out “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” instead.) After finding no history of The Beatles on the internet, Jack starts to perform their songs and gains attention from Ed Sheeran. (Yes, you’re reading that last sentence correctly. Also, there are some pretty good Ed Sheeran jokes in this movie that he seems to just ride along with. I strangely like him more now.) I understand Yesterday has to get to “the plot,” but Jack goes from discovering he’s in an alternate reality to trying to profit from this new reality extremely quickly.
(As an aside, I also wonder if Beatles songs even work as “new songs” in 2019. Would someone now hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and think, holy hell, this song speaks to me? As another aside, would this work for any band? If I woke up tomorrow and I discovered Right Said Fred never existed, could I record “I’m Too Sexy” and become a millionaire? Also, how would I even realize Right Said Fred is gone? It’s plausible anyone I mention them to might not know who they are. What if Right Said Fred did disappear and I don’t even know it and you’re reading this going, “Who is Right Said Fred?” Maybe this happens all the time and we just don’t realize it?)
For whatever reason, Yesterday decided this should be a romantic comedy instead of a fascinating “What If?” exercise. There were so many avenues to explore! There could have been online “conspiracy theorists” who also remember The Beatles who know that Jack is a fraud. But, no, when this scenario is somewhat broached in the film, it’s played for some quick laughs.
Both Himesh Patel and Lily James (who plays Jack’s first manager and love interest, Ellie) are great. But, boy, this movie is really infatuated with their will they/won’t they relationship. Which, fine, I guess, but it’s at the expense of this extremely fascinating premise the movie seems to forget about for huge stretches. It’s baffling. We’ve been introduced to this crazy scenario with endless questions, yet Yesterday cares most about if Ellie will “be the girl who gets away.”