Have you got coke?
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has dreams of singer/songwriter stardom, but this Clacton-on-Sea native is lucky if one person besides best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James) and their mates Nick (Harry Michell) and Carol (Sophia Di Martino) is actually listening to “Summer Song” let alone enjoying it at gigs. That’s the pitfall of dreams: they don’t always work out. While he would have quit years ago if not for Ellie constantly pushing him forward, his latest set-back doubling as a modest moral victory allows him to finally give up on his own terms to go full-time at a wholesale market or return to teaching. Is it a bittersweet realization? Sure. But Jack’s ready to make it with open eyes after waiting too long for a miracle to change his life.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis (who conceived Yesterday‘s story with Jack Barth) has other ideas, however, by introducing an unexplained phenomenon that just might provide Jack his chance. It comes in the form of a twelve-second global blackout wherein he happened to get distracted enough to be hit by a bus in the darkness. Besides discovering he’s lost two teeth and his scraggly beard upon waking up, nothing else seems amiss at first. Ellie is there by his side with a mix of dry British sarcasm and heartfelt relief and his decision to stop pursing music remains. A couple weird instances of referencing The Beatles fall flat, but that could mean anything. Right? Only when he plays “Yesterday” to stunned silence by his friends does the truth come into focus.
No one remembers the band. No. It’s more than that. The band never existed. Jack sits at his computer and Googles once, twice, three times to find nothing but Wikipedia pages about the insect. He runs to Ellie’s place in the rain to make certain her ignorance of John, Paul, George, and Ringo isn’t some elaborate gag at his expense and ultimately realizes the opportunity that’s fallen into his lap. If he can remember the lyrics—an authentic struggle that delivers the film’s more relatable laughs—he can claim every Beatles classic as his own. Doing so would therefore reveal to him what the problem has been all this time. Have audiences disliked his songs or were they simply disinterested in him? Will anyone with clout even listen?
Well Curtis and director Danny Boyle ensure someone does by enlisting the help of Grammy-winning Ed Sheeran. Playing a brilliantly self-effacing version of himself who’s unafraid to poke fun at his somewhat divisive image, the “Shape of You” singer becomes a fairy godfather of sorts by plucking Jack from obscurity to come onboard his current tour as an opening act. The world catches their glimpse and project Beatlemania upon him while American agent Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) arrives on the scene to make him famous and her rich in the process. The sad truth of the matter, though, is that Ellie can’t come with him. Her obligations teaching mean she must stay in England—the distance forcing these chums to realize they may in fact love each other.
Yesterday therefore becomes an embattled war between its two halves. On one side is the entertainingly hilarious high-concept alternate universe where The Beatles missing isn’t the only thing that’s changed (I won’t spoil the rest except to note Boyle-favorite Robert Carlyle pops up in a surprise cameo). On the other is this generic love story that must be shelved for long stretches of time in order for the first to breathe. And while we’re caught up in the craziness surrounding Jack’s ascent into the spotlight with two shadowy figures (Justin Edwards and Sarah Lancashire) following behind with deliberate skepticism and shock, whether or not he and Ellie get together romantically proves unimportant. A) They probably will. B) His confronting his guilt/crime is a lot more interesting.
Remove Ellie from the film and the best parts remain. The quick cut effect of going to Google whenever something Jack mentions is received with confusion might grow repetitive in nature, but the humorous charm of his reactions still land. Sheeran is more and more game to mock himself as things progress; McKinnon’s already over-the-top style hits the stratosphere when countered by the otherwise subdued British tone of matter-of-fact gags; and Joel Fry as Jack’s stoner klutz of a roadie Rocky turns a one-note performance into an integral and memorable piece of the whole. And where uncertainty doesn’t really exist where Jack and Ellie’s future is concerned (with or without the addition of another love interest for her), it does with Edwards and Lancashire’s mysterious intent.
I would have loved that last bit to move towards the surrealism of Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary, but the payoff of their strangers’ arc is worthwhile nonetheless. And while I would have also liked the fantasy aspect to marry better with the romance (I think Curtis excelled at this duality with About Time), the disjointed feeling of those halves working against each other doesn’t make the film a lost cause. It helps that Patel is charismatic enough to make us like him and want to see him succeed despite the stress-induced outbursts and often-misguided decisions to chase his dream at the expense of everything else. He and James are likeable and thus we still pull for them despite the void of tension where their relationship is concerned.
Just know the moments when they’re together can feel strained since they inevitably derail the drama unfolding within Jack’s conscience. Will he go for it and embrace the fame in spite of the lie at its foundation or will he realize the power of The Beatles’ music goes beyond any single person—the band’s quartet included. This epiphany is what Curtis should have made his centerpiece because it gets to the heart of what makes these songs so indelible. It’s not about ownership, but emotion. I think back to Fahrenheit 451 and how its rebels’ strongest weapon was their ability to write the books they remembered from before everything was burned because great art transcends its makers. Yesterday might not be great itself, but that message surely is.
 (from left) Ellie (Lily James, back to camera) and Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) in “Yesterday,” directed by Danny Boyle. Photo Credit: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures © 2019 Universal Studios
 (from left) Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, on tv screen) and Ellie (Lily James) in “Yesterday,” directed by Danny Boyle. Photo Credit: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures © 2019 Universal Studios
 (from left) Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) and Debra (Kate McKinnon) in “Yesterday,” directed by Danny Boyle. Photo Credit: Suzanne Hanover/Universal Pictures © 2019 Universal Studios