You know him — there’s one of him in every circle of loose acquaintances: the guy (or gal or nonbinary pal — gender is irrelevant here) who has made worshipping The Beatles part of their personality. Despite being born at least a decade after the band parted ways, he knows all of the lyrics to even the most obscure of cuts, she can rattle off the set list the Fab Four played at their first show in Paris, they’ve made a holiday out of going to Liverpool and posing in front of the Strawberry Field sign. They’re probably proficient — but not brilliant — at playing the guitar, and they’ve probably uploaded more than one video of themselves covering “Here Comes the Sun” onto YouTube. (There’s nothing wrong with this; I’m sure more than one of my friends is rolling their eyes thinking of my ridiculous Replacements fervor. We all have Our Thing.)
I say this not because director Danny Boyle’s new musical romantic comedy, Yesterday, is for this rabid breed of Beatles super-fan — it definitely is not; there’s not a deep cut to be found — but because it provides some context for the type of supremely average joe the film centers itself around. When we first meet Jack Malik (Himish Patel) in his hometown of Suffolk, England, it’s clear that despite his striving and strumming (and near-encyclopedic knowledge of Beatles lyrics), he just doesn’t have what it takes to make a career out of being a singer-songwriter. He’s in his late 20s, he’s living at home with his mildly supportive parents, he plays gigs at local coffee shops, and his “big break” landing on a music festival bill winds up being a big disappointment in a teeny-tiny tent far from the mainstage. He’s finally reached the point (rather sensibly, might I add) where he’s ready to give up on his dream and settle into a life more ordinary — when something extraordinary happens.
Jack is biking home after telling his manager/childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) that he’s played his last show when out of nowhere, a worldwide blackout hits. The power is out for a good 12 seconds, and when it flickers back on, Jack barely has time to register what’s about to (literally) hit him. Being run over by a tractor trailer will do pretty strange things to a person’s head, so it takes a while for him to register what he missed while he was in the hospital — namely, that The Beatles have been erased from existence. As one of the only people on the planet who seems to remember the lads from Liverpool (alongside other random things like Coca-Cola, Oasis, and cigarettes, although Boyle and screenwriter Richard Harris never make any effort to explain this central plot point), he sees an opportunity for himself, hurriedly scribbling down as many songs and lyrics as he can remember so he can begin passing Lennon-McCartney gems off as his own.
Because the songs are so universal and so genius, the film ignores the current state of the music industry and simplistically posits that anyone in this position with an ounce of musical inclination would rocket to overnight superstardom. Like Jack, who somehow gets the opening slot on Ed Sheeran’s world tour, signs with an agent (Kate McKinnon playing, well, a very Kate McKinnon character), and leaving his old life behind. Essentially, he’s living the daydream of middle-aged dads everywhere — until he’s forced to choose between being the world’s biggest superstar or being in a relationship with Ellie, who has apparently pined for him since they were young. (He’s just been too self-absorbed to recognize it.) This all leads to a rather tasteless scene about two-thirds of the way through the film that posits that John Lennon would have led a happier (longer) life, had he tempered his artistic goals and settled for less. (Reader, it is here that I gently wept.) That’s right, folks: Much like last year’s equally flawed high-concept film Tully, this is a parable about the virtues of settling.
To sum things up, presumably engineered at some sort of “mega-marketing meeting” (in the words of McKinnon’s character) full of studio executives, Yesterday — much like its shockingly average protagonist — is technically proficient on every level but never rises to the level of the source material. I do expect, however, that it will sell plenty of greatest hits compilations to boomers eager to convince their kids (quite rightly, I’ll add) that The Beatles are better than Ed Sheeran.