Pending the inevitable collapse of global society and destruction of all recorded music as a result of oil wars and climate disaster, people will always love The Beatles. On the metaphorical Titanic that is this planet, the orchestra will play “Let It Be” as we sink. The end of the world as we know it is truly the only viable threat to the band’s legacy. But boy, does Yesterday give doomsday a run for its money.
A threateningly saccharine ransom letter of a movie, Yesterday takes the Fab Four hostage and asks us to imagine a world in which they never existed, except in the mind of one struggling musician. This premise is as silly and navel-gazing as a dorm room thought experiment, but silliness and experimentation alone never stopped anyone from making a good movie. In the hands of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis, however, these elements have combined in their very worst forms, yielding a final product that is both odd and formulaic, sickly sweet and mean-spirited, drenched in pop culture yet utterly tasteless. By completely separating the music of The Beatles from the charisma, energy, and politics of the band itself, Yesterday fails to replicate even a hint of the magic that makes them so beloved.
It’s difficult to draw a line between Boyle’s disappointing turn toward marketable, often exploitative perseverance porn (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and his decision to direct this film, a family-friendly romantic comedy that very clearly shouts “written by Richard Curtis.” And while certain moments of Yesterday glitter with Boyle’s characteristic bigger-than-life visual style, the movie is, for the most part, much too glib and angry for Boyle’s earnestness. This has almost everything to do with the screenplay, which follows singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) on his weird journey to fame and back.
Jack, young-ish and still living with his parents in a small town on the English seaside, is a passionate yet mediocre musician, combining decent guitar skills and vocals with some very weak songwriting. When his best-friend-turned-manager Ellie (poor, poor Lily James) gets him a gig at a music festival, he thinks he might have finally made it big—but he ends up only playing a children’s tent, a demoralizing event (with a fun little cameo by “Cold Little Heart” singer Michael Kiwanuka) that leads him to quit music and return to teaching. That is, until we roll up to the movie’s truly bonkers inciting incident—Jack gets into a bike crash during a worldwide blackout, and when he wakes up, nobody knows who The Beatles are but him. He thinks his friends are messing with him, but no, they’ve truly never heard of John, Paul, George and Ringo. You just have to go with it.
Like any rational person, Jack decides to take The Beatles catalogue and make it his own, thus establishing the lie and guilt his entire career (and film) will be built upon. Fame doesn’t come immediately for Jack, and the movie briefly explores why that might be, raising valid questions about the power of The Beatles personas, harmonies, and precise moment in history. But all these questions go out the window the moment that Ed Sheeran—yes, that Ed Sheeran—hears one of Jack’s songs on TV and shows up at his cost to offer him a touring gig. If the idea of Ed Sheeran being anywhere near Beatles music makes you anxious, you’re in for a long fucking ride.
They travel to Moscow, where Jack performs “Back in the U.S.S.R.” to a group of Russian teenagers who inexplicably love it and are not at all offended by its implications, and his reputation grows from there. Patel’s other covers of the band’s most famous works, which are scattered throughout the movie like an afterthought, are fine—yet they lack the harmonies and arrangements that make the originals so great. Sheeran’s hawkish manager Deborah (Kate McKinnon, doing a mid-tier SNL impression) swoops in as the perfunctory villain who makes him choose between Money and Love, while Lily James’ Ellie looms permanently in the background, a nice girl in love with her very mediocre yet now very famous best friend.
Ultimately, their inevitable, unequal relationship swallows the movie whole, making everything about love and marriage and babies and status quo bullshit. The Beatles were, after all, pop musicians who often sang about all that bullshit—and there’s nothing wrong with a little happy ending—but setting your film’s final montage to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a crime that can’t be forgiven.
Speaking of crimes, Yesterday was very clearly unable to include either of the living members of the Beatles, so it decided to resurrect a dead one. After Jack’s big rooftop concert, where he performs an atrocious pop punk rendition of “Help!” that would make even the most easygoing listener cringe, two mysterious strangers introduce themselves to him as the only other people in the world who also remember The Beatles—and one of them has tracked down John Lennon. Yes, in this Beatles-free timeline, Lennon was never shot at the age of 40, but lived a long and happy life as a, uh, fisherman? Seeking guidance, Jack goes to visit John (Robert Carlyle in an Urban Outfitters beanie) in his quiet beachside home. Yesterday imagines him as a meek, sage Yoda in round spectacles, nothing like the firebrand creative he actually was, who advises Jack to tell the truth and says his life “turned out just fab.” Jack asks nothing of Paul and Ringo, who are presumably also alive in this timeline but want absolutely nothing to do with the movie, and returns to America to come clean.
For people who aren’t offended by playing with the sanctity of The Beatles, the saving grace of this film could so easily be some solid comedy, but I’m sad to say most jokes never land. There’s a recurring butterfly effect bit about all the other things that don’t exist in this world, which include Coca-Cola, Oasis, Harry Potter, and cigarettes. There’s also an oddly large emphasis placed on Jack losing his front teeth in the original bike accident. Jack’s roadie friend Rocky (Joel Fry) is the most charming character of the bunch and gets a solid laugh for mocking Ed Sheeran’s rapping abilities to his face, but that’s about it.
Yesterday isn’t really unique in its badness, nor is it unique its attempt to take a complex, historically significant entity and make it something sweetly palatable for modern audiences. And who knows—children might see this movie and fall in love with The Beatles music for the first time like the rest of us did, one way or another. But if that happens, it’s all thanks to the enduring power of the music itself—Danny Boyle and co. have done it no favors.