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If The Beatles were to debut today, would they still be the worldwide phenomenon they once were? That’s the question many aging, white Boomers have asked themselves to stave off the anxiety of their cultural irrelevance. Few have the audacity to project that anxiety on a giant screen for the world to see, but the creators of Yesterday are an audacious bunch.
Yesterday is a fun thought experiment minus the thought. Or much fun. It opens on a stale rom-com premise: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a vaguely talented but wildly unpopular singer-songwriter whose fading dreams of stardom are propped up only by the doe-eyed enthusiasm of his adorable friend/manager Ellie (Lily James). They have been friends since high school, and everyone wonders why their relationship has never evolved into something more. No bonus points for guessing if they get together by the end.
Their inevitable romantic hook-up is put on hold, however, when a worldwide blackout and a chance meeting between Jack and the front end of a city bus somehow causes an alternate reality in which The Beatles have never existed. Jack is the only one who remembers them. Desperate for the stardom to which he feels entitled, he performs their songs as his own, drawing the attention of Ed Sheeran (playing himself adequately), who puts him on as his opening act on a global tour.
It’s a novel idea—and since Hollywood has so few of those these days, that’s no small compliment—but screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle seem intent on exploring its most uninteresting angles. I liked an early sequence when Jack debuts his “new songs” for friends and then the public, only for no one to recognize their brilliance. This sequence speaks a vital truth about The Beatles: The songs were great, but the personalities of the band were equally as crucial to their success. Disappointingly, the script quickly abandons this avenue and decides the songs were enough. Despite having a fraction of the group’s charisma, Jack becomes a worldwide sensation.
It’s a bland approach, but there are some idiosyncratic flourishes scattered throughout. A marketing meeting in which Jack’s record label execs profoundly misunderstand the appeal of the music is good for a chuckle. A running subplot involving two peripheral characters who seem to be onto Jack’s ruse ends in a delightfully hopeful way. Then there’s Kate McKinnon, who shows up as an uber-cynical music manager and, for a few minutes, imbues the film with her gonzo-deadpan energy.
But underneath the gimmicks and the occasional flights of creative fancy is just a painfully traditional music biopic. Jack’s arc, in which he rises to stardom, struggles with fame, forgets his friends, and eventually finds them again, is painfully similar to that which we have seen in Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody, or this year’s Rocketman. The only difference is that we don’t know Jack, and we don’t care about him either. The songs are great, but we’re never invested in the character.
The only place where Yesterday proves to be clever is in its casting. Himesh Patel is not quite a star-in-the-making. He has a lovely singing voice and a modicum of charm, but simply casting an actor of Indian descent in such a role is a progressive statement in a post-Brexit world. The Beatles are many things to many people, but surely to some fools, they are icons of an England that was better because it was whiter. In the fantasy world of this film, their songs are spun from the vocal cords of a brown person. This shrewd creative choice, so out of step with the rest of this vanilla film, could even be read as a pointed bit of self-critique: Maybe yesterday wasn’t so great after all.
Yesterday opens Friday in theaters everywhere.