Review: Beatles tale 'Yesterday' could use a little help

Comic tale asks but doesn't explore the question, 'what if the Beatles never happened?'

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Himesh Patel in "Yesterday."

After a freak accident during a brief global blackout, nobody remembers the music of the Beatles, save for one lowly English singer-songwriter.

That's the fun, fascinating premise of "Yesterday," a light comedy which presents a fresh a way to reevaluate the cultural impact of the Beatles by, in essence, reintroducing their music to the world.

But "Yesterday" is such an unabashed love letter to the Fab Four that it misses its opportunity to truly examine what made their catalog resonate on a global scale, and doesn't properly contextualize their impact against today's cultural landscape.   

Maybe it's not meant to, perhaps it's just a lark, and as a vehicle for servicing Beatles songs, it has its charms. But with such grand material to work with, "Yesterday" feels like it takes the easy way out.

Himesh Patel is Jack Malik, a struggling rocker who becomes the lone keeper of the Beatles' legacy following a mysterious occurrence that wipes out the group's existence. (Coca-Cola is gone too, and in a winking nod to the debt they owed to the Beatles, '90s British rock outfit Oasis is also kaput.)

Jack can't believe that the world's greatest group doesn't ring a bell for anyone — Google searches for "Beatles" assume a typo and bring up the insect — and he scrambles to, one by one, write down as many song titles and lyrics as he can.

In a devious twist, he decides to pass the music off as his own, which in turn makes him a near-instant global sensation and makes him the envy of modern stars such as Ed Sheeran (who plays himself in a self-effacing turn). 

As Jack's star rises, he's torn by his deception, and lives in fear his secret will be exposed. He's followed by several ominous figures who threaten to out him, a conflict that Richard Curtis' script doesn't entirely see through. 

Curtis ("Love Actually," "Four Weddings and a Funeral") and director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "Slumdog Millionaire") are more interested in toasting the music of the Beatles than they are dissecting it. Their premise is that "Let It Be" is a great song because it's "Let It Be," and it would be "Let It Be" no matter who delivers it, and when.

A deeper dive into the music may have examined the lyrics or the song structure or the chemistry between the band members, all the elements that combined to make the Beatles, well, the Beatles.

"Yesterday," in an odd way, forsakes those ingredients — as well as all-important cultural factors, such as timing — and takes the path of least resistance in honoring the Beatles' songbook. A premise that could have been just as interesting, and perhaps more enlightening: what if the Beatles happened, but no one cared?

Let's leave that for the music nerds; this is a comedy, after all. "Yesterday" does modernize the Beatles in several amusing ways, such as when Jack's proposal for "The White Album" is shot down by his record company for diversity reasons, or when "Hey Jude" is suggested to be changed to the more universal "Hey Dude."

Kate McKinnon plays a greedy record exec like she's playing an "SNL" version of a greedy record exec, and Lily James plays Jack's would-be girlfriend, Ellie, in a plot line that isn't given enough room to breathe, and Patel doesn't have the charisma to properly sell.

The timing is certainly right for a big-screen celebration of the greatest catalog in all of music, with rock biopics "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Rocketman" giving new life to the music of Queen and Elton John, respectively. Give "Yesterday" credit for taking a sideways approach to honoring the Beatles. But this Boomer fantasy only pretends to dive into a true appreciation of what made the group a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.  



Rated PG-13: for suggestive content and language

Running time: 117 minutes