‘Yesterday’ Will Make You Question Everything You Think You Know About Pop Music
Film Reviews with Tim Riley
“YESTERDAY” (Rated PG-13)Imagine a world in which the music of The Beatles is unknown to the entire world. That’s just not possible, but, in fact, “Yesterday” sets up the premise for an alternative timeline in the universe so that discovery of great songs is once again fresh and new.
In a small English seaside town in rural Suffolk, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter performing in local pubs to an audience with a limited attention span that is mostly interested in downing pints of Guinness.
From a young age (seen in flashbacks), Jack has known that being an artist is a long slog but he kept at it because of the support of lifelong best friend Ellie (Lily James), now a schoolteacher acting as his manager.
Offered a gig at a music festival, Jack plays to a nearly empty tent where only a handful of old friends have gathered for encouragement. Dejected at this turn of events, Jack contemplates giving up his ambition, even if it means going back to a menial job stocking shelves.
Fate intervenes in a most unexpected way. A worldwide electrical blackout lasting 12 seconds plunges the globe into total darkness, leading to awkward situations everywhere and inevitable accidents, one of which affects Jack.
Struck by a bus while riding his bike and carrying his guitar, Jack wakes up in a hospital all banged up and missing two front teeth. At least his memory of the musical history remains intact.
For the rest of the world, however, the people of this new alternate universe have never heard of The Beatles. Jack learns this when he plays their famous song “Yesterday” for his friends on the new guitar they gave him as a welcome home gift.
The story benefits from many humorous situations, one of which is how Jack frantically hunts the Internet in vain for The Beatles and only comes up with images of the insect. Interestingly, no search came up with the iconic Volkswagen model.
Even a pursuit of song titles proves fruitless. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” results only in pictures of produce that tastes best when stuffed with ground beef and rice, topped off with tomato sauce.
Frantically scribbling notes of all the greatest hits of the Fab Four, in one of the film’s funniest scenes Jack auditions for his parents, playing “Let it Be” in the living room while phone calls and sudden visits from neighbors keep rudely interrupting his performance.
Soon enough, Jack realizes that he can pass off the famous songs as his own, and all too quickly he’s recording some demo tapes and appearing on a local TV show. In no time at all, his musical repertoire is going viral and attracting the attention of record producers.
Getting noticed by sensational recording artist Ed Sheeran (playing himself), Jack is asked to join a concert tour as the opening act. He proves to be a hit with a raucous crowd in Moscow performing a rocking rendition of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
Sensing a rival in his midst, Sheeran challenges Jack to a competition for the one who creates the best new song in a ten-minute window. Jack wins the bet with “The Long and Winding Road.”
Meanwhile, steel-hearted American recording agent Debra (Kate McKinnon) corrals Jack into a trip to Los Angeles to meet with music executives and public relations hacks who want to remake the singer into their vision of a rock star.
The boardroom scene is hilarious for the creative team’s sycophancy, constantly applauding and heaping adulation on every banal utterance made by Jack, while coming up with album covers that they think are better than the recognizable “White Album” or “Abbey Road” covers.
Only Jack knows that he is living a lie by pretending to be a great songwriter, and he wrestles with the notion that maybe Paul or Ringo just might show up at a press conference or a TV show to expose the deception.
He’s also troubled by the fact that his best friend Ellie has been pushed to the side. Everyone in the audience is fully aware that Jack and Ellie should be more than just friends, even though they act otherwise.
During a trip to Liverpool for inspiration, Jack is confronted by Ellie’s expression of her feelings for him, and he fumbles the situation such that we are left wondering if there is any hope for their future.
“Yesterday” leans into the romantic comedy angle to the degree that anything less than the unrequited love between them being resolved favorably would also seem unfortunate.
Still, roadblocks may well hinder their relationship, as the fame and fortune of playing to sold-out crowds at Wembley Stadium with Ed Sheeran is heady stuff for any musical artist.
Whether or not Jack realizes some things in life are more important than fame, “Yesterday” should be savored for the joyous pleasures of humor and emotion that turn the journey into a crowd-pleasing entertainment. This comedic Beatles tribute is well worth a trip to the cinema.